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Donna Wilhelm

Donna Wilhem

"We haven’t even realized the impact of what creative thinking can do. It’s powerful, and we’ve undervalued it. That needs to change."

It’s unclear whether Dallas philanthropist Donna Wilhelm’s natural aptitude for art or her wanderlust  – or both – ultimately formed her passion for the arts on a local, national and international scale. But what is clear is that her self-described peripatetic life has fueled her two-fold mission: to transform Dallas into an arts mecca and to keep the arts strong in education.

“I’d like to have the arts be so integrated into the identity of Dallas that it’s just really natural to say, ‘Oh, that’s where arts and culture is really flourishing. They’ve built this magnificent arts district, and people are flocking there,’” Donna muses of her ultimate ambitions.

She also plans to claim a stronger foothold for the arts in education because it’s “absolutely critical” in helping “young minds to think outside the box, for them to find solutions that aren’t in any textbook.”

“We haven’t even realized the impact of what creative thinking can do. It’s powerful, and we’ve undervalued it,” Donna says. “That needs to change.”

Her confidence stems from a life of taking chances and making change happen.

The daughter of Polish immigrants, Donna grew up in Hartford, Conn., where her parents operated a boarding house for other immigrants before moving the family to Arizona when she was a teen.

After high school, she attended Arizona State University but soon took a full-time job. She worked for a year, saved a $5,000 nest egg, and headed to New York City to start anew.

After five years with a management consulting firm there, wanderlust led her to switch careers  and become a Pan Am Airlines flight attendant. She met her future husband in New York; the couple’s marriage started “a long career of moving all over the world.”

“My life has always been international,” she says.  “I have my family, my community, my country. And then I have to do something in the world.”

During the years of moving around, Donna also earned an art degree from Hunter College, and later, a specialty degree in jewelry design from Parsons School of Design. She worked as a jewelry designer for 10 years. About 12 years ago, Donna attended a Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored philanthropy workshop that transformed her philanthropic work. “It was about who you are as a person. They taught us not to be charitable check-writers, but to find our mission and purpose to become strategic philanthropists,” she says.

That training has benefited SMU Meadows School of the Arts as well as the local Dallas arts community. Donna was approached to join the Meadows board two years ago.

Becoming more closely affiliated with Meadows appealed to her, she says, because of its innovative approach to integrating business with the arts. Meadows Dean José Antonio Bowen and his team impressed her with their belief that artists need to understand business to support themselves.

At SMU, Donna helped spearhead the first-of-its-kind National Center for Arts Research (NCAR), established in February 2013 (see page 10). The center will analyze the largest database of arts research ever assembled, investigate important issues in arts management and patronage, and make those findings available in hopes of transforming and sustaining the national arts and cultural community.

When approached with the idea of NCAR, it “just clicked with me,” Donna says. “This was a chance to have SMU be the headquarters for a vital and innovative service to the arts. And I knew from my days with The Philanthropy Workshop how important good research and data is” to add credibility to any cause.

Donna has earned her reputation as a wise philanthropist. Zannie Voss, NCAR director and chair of the Meadows Division of Arts Management and Arts Entrepreneurship, describes her as a change agent in the arts community.

“Her commitment to innovation and impact inspires organizations to focus not only on ideas,” Voss says, “but also on outcomes and the plans that support them.”

Donna is the founding donor of Art & Seek at KERA North Texas Public Broadcasting. Other highlights in her philanthropic efforts include working with The Art Community Alliance (TACA) to establish the TACA Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund, which provides grants to support the creation and performance of new works in music, theatre or dance each year in Dallas County.

She also worked with Big Thought – a nationally recognized program that bolsters the arts curriculum and creative-thinking concepts in Dallas schools – to help create and sustain the organization’s Master Artist Teaching Fellows Program.

“What really helps people is learning how to apply creative thinking to their work. And there’s nothing more fertile than the arts to teach students the skills of innovative thinking and problem solving.”
—Gina Best

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