Six Questions for Laura Aden Packer, Howard Gilman Foundation President and CEO

Laura Aden Packer, president and CEO of the Howard Gilman Foundation

As the president and CEO of the Howard Gilman Foundation, Laura Aden Packer oversees what is now one of the most impactful and reliable supporters of performing arts organizations in New York City. This wasn’t always the case.

When Packer assumed the role in 2014, she was tasked with “rebooting” a foundation that had been dormant and without a professional staff since its namesake — a business executive and philanthropist — passed away in 1998. Eight years into Packer’s tenure, the foundation now provides approximately $30 million in grants annually to over 200 organizations. Most of this funding comes in the form of general operating support.

Packer was born and raised on the Upper West Side, attended the Preparatory Division of the Juilliard School to study piano, music theory, and voice, and later received her B.A. in political science and English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As far as her professional career is concerned, Packer has been on both sides of the (figurative) fence when it comes to philanthropy, having spent 20 years working in nonprofit theater before joining New Jersey’s Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation as its arts program director.

I caught up with Packer to discuss her influences, her take on the health of the New York City performing arts ecosystem, and her realization that she can only get serious reading done while on vacation. (I can relate.) Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity.

What made you decide you wanted to work in the nonprofit sector?

Other than a very short stint working for the Wisconsin State Legislature when I graduated from college, I’ve always worked for nonprofits. I worked for many years for legal services in Wisconsin, and then sort of by fluke, I started working at a theater company in Spring Green that had just opened. I’ve worked in nonprofit theater and then philanthropy for the rest of my career, about half and half.

I don’t know that anyone ever decides that they want to work in the nonprofit sector. Nobody, when they’re a child, says, “I want to be CEO of a foundation when I grow up.” It’s a career path that most people aren’t thinking about. Everyone I know has taken very circuitous routes to get to where they are today, and I’m no different.

Who are your biggest influences?

I think a lot of people say this, but it’s just very true that my parents had a tremendous influence on me, especially in terms of speaking out about things that were important and knowing when to do something in a situation in which people are treated unfairly. They had a deep and long history of activism that they passed on to me, and I’ve passed that on to my children, as well.

Professionally, everybody I’ve ever worked with has been a tremendous influence on my life, whether they were the boss I was reporting to, my colleagues, or people I was working with at the Dodge Foundation or now at Gilman. I learned a tremendous amount from David Grant, who was the CEO of Dodge for most of the time I worked there.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell my younger self to take everything as it comes at you. Like most people, I had a plan, but that plan didn’t come to fruition, so I followed the path that was laid out for me. It turned out to be one that’s been incredibly fulfilling, but nothing that I ever imagined I’d be doing when I was young. 

My intention was to go to law school and become a legal services attorney. That was my dream and it didn’t happen, so I wound up working in the theater, which has been amazing. I’ve loved every job I’ve ever had, from the time I was a teenager working in my neighborhood record store to today, and I don’t know that very many people can say that. So I’d just say go where you’re led and it’s amazing where you’ll end up.

In what ways are the performing arts emerging from the pandemic stronger than before the crisis?

I’m hesitant to say that they’re emerging stronger just yet. It’s been an extraordinarily difficult two years for our grantees. I think there are a lot of factors that are helping performing arts to come back to a slightly better place and that has to do with government grants that were available. This has been the largest investment in the arts from the federal government since probably the WPA.

I think that the Shuttered Venue Operators Grants and Paycheck Protection Program loans, which became grants from most organizations, were critically important to their survival, and I think a lot of organizations have come out stronger financially because they have liquidity and are able to plan ahead. That said, I think the next year or so is still going to be very difficult for the performing arts in New York City.

There’s also been a tremendous amount of collaboration among arts organizations and cultural institutions in New York City — not that they never worked together before; they did — but there’s been a much more concerted effort to find ways to help each other out during the past two years, and I think that will continue, as well.

What was the last great book you read?

The last great book I read, hands down, was “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson. I read it last year when I was on vacation because the only time I really get to read books is when I’m on vacation [laughs]. It’s a historical look at the Great Migration in America, but it’s written in such a way that it’s almost like a novel. There are so many brilliantly written characters in the book. 

I had always been interested in the Great Migration ever since I had seen the work of Jacob Lawrence back in 2016 at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. He did 60 panels of paintings that were all about the Great Migration, and it was the first time since they were created that they were all in one place. It was an extraordinary series, and it made me want to learn more about these people and what was happening at that time. So when Wilkerson’s book came out, it was exactly what I wanted, because I was so interested in that part of history.

Any parting thoughts?

Relationships between funders and grantseekers are fraught with all kinds of power dynamics, and at the Gilman Foundation, we try to do everything that we possibly can to break that down and say, “What is it that you need, and how can we help you get there?” That’s how we have shaped most of our grantmaking in the last eight years.

While we provide primarily general operating support, we also provide other kinds of support depending on what we hear from our grantees. So we’ll fund debt reduction or debt elimination or cash reserves. The decisions for these types of grants all come out of a conversation that we have with our grantees. So I’d suggest that nonprofit leaders be as candid as they can with funders about what it is you need, and hopefully, they’ll respond to that and provide you with the funding to allow you to achieve what it is you’re trying to achieve.