004: Quality Attracts Quality with Devin Mathews

As one of our longest-standing board members, Devin Mathews has played a critical role in realizing our vision. He joined Threewalls thirteen years ago, so he’s seen how a small arts organization can grow smartly by expanding deep from within. His work ethic is always quality over quantity.


Devin has over twenty years of experience investing in technology companies and helping management teams build their companies. He’s also co-founder of ParkerGale, a small private equity firm. As we continue to reveal what goes on behind the scenes, we learn more about Devin’s intentions for Threewalls’ financial stability and resilience.



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Quality Attracts Quality with Devin Mathews
board, organization, people, board members, devin, arts, transition, role, ed, run, years, support, small, world, big, artists, build, staff, scrappy, conversation

Devin Mathews, Jeffreen Hayes

Jeffreen Hayes 00:30
Welcome to "Inside the Walls" the podcast hosted by me, Jeffreen Hayes. And, today we have a board member, one of our longest serving board members, Devin Mathews, in to have a conversation about his time on the board, what drew Devin into board leadership and the organization as well as Devin's, I'm going to say Devin's role in kind of being my co-conspirator and reimagining the organization. So welcome, Devin.

Devin Mathews 01:05
Thank you, I like that's a great introduction. I love being co-conspirator, it's been a goal of mine finally have achieved it.

Jeffreen Hayes 01:13
Well, to do the kind of work that we do at Threewalls, it does require more than just allyship, right? What we're talking about is really changing the system, dismantling the system, and creating a new system. And while allies are helpful in that, as I talked about in one of our earlier episodes, being a co-conspirator actually helps to get the work done. And, so Devin has been the number one co-conspirator over the past five years. You're one of the reasons why we are able to do the work that we do. Even though Devin never likes to take any credit for that I think it's always important to show gratitude. So Devin, tell us a little bit about who you are.

Devin Mathews 02:03

Sure, this is where I drag out the story and run out of run out of time before we get into any of the uncomfortable stuff. So I'm Devin Mathews, I grew up in upstate New York, moved to Chicago 25 years ago to go to grad school in something totally unrelated to what I do today. But I'd studied art in art history as an undergrad, and always and thought I would go down an academic path that way. And that's why I moved to Chicago. Life got in the way. I wound up getting a job instead of going to grad school, and just kind of liked working and worked for nice people who poured a lot into me. So I just found that path. So I think when I joined the board, they were looking for a finance guy because I think it's small, when boards are small and organizations are small, you're kind of like, "Okay, what is the board do? Well, oh, we need a real estate person in a finance person." And maybe it's an arts organization, we need an artist or you know, it's something else, we need something else. So you're kind of filling holes that maybe make the organization more resilient or able to react to different things. So I think that was my, that was my entry into the board, which was a friend. Again, go back, when you're in startup phase, what is the board look like? It's friends and friends of friends, and people who have certain skills or connections, to help shorten the time to get stuff done or solve problems. So that was the role I filled. A very close friend of mine had a relationship with a then executive director. They had just made the transition from founder to kind of outside ED had been involved in the organization. And she had kind of studied and knew, I think she went to the Art Institute and kind of studied how to, you know, kind of arts administration and things. So she had just stepped into this transition happening. And then they were starting to add people with skills, and I was the finance person. Little did they know, I'm not really good at finance, I'm actually more of like a I'm more of like a builder person, like kind of help help organizations grow than I am taking attacking the numbers. So I faked it a little but we were small back then. Yeah, it was a group of very nice people who sat around and like, Okay, if it's finance, Devin, what do you think if it's, you know, real estate, you know, what do you think? And then try and build the connective tissue to the community or different parts of the arts world, or funders or whatever it is. You just try and pick people who could do that. Most of what you had relationships with somebody in the organization or somebody on the board, which is just the way you do it. So that was 2007, I think, yeah, so it was a long time ago.

Jeffreen Hayes 04:52

So you've been on the board now then. 13 years?

Devin Mathews 04:57
Yes. And I'm only 16. So

Jeffreen Hayes 05:01
Yes, only 16. And you know, it's an interesting thing to think about when building boards and always building alongside of the organization, in terms of how long people should be on a board. And a lot of times, in organizations, when you have board members who've been there, like almost the life of the organization, a lot of change can't actually take place because they're beholden to what was. Interestingly enough, that is not the case with you. And, can you talk a little bit more about what your role is on the board, and particularly in the moment of transition of recognizing that with leadership change, the organization needed to change? I think, sometimes boards, they pay lip service to that, but then don't really want the organization to change so much. But you are one of those who saw the need for it. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Devin Mathews 06:09
Sure. Well, I think, I mean, in my day job, I sit on boards, like company boards. So I'm used to the board dynamic. And I know what a good board looks like what a bad board a functional dysfunctional board looks like. I sit on some other nonprofit boards, and often come in either really early when things are scrappy, because I love underdogs I love you know, organizations that are trying to be bigger than they actually are. And Threewalls had that and still has that. People will be surprised at how can scrappy we are because I think we project a much bigger persona, because of the work we do. But I'm sure you've already covered that in all the other podcasts. So I come in here, they're really early, or I come in during a transition. So I came in the first time, yeah, they knew the finance guy. But it was also kind of first outside PD. taking over from a founder. What then happened was the ED got a really great job offer. And she took that. So the founder stepped back in. So that was another transition. And then that ran its course for a while. And then the founder got a great job offer that she couldn't refuse. And she had been thinking about what was next. And then we did a search on national search and found you and brought you in. So there was enough time, enough transitions going on that that was interesting for me. I think I'm good at that, at least being like a sounding board or advisor to the board and direct and the, you know, the leadership and the staff during transitions. So it wasn't, so that was new, if it was the same person running it, and I was on the board for 13 years, and it was the same mission all the time that would I think that that's not all that productive. You know, I think in my day job, I'm on boards for three, four or five years kind of, and that's probably enough. By the fifth year, you're all sick of each other; it's probably time to move on. And so that was one there was lots of transitions going on in that 13 year period. This has been probably the longest I've been on the board where there hasn't been a transition, which has been great. And so that was what I was good at. I think the board stepping back a lot. I think the board in nonprofit boards, in my experience, totally my opinion: is the board is there. First of all, you pay to be on the board. In like the corporate world, people pay you to be on a board. That's like total nonprofits like "let's have people pay us to be on the board." So, I've never understood why you would pay to be on a board, and then not be kind of all in for the organization. And so, again, we're everybody who's listening to this probably is in our world. And they're probably have been in board meetings, "like why is this person complaining? Or why is this person disagree? Or why is this person trying to run the organization from the board." These organizations that I've been involved in are so small and so like just need all the help they can get that there aren't a lot of boundaries between the board and the organization. In fact, the board probably feels like they're part of the organization. And these bigger organizations, boards I'm on, are very clear what the staff and the leadership do and what the board does. And it's a very bright line between the two. And in board meetings, people will say "that's not your business," you know, tell board members "Well, that's not your business. I run the school; you go raise money for the school. It's not your job to tell me what we should teach in you know, English class." But still people want us want to, you know, chime in. So I think our organization no different than any other. The lines are blurred between board and staff in terms of you know, who's helping out and doing things. But I think the board at the end of the day, have a small organization or any organizations, you're there because you believe in the mission. You want to help raise money for that mission. And you connect dots or jump in when the team needs you to do it. But you basically, you stay out of programming. You stay out of you know what the mission is, other than if we were asked for advice on it. So I don't know, I feel that way. I think I'm in the minority, because I think people often join boards to get associated with something. I think a lot of people, maybe not the majority, "well, I really, I think it's cool what they're doing, I'd love to be on the board." And they could tell I'm on the board of Threewalls, or I'm on the board of this or this. And then that gets messy, because they identify with the organization, which is amazing. And they're telling people about it, and that's great. But when they step on that board meeting, they forget that they don't run the place. And you're not looking for advice on like, "hey, what should our next show be? Who's the next artists we should use?" Like, don't come in with that just come in with, "Oh, you've picked an amazing slate of shows" for the next, you know, or performances or whatever, you know, your focus is. How do I help you go execute that? Not, "Oh, let me tell you why I don't like that artist. Because I read something about them once." It's like, that's really not here. That's really not your place, in my opinion.

Jeffreen Hayes 11:12
Yeah. And so I think part of the challenge with nonprofit boards is that there's an assumption that the organization always needs your help in terms of the hands on, so it becomes really paternalistic. And that is not the role depending on the organization. Yes, they're absolutely working boards, who are making those daily decisions. And then I think the other part of that is a lot of board members join boards and don't know what their role actually is. They've joined the board because they know someone, right. And so there's not this board training, or really frank conversations about what your role is. And then when those boundaries are crossed into like the daily operations of the organization, oftentimes, there isn't someone on the board who's willing to say, "actually, this is not your place." Right. And sometimes the ED isn't in the position to say that because the board can hire and fire the ED.

Devin Mathews 12:23
We're talking about small non arts nonprofit, I assume that's I'm assuming that's probably our audience. Though a lot of this is applicable across small organizations. We're not talking about the Art Institute, the MCA, or some huge museum somewhere. So where they're basically you're being brought on probably one because you can, you can donate and bring a lot of money, but they're filling a role in the finance committee, or they're filling a role. You know, somebody cycled off on the development committee, and they're kind of bringing you with the eyes that you can serve that purpose. In the small organization, yeah, most of the people around the table know each other, and probably know that the leadership and the staff, so and people aren't really comfortable with conflict. So I think it gets tricky. I think it gets tricky for the ED to be the board cop: okay, that's off limits, that's on limit; that's really for the head of the board, whether it's president or chairperson or whatever of the board to really be that the traffic cop for board meetings. One is, and we've had to learn this over time, is run an efficient meeting; doesn't mean it needs to be sterile or stale, or too programmatic where it gets boring. But run an efficient meeting, be on time, start on time, end on time. This is a volunteer, in fact, people are paying to be on this board, so respect people's time; but have a clear ending at the board. We've learned this recently of kind of going through some exercises, Jeffreen, of like, at the end of the meeting: "okay, who's supposed to do what? Who's responsible for what?" I'm talking about organizations who don't have big committees, and there's lots of committee work getting done and just getting brought back to the board. So okay, "who's responsible for what? What's the time frame?" And, that's tough to put on the ED to do that all the time. Oftentimes, it is, okay, who's doing what? And when are you going to get back to me? And, you know, what's the expectation? So a good head of the board will take a lot of that heat to allow the, the ED and allow the staff to not have to be the nudge or the bad guy or, or whatever. And that's tricky.

Jeffreen Hayes 14:23
Yeah. And I, what I'll say about the board is that, yes, there's been a lot of, in terms of using the word growth, there has been a lot of growth with this board. And we are now at a place where the work, the commitment that's been made over the past five years, feels like it's rooted and there doesn't necessarily need to be a shift, a drastic shift. And that feels good because everyone who is on the board is absolutely invested in the mission of the organization, the way that we are supporting artists in Chicago and supporting the team. And all of kind of like the intersections that come with art in, in our contemporary world, and we wouldn't as a team, and as an ED wouldn't be able to do that without the board. And certainly I think without the board transition...

Devin Mathews 15:31
Am I the only board member from when you joined? Am I the only one left?

Jeffreen Hayes 15:36
No there's one other: Oren.

Devin Mathews 15:38
Alright, yeah. So Oren, so he probably just about joined.

Jeffreen Hayes 15:41
Yeah, so Oren, and I share kind of five years. Same timeframe.

Devin Mathews 15:46
But let me, I'll address that. This is totally normal; totally makes sense. When a director leaves, it's probably time for some board members to leave because you need a hyper-engaged board at that time, not a disengaged board. I think, in the arts, a lot of people are super polite, and they're passionate, and they want to do the right thing. And they feel like, "well, if it's time, if I leave now, if I don't stick around for this transition, I'm leaving the organization in a tough spot," especially in a really small organization, like maybe 5, 6,7 board members. We're not talking about, like 50 board members and four left, you know, nobody would notice. But when you have a small group, and a few people transition out, or there's change that feels really disruptive. But I'm telling you, it's not; it's a good thing. And people even if there isn't a change of director, people should cycle off after a period of time. Because you know, you've tapped all your friends for money, you've run your course, you're not paying as much attention as you were before. And maybe you should just time to gracefully exit and not put it on the director or the staff to say like, "Hey, this is, you know, I'm chasing you down; you're not coming to meetings; sure, you're paying us," which is great. And, the director doesn't want to say like, "oh, ask people to leave the board," because that feels again, these are small groups, there are lots of close relationships. So I think I would encourage board members to like make it easy for the year director. To telegraph way ahead of time, like, hey, I've got one more year left me or I've got 18 months left and me, I can help you go find the next person, but better to have new blood. And I think I was bugging you early like, "hey, Jeffreen, you need your people on the board, your people," like people that join because of you, not people who stuck around because they believed in you, which was that was me. But sticking around because you know, they liked, they want to give you a chance. And they like what you're saying and they supported you and voted for you, you know to join is very different from people who were like, met you for the first time, you know, met you as the ED and are joining because of what you're telling them we're going to try and do. And that's important. That's a very different mean, think of the board today: how you experienced them versus the board five years ago, and now experience. And well, how would you describe the feeling of the board? And this is no knock on old board members. This is absolutely not a board you inherit or support you build are two very different things.

Jeffreen Hayes 18:15
Yeah, I mean, it was in the beginning, it was really hard because I was the new girl, right? It's like being the new girl at school and trying to, you know, make friends with people who don't really know, who don't know, you. They know you on paper. And, you know, over time, you did tell me, I think even in our first meeting, after I got hired, that I needed, I needed my supporters and I needed to change the board. And every time there was a board issue over the past four years, you've always come back to that. And part of my hesitation, not necessarily in the very beginning part. In the beginning, it was just kind of like let me get to know folks. And it was always but it became very clear who was going to stay and who wasn't.

Devin Mathews 19:14
And people felt bad leaving. It's like no, it's okay to leave.

Jeffreen Hayes 19:19
There's no love lost. Like, look, you were good. This is the life cycle.

Devin Mathews 19:27
Hanging around and being disengaged is worse than not being around at all right? It doesn't match that because its energy and all that. And it's totally natural. If you've been on the board for a while. And you're don't even you know, and you don't you're not feeling it as much as you did when you first joined then it's time time to transition off and don't make the director force it.

Jeffreen Hayes 19:50
Yeah. And so with the newer board members, having those initial conversations and being very clear about the boundaries of this is the role, this is what I need you to do, this is what we need you to do, if you're down with that join the board. If you're not, then this probably is not the right board for you. And so I got very frank over time around those needs, because I know, in order for me to support the team and doing their job, I need the board to support me. Right. And so we haven't actually had those issues. I mean, of course, board members will always have ideas. But yeah, it comes back to Well, this is what we do. And that's it. So yeah, thanks for sharing about that. Because I think a lot of times, not just with folks who may be board members or interested in being board members, but I think given especially this moment, we're in where art institutions are rupturing because of the pandemic because of uprisings for black lives and artists really owning their agency and, and holding these institutions accountable. The cultural workers, museum workers doing that, there's always been this kind of veil, when it comes to the board, and what their role is and who they are. And I think for a lot of cultural workers, and artists who are thinking about creating an arts organization or an art space and thinking about the board structure, all of this, this conversation is very helpful. to them.

Devin Mathews 21:39
My advice, if there's a director listening, or staff of a nonprofit, arts organization, listening, if you don't have 100%, alignment, from the head of the board, through the board, to the to the ED through the staff, and then to your audience, if there's not a straight line of alignment, you need to make a change, you need to you need to, I would strongly encourage you to go to the head of the board and say we need to make a change here.

Jeffreen Hayes 22:07
I have two more questions. One is, so we've been having this conversation around Threewalls, in terms of growth, in terms of our size, and what that means. And I'm curious to hear from you. Do you believe that we are still a small organization?

Devin Mathews 22:28
Yeah, just count the numbers were very small, staff wise, I think people outside of Chicago, I think a lot of people in Chicago, people outside of the organization, the board would probably be surprised at how lean we are given kind of how big our voices I believe, which I love. I think that's great. But it's only so long, you can be the scrappy underdog who can't pay a staff what they deserve. And in you know, give them the proper benefits and all the things that you know, humans need and deserve. So yes, we're small, I have an ambition, from my own business, of quality over quantity. And I've really respected you and I tell you all the time, you're an entrepreneur, you're you just happened to run an arts organization, but you are a startup entrepreneur. And you can if you want, if you decided to start a company five years ago, it would be wildly successful. So it's great to have people with your approach and your way of thinking and your scrappiness and vision running our organizations rather than running companies because we need we need we need that here as well. So yeah, we're small. I think we have you've been had smart growth. You and the team have been like, Okay, this is an opportunity to, to expand but still deeply within the mission and reinforcing what we're already doing. Yeah, I've had a lot of I have a lot of respect for you and the team for doing that. But yeah, we're still, yeah, we're still small. And I wouldn't want to go add a bunch of people, until everybody that we have felt like, oh, I've got enough, we can now afford to bring on somebody else and give them what they deserve. From a, you know, from a work life balance from compensation from benefits. You know, I think lots of organizations get ahead of themselves. And then the campus boom bust cycle, where they hire too many people then they have to fire and they hire people, when the people they have are getting paid enough or have good, you know, benefits that are appropriate for their role. Don't have you know, retirement or other types of things like get your team sorted first financially, and then go add people but be able to add people to be able to support them financially as well. So I think we've been smart about about that.

Jeffreen Hayes 24:54
I'm always reminded that then you and other board members and you know funder Those who support us say how much has happened in five years? When it doesn't feel like I mean, yes, a lot has happened. But I also know there's so much more that we need to be doing. But now that I'm about to hit my five year anniversary, it's like, oh, yeah, there's been a lot of work to get to this place. And to be able to think about more intentionally. What does it mean to take care of the team financially, their work life, balance them planning for their own future? And that feels good. And yes, I'm absolutely aligned in terms of until we can do that with the team we have adding more people to just kind of be in that cycle of not having that wellness doesn't really make a lot of sense.

Devin Mathews 25:57
Yeah. So organizations get themselves in trouble because they have this big ambition. And they like, well, let's go raise money to go do that. And I think what we've been able to do is say, well, let's do this thing and raise the capital to do it rather than, oh, let's raise the capital first. And then we'll figure things out. Or let me hire some people. And there'll be so amazing that they'll go help build the organization. It's like, Okay, well, it rarely works in the small organization, it's usually a couple people who are really driving things. And if those people aren't, aren't too ambitious too early. It was like, you know, the whole, let's go buy a building, we need to build the, you know, how many arts organizations don't longer exist because they bought a building. And I think we've kind of had moderate like, okay, we would take a little step, a little step, little step, and then we'd be able to pounce recently on a bigger on big opportunity when it was it fit us rather than to go chase the capital. And then it starts to snowball, right? If you've built that foundation, then like one big thing happens. And another thing, another thing and another thing. So that's gets to be fun, too. But that takes a while.

Jeffreen Hayes 27:11
It does. And thankfully, I'm patient, we'll see how patient I am. But you know, it's been five years.

Devin Mathews 27:17
I was gonna call it stubborn, but the good

Jeffreen Hayes 27:21
Stubborn? Probably, there's a little bit of that, too.

Devin Mathews 27:26
I know, well, there's a little bit of I know I'm right. I know the world needs this. And I'm gonna wait it out. Right, rather than, you know, rather than chase it.

Jeffreen Hayes 27:38
I wouldn't say that I know I'm right.

Devin Mathews 27:40
I know, you wouldn't say that.

Jeffreen Hayes 27:42
You know, it's more of I know that this is what is needed. And I'm going to build it, whether you with me or not. Eventually you will come to realize it. But yeah, that's, I think that's yeah, that's a little bit of stubborn, that's a little bit of just being really focused on the larger vision. And I think sometimes understanding that we have to model...I was having this conversation with some artists a couple weeks ago, that we actually have to model the alternatives. And it's one thing to say it, but it's a whole another thing to actually model it because a lot of people don't believe. We are in a world where our imagination is trampled on every day, or sucked out of us. And so that is how I've always navigated the world. Like I'm just gonna, I see it, I strongly believe in it, and I'm just gonna build it and prove it.

Devin Mathews 28:46
Yeah. And then what when you do that it attracts, word gets out that it's real. It's not just marketing, and then it attracts, like, quality attracts quality. And they're like, "Oh, you actually take care of artists, oh, you actually take care of yourself, oh, you actually have a board that's aligned with the mission and supportive." Oh, like, you know, you have all these things, I want to be associated with an organization like you. And I think that Threewalls should be a great place to be and be a great place to be from: for our team, our board, our artists, all the community members, we work to say, like we don't, we may be a great place for somebody at a moment in their career, and a moment in their life, a moment in their work, but we don't need to be it forever. You don't need to be totally aligned in sync forever, but for some small some period of time, for me 13 years and for others, you know, maybe 13 minutes, if they if they pop into something to say like, "okay, that I feel I'm better off having had Threewalls in my life," Either "Jeffreen was the best boss I ever had and she helped me step onto something else" or "Hey, wow, I was able to do work with that organization for a few months, where they sponsored my work, or they brought me into, you know, an opportunity to speak with them or speak to their community. Like, they treated me with respect. They paid me for what I was worth. They gave me the time to, you know, think through things. They challenged me made me better. And they were super respectful when I was there spending time." That just, it just gets out there. And then people say, "Okay, I want to be part of that." And then you have all these opportunities, and you just have to pick the best ones.

Jeffreen Hayes 30:38
And we are absolutely at that point. But that's a whole another conversation.

Devin Mathews 30:42
And then you have to have really good food, and but not take yourself too seriously. So you put that on top of it. Like that's the best.

Jeffreen Hayes 30:49
Exactly right. All of all of the above. Okay, so my last question, as we wrap up our conversation is, what are your hopes for the organization?

Devin Mathews 31:02
Well, I, you didn't even give me this ahead of time. So I have to like come up with it on my own. So hopes for the organization are: I hope that more people recognize the work we're doing. Because I think my job as board member, financial stability, resilience is the most important is keeping the organization thriving, and able to withstand shocks like these in the world. So I hope more people see what we're doing and decide that it's so it's worthy of their investment. So that's one. And we're making good progress there. But we can always do better. Two is, I hope that for the for the people that work there that this is the maximum amount of fun for the longest period of time. So back to this be a good place to be, a good place to be from. I would hope that you look back and say, that was really fun. And I grew and I struggled but I like I'm so much better, having been a part of Threewalls. And then all our audience, our staff, our board feel like Okay, that was you know, I had the most amount of fun, for the perfect amount of time, for the when Threewalls was in my life. That's what I would hope. And I hope the third is that we just have like, some random impacts on people, we'll never know. That somebody came in to something we were doing or had some association with us some way. And they didn't send us a thank you note that we that we have no idea that years later. There's this little thing in their mind that they say like I saw something that like, put me on a big, different trajectory that was meaningful, or even a small little one. That there's something that they can't shake loose, that we get into their brain. And they say like, wow, okay, that was really impactful. That one little fleeting moment. So I hope we do that, too. Our core audience has been amazing. The artists we work with are amazing. I just like I think of somebody who has no idea who we are, walks in to something we are supporting and leaves changed person in some small way, that then makes other people's lives better because they feel that change. So money, love and impact. That's what I that's what I hope for for the organization.

Jeffreen Hayes 33:44
Thank you, Devin. Those are all absolutely aligned with the ethos of the organization.

Devin Mathews 33:50
And, good food. Always good food.

Jeffreen Hayes 33:53
Let me just say, I think everyone, so far this season has talked about food.

Devin Mathews 33:59
As they should. We're the kind of board that talks about what we're going to eat next while we're eating something amazing. That's just that's the sign of a good group of people. Yes, yes, planning your next meal during your current meal. That's an amazing asset to have as a board. So I appreciate that. Well, I can easily spend hours just having this conversation. Yeah, you know, I love you. And I love spending time with you. So thank you for making time for me.

Jeffreen Hayes 34:25
Yeah, thank you for making time to speak and to share a little bit more about really what goes on behind the scenes with Threewalls. You know, the intent is to be as transparent as possible. And we are in a moment where more people are watching and wanting to learn from us. And so that's the whole point of the podcast. So thank you for making time. The sound designs you hear at the beginning and at the end of the podcast are by Jared Brown. The podcast is also supported by the Illinois Arts Council Agency, the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts and the Surdna Foundation.



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