Ruby Lerner Is More Than Ready for Retirement

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Ruby Lerner
Ruby Lerner at a Creative Capital announcement, 2008. Photo: Creative Capital.

Editor’s Note: I am excited that Ruby Lerner agreed to write a guest post on her retirement for The Marbury Project. We so often focus on women at the beginning or in the middle of their careers, it is enlightening to hear from a woman who quite literally created the path that many of us are walking now. — Devra Thomas

Creative Capital, which Lerner founded, continues to support innovative and adventurous artists across the country through funding, counsel and career development services. Its pioneering approach, inspired by venture-capital principles, helps artists working in all creative disciplines to realize their visions and to build sustainable practices. Made possible through public and private philanthropy, Creative Capital has committed nearly $40 million in financial and advisory support to 511 projects representing 642 artists, and its professional development program has reached more than 13,000 artists in 600 communities through workshops and webinars.

Ruby and Sean Elwood with CC artist Cory Arcangel, 2011. Photo: Creative Capital
Ruby and Sean Elwood with CC artist Cory Arcangel, 2011. Photos: Creative Capital.

On Sept. 11, 2001 I was flying from NYC to a conference in Seattle with a scheduled stopover in Pittsburgh. At that time, the Pittsburgh airport was one of few that didn’t have CNN blaring everywhere, so it wasn’t until we all boarded that we understood something was going on — even though no one knew, at that moment, exactly what. We were told to deplane and evacuate the airport.

I spent four days in Pittsburgh before taking the train back home to NY. I have never been a great flier, so 9/11 became my excuse for getting out of the air: I started traveling everywhere possible by train, and have ever since.

Riding the rails changed my relationship to the US in rather profound ways. I observed that many of my fellow passengers were retirees, who naturally have a lot of time. I began a very informal study: How did they spend their days? What did they wish they had known before they retired? What advice would they give to someone approaching retirement age?

The answers over the years were surprisingly similar: “I am busier now than I was when I was working.” “I am happier now than I was when I was working.” “If I had known how much fun it was going to be I would have done it much earlier.” And: “I wish I had saved more money!”

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The answers were surprisingly familiar.

These early inquiries became a great window into how my next phase might look and feel. As I got closer to my own transition, I spoke with many friends who had already made the leap. They, too, had helpful advice: have something you’re going toward so you’re not over-focused on what you left behind. Create a new routine that gets you out of the house regularly. Take care of yourself personally. Exercise daily.

Ruby Lerner and Jeff Soros
Lerner and CC board member Jeffrey Soros, 2009.

But the loveliest advice of all was that when I formally announced in early 2014, to my wonderful board at Creative Capital, that I wanted to retire in 2016, they made an incredible offer, one that I couldn’t refuse. At that time, the organization was 15 years old, and, as its founding director, I had been there from the start. I could see (as I think anyone who is experienced and alert would) that the organization was heading into a different phase, one that needed to be more institutional. After all, our “experiment” worked! I had to ask myself if I was the right person for the next phase. I concluded I wasn’t, that it was a perfect moment to let go, and to pass the organization onto its next leader.

Several board members offered to go on the “Ruby 3.0 Committee” to help me think about what might be next for me. I was so moved that they were willing to do this; I immediately accepted their generous offer. They knew me so well. They assumed (correctly) that I would not be retiring to garden in my 750 square foot Manhattan apartment!

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Their support forced me to put all my thoughts on paper, and follow-up conversations with them helped me organize those thoughts into categories of activities and projects that felt the most interesting to me. It forced me to prioritize. It was an incredible gift, and I think it set a new standard in nonprofit board practice. All of the great advice and support I received allowed me to feel ready — and excited — about using all I had learned in new situations.

Personally, all the planning and thinking paid off. I was already on a number of advisory boards and I love that work. This fall, I will take some time to see if there might be a book to be written about what we learned at Creative Capital. Beginning in early 2017, I will work with Arizona State and CalArts throughout the year.

It isn’t easy to hand over something you have founded or been with for a long time, but I think it is necessary for many in my generation to step aside and let the next generation of leaders step in.

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Nonetheless, I had a lot of anxiety about who the board would charge with further raising my baby! Obviously, it needed someone with the administrative experience to manage a staff, work with a board and fundraise. But I began to realize how much it also mattered to me that the kind of person they would hire would be warm and inviting, open and curious. When I met Suzy Delvalle, the board’s choice to succeed me, I could feel the anxiety draining away and knew this very special organization couldn’t be in better hands. I also knew I could leave with joy and pride at all we had achieved. And I will be its cheerleader and ambassador forever.

I am grateful that, with the help of many people, I have been able to take what might have been a scary transition and instead look forward to my next phase with anticipation for all that is ahead.