As a small-town girl from Flour Bluff, Texas who visited my first museum in my mid-20s, I never dreamed that I would someday own a business of any sort, especially one focused on promoting art, artists, and arts organizations.
Moving to Southern California in 1993 changed my life in many ways, and 30 years later, in 2023, I celebrated my 30th anniversary working in the visual arts.
When I arrived in Los Angeles, I accepted a position to work for what was then a new museum and what is now called the Autry Museum of the American West. Among the many successes that I enjoyed there was helping to create one of the nation’s first museum marketing departments. It was a great time in my professional life. Founding CEO Joanne Hale was at the helm – a stunning, dynamic redhead with a booming voice and a contagious laugh who taught me a lot about the “hustle” and allowed me and others at The Autry to take risks and shine through the success of our work endeavors.
Because of Joanne, I ended up having several wardrobe changes at my office as she was all about getting out in the community after work about 3-4 times a week, so we could shake hands and attend what felt like every black-tie fundraising event in Los Angeles. Pre-HuffPost, I remember attending Arianna Huffington’s home where she hosted her frequent literary salons featuring an amazing array of authors, political figures, celebrities, and others in the news.
Frequently, a group of us (which included my mentor Carolyn Hom, formerly of the Los Angeles Times) attended benefit events at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the Beverly Plaza Hotel, and occasionally the Beverly Hills Hotel to spread the word about The Autry.
When I left one event for a bathroom break, I met Clint Eastwood after I returned to the wrong ballroom. I stood in the back, listening to Ted Danson on stage as he presented an award to now-gone Christopher Reeves for the American Oceans Campaign, and felt a towering presence next to me, so I looked up to see Clint standing close next to me, staring intently ahead. I had been trained not to gawk or fawn over celebrities by that time, since I worked for the famous singing cowboy Gene Autry. Still, I couldn’t not quietly ask if I could shake his hand as my father was a huge fan, and I got a positive response to my request.
When attending the 38th Annual GRAMMY Awards after-party in 1996 at the historic Ambassador Hotel, I met and hung out with the newly awarded “Best New Artist” Hootie and the Blowfish band – they were just in awe as I was with the people-watching bonanza, seeing just about every major musician at the time. This event all pre-dated the existence of cell phones, so none of us took photos (though I am sure Scott Downie of Celebrity Photo Agency has a treasure trove of great images – he was on the red carpet at just about every event I attended in Beverly Hills during that time).
After my divorce, the passing of founder Gene Autry and my leaving his namesake museum, and what I thought would be a longer time living in Paris, I took a new position to start a sponsorship and marketing program to support the Los Angeles Public Library through the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.
My first project was an exhibition called Art. Rage. Us.: Art and Writing by Women with Breast Cancer and it was one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations where I was asked to raise $50,000 in two weeks to support its presentation. Well, I did, but of course, it made it challenging (yet oddly exciting) for me as it led to an expectation that large sums of money could be pulled out of a hat, so to speak, with little lead time and other needs.
In any event, I loved my time working on exhibitions in the Getty Gallery and the First Floor Galleries at the Central Library. What I loved most about my marketing work there was that it created unexpected art experiences for traditional library users and enticed former library users to return on purposeful visits to see museum-quality exhibitions.
It was because of a large multi-million-dollar grant that I helped secure to bring the Emancipation Proclamation and other important documents from the National Archives to Los Angeles that I was able to stay on and handle this historic project while I built my then-sideline business into a full-time firm as CauseConnect in 2003. In the proposal for “American Originals: Treasures from the National Archives” was a two-year contracted position for a person to manage this citywide project, so I made a case for my taking on this role, and later taking on a few other clients and projects – including “The Chicano Collection / La Colección Chicana” with Cheech Marin and artist Richard S. Duardo.
Since then, I have never looked back.
~ Melissa Richardson Banks