Where to go after a five-year stint as director of the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission? Disney World?
Make that Canada. On Aug. 31, Karen Crossley stepped down as head of the commission, whose marketing name is Dane Arts. Almost immediately after that, she traveled to Ontario for a week at the Toronto International Film Festival.
She and her husband planned the trip months ago, "long before we knew what I was doing," she says. "But it was fun to blast off and do this as a marker of a turn-the-page moment in my life."
Dane Arts issues grants to artists; publishes books, posters and calendars; and coordinates private arts funding. It is now headed by interim director Pam Andros.
As director, Crossley brought in an online grant-management system, replacing procedures that were still, unfathomably, paper-based. The new system "allows the program to be more effective, accessible, efficient, transparent and customer-friendly," she says.
She introduced a special funding opportunity, Distinctly Dane, in observance of the county's 125th anniversary in 2011. "We looked for special projects that really shouted out 'Dane County,'" she says.
She implemented a streamlined grant process for modestly budgeted arts projects. She oversaw the commission's rebranding efforts, which yielded the Dane Arts moniker as well as a new logo and website.
And she launched the Dane County branch of the online culture marketplace power2give, a marketing and fundraising endeavor that connects donors and local arts projects. The new program went live at the end of June with 30 projects, and two quickly found success: one for costumes at Music Theatre of Madison and another for production enhancements at Fresco Opera Theatre.
Why did she step down? "The primary reason is, my husband and I are both turning 57," she says. "We have three children in their early 20s, all launched. My husband and I are bringing some of our big dreams into focus." Those dreams include bicycling across the country and applying to join the Peace Corps.
Dane County is one of just three Wisconsin counties with arts agencies. The others are Sauk and Milwaukee. Dane Arts has a budget of $600,000.
Government arts agencies like Dane Arts exist, says Crossley, because "creation and participation in arts and culture is a common good that should be accessible to all citizens."
Crossley says she loved her job every day. She adds, wryly, "not every minute of every day."