Stephanie Flom journals a new life chapter after Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures retirement

click to enlarge Stephanie Flom journals a new life chapter after Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures retirement
Photo: Courtesy of Renee Rosensteel
Stephenie Flom (left) with author Robin Wall Kimmerer
Stephanie Flom’s goal has always been to help organizations find their footing.

She helped the Dance Alloy company find new studios in East Liberty while adding six full-time dancers. During her tenure as executive director of the Cooper-Siegel Community Library in Fox Chapel and the Sharpsburg Community Library, Flom was instrumental in getting new, state-of-the-art facilities built. And with Carnegie Mellon University’s Frank-Ratchye Studio for Creative Inquiry, Flom developed the Persephone Project, fostering gardening as an art form, including the creation of installations in Frank Curto Park on Bigelow Boulevard.

Flom recently announced her retirement as executive director of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, effective June 9, after nine years of service to the literary organization. It was, she says, unlike any other job in her career.

“It was the first time that I didn’t come into an underdog situation, a small organization that was ready for a big step, for a vision that wasn't even implemented yet,” Flom tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “It was daunting to come into an organization that was already successful.”

Flom could have maintained the status quo, and no one would have complained. Instead, she elevated Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures to new heights, growing the organization’s flagship program, Ten Evenings, to feature writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Min Jin Lee, Ron Chernow, Colson Whitehead, and Margaret Atwood. Flom also added New & Noted, a program that brings in national authors outside of the Ten Evenings schedule.

She also expanded the children’s series Words & Pictures, launched the self-explanatory Poets Aloud, and made space for writers from the region with Made Local.

Karina Chavez, executive director for the Pittsburgh Council on Higher
Education, and a Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures board member, says Flom
“understood the power of PA&L’s platform. She was a fan, she was an agent,
she was a convener. She understood the issues that this community faced and
was unafraid to venture into tough conversations."

Flom invested herself in the job immediately, traveling to New York to meet
publishers, keeping tabs on new books, and reading voraciously, sometimes the
same book two or three times, to prepare for author visits. And when authors arrived in Pittsburgh, Flom made sure they felt at home.

Anthony Doerr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the Light We Cannot See and Cloud Cuckoo Land, appeared twice during Flom’s tenure.

“Stephanie was such a force in the American literary scene, connecting so many different (and amazing) writers with the people of Western Pennsylvania,” Doerr says via email. “Not only did she chauffeur me around the city and introduce me to lots of wonderful people of all ages — including her sister and mom! — but she also presented such a terrific example for how to grow older with grace and purpose. With pretty much every breath she takes, Stephanie shows that bringing meaning and connection into your community can bring meaning and connection into your own life.”
click to enlarge Stephanie Flom journals a new life chapter after Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures retirement
Photo: Courtesy of Renee Rosensteel
Stephenie Flom
Four years into her tenure with PA&L, Flom says she felt like she’d attained "a graduate degree in reading and thinking.” When the COVID-19 pandemic started shutting down events, Michael Ondaatje was scheduled to appear for the last Ten Evenings event of the season in April 2020. Flom realized no one could travel to Pittsburgh. Ondaatje was driving home to Canada from California and was hesitant to do an online presentation, but Flom ultimately convinced him to participate.

“We let the audience know, and they watched,” she says.

Flom started to review subsequent interviews a few days in advance, looking for
ways to improve the presentations, which, admittedly, lacked the energy of live

Again, loyal subscribers came to the rescue.

“We kept getting these notes — thank you for doing this, this is our refuge during the pandemic, this means so much to us, we’re watching with friends in other cities — and we said, okay, this is working and it’s important to people,” Flom says.

When Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures began hosting live events again, they kept
the online presentations available to subscribers who still didn’t feel
comfortable attending in person.

Flom admits that, like most other arts organizations, PA&L lost money during the
pandemic. But many of the organization’s regulars remained loyal and
renewed their subscriptions.

“We were in a rare situation — not every art form translated well to virtual,”
Flom says. “We were told people were listening maybe as podcasts, people
were making a date of it.”

“Who expected we would be a video production company?” Flom adds. “And that was all of our staff. We used very few outside sources to edit — that was [Lisa Christopher, PA&L’s director of community engagement], and other people on staff doing research about what was the best technology to use, how to broadcast it, how to meet our contractual obligations — all of that was our staff.”

Flom’s successor has yet to be named. Chavez, who is on the committee seeking the organization’s next executive director, admits replacing Flom is not going to be easy. But Chavez thinks calling Flom irreplaceable does her a disservice.

“True leaders build organizations, framework, and systems that are embedded into the sectors they encompass and the communities that they serve,” Chavez says. “I’m confident that PA&L will thrive because of her great leadership and the fact that these well-established programs, the organization, and rich community relationships have become organic and will continue to flourish and grow.”

Flom says she does not know what she will do next, and that’s a bit scary because “I have always known what’s next.” But through journaling, Flom says she found that “you don’t have to know what’s next. And you probably won’t know until you give yourself time to know. After nine years of the most incredible craft talks about creativity, and ending with Hanya Yanigihara (Ten Evenings' last guest this season) talking about creativity later in life — what a send-off! — I hope to give time and space to my own creativity.”