Spotlight on Nolen C. Bivens, Interim President and CEO

A Director Emeritus and former Board member of Americans for the Arts, Brigadier General Nolen C. Bivens, U.S. Army Ret., is currently serving as our Interim President and CEO. He is also President of Leader Six, Inc. A former U.S. Army General, Bivens serves as Chair, National Leadership Advisory Council, the National Initiative for Arts & Health Across the Military (NIAHM); Military community advisor for the National Endowment for the Arts Military Healing Arts Network Creative Forces program; and senior Policy Fellow on Arts & Military at Americans for the Arts.

What is your favorite art form? What attracts you to it?

Theater and storytelling. Art for me took off in grade school. I got invited into a lot of plays. I was always fascinated by those times at school when a play was on. It always told a story. I majored in the sciences, specifically Chemistry, but theater was always fascinating to me, so I spent a lot of time there. I think I was drawn to it because in playing different roles you get to see diverse leadership styles and how they play out in organizations. Fundamentally, organizations are about people and so playing different characters allows you get insights about the human response. During COVID restrictions I miss being able to jump on the train to New York or go to one of the theaters here in D.C.

What’s one of your favorite theater experiences?

Odysseus is a capstone for me because it’s all about leadership. It’s about seeing a young man involved in a war having to come home and all the family dynamics and the military and the country and the state of the nation. I especially like portrayals of leadership. In teaching leadership in the military, we’re always looking to history for examples and when they are brought to life onstage this is even better. The military has had a connection to the arts throughout history. It may not be very apparent to many, but there’s a strong connection between the two.

How did you first become involved with Americans for the Arts?

It started at a General Officer transition dinner back in 2007 or so. Because generals in transition are trying to determine where they might next serve, they’re afforded an opportunity to interact with senior leaders from the private sector. I attended such an event in the D.C. area where an arts nonprofit CEO shared how they could benefit from a retiring general’s leadership. We were seated at the same table and struck up a conversation, prompted when I shared that all three of my adult children are in the arts—my daughter’s a creative writer, my son’s a visual artist, and my youngest daughter is in art history. Towards the end of the evening, he said he was interested in seeing how the arts could be useful at this time in our military history. While Deputy Commanding General at 4th Infantry Division, I learned that a lot of servicemembers were coming back from combat harboring internal wounds, while also resisting treatment from medical professionals like psychologists. Based on personal experience with music, I responded that the area of art therapy might be useful. We kept in touch, and after a decade or so now, I’ve been advocating how the arts can help servicemembers build resilience and post-traumatic strength.

Both the military and the arts rely on teams of people from different backgrounds working together towards a common goal. What similarities do you see between your work in the military and your work with Americans for the Arts?

That’s a very good question. First, it has to do with teams. Without a doubt, the strong relationships between the military and the arts is in the areas of leadership, mission, and teamwork. If I’m an orchestra director and I have different instruments and sections that I’m trying to conduct and bring together to a common point of mission, it’s really like a battle of sorts. It takes leadership to do that. I’m trying to bring all those elements and people together to accomplish something. Artists are doing the same thing. I’ve used art to help military leaders understand the complexity of their work. You’re trying to achieve something whether you’re an artist or in the military and you have accompaniment to help you do that. Individuals may be there, but teams are the ones that actually win. Leadership, mission, and working as a team are some of the most powerful similarities I’ve seen between the military and the arts.

You were instrumental in the founding of the National Initiative for Arts & Health Across the Military. How have you seen the arts benefit the military community?

As a senior military leader, I had to find answers to problems that traditional military training didn’t prepare me to deal with. Getting service members to address personal trauma was one of those problems. Following tours in Iraq and training to return, it became apparent to me that service men and women weren’t always taking care of themselves. Individuals who encountered some great trauma were not taking advantage of medical resources and it was showing up in all sorts of ways—from ever increasing suicides to family violence. They weren’t taking advantage of the traditional therapies available for various reasons such as fear of losing their clearances or being stigmatized as a weak leader.

I found that many of them simply wanted to engage in activities which would free their minds of the stress they were experiencing. The arts were a way to do this without telegraphing the need for help.  Soldiers are the last to ask for help. I saw the NIAHM as a great opportunity to use my military knowledge to connect art therapy. The military men and women who serve us are “national treasures.” I see my support in this area as helping to ensure that these service members can experience and benefit from another one of America’s national treasures—the arts.

What do you see as the goals for Americans for the Arts as we head into 2021?

Trauma can be found in every corner of our communities. Children, already under stress from possible school shootings, now have the added stress associated with separation because of COVID. Other segments of our populace are troubled from what they perceive as an inequality within our justice system. Others, because of COVID, are plagued by financial and emotional distress. But, even in the midst of all this, Americans for the Arts’ greatest strength is its people, its tremendously talented staff.

Given this context, I want to further leverage the talents of our people to retain our position as a national leader and advocate for access to the arts for all people. Our leadership role here is vital at this moment in our industry’s history. In particular, our great advocacy and research work in the arts must be maintained. I also want to ensure we retain our nimbleness to respond to emerging issues. What Americans for the Arts did in moving the arts into the military space is indicative of this ability. Retaining that skill is a part of that goal—that is, don’t lose the capacity to change. The arts industry and the nation as a whole must continue to address issues of racial diversity, inequality, and inclusion. We have and must continue to be a leader in advancing the arts in these areas as well. 

I also want to make sure we remain relevant and responsive to our national, state, and local partners. What Americans for the Arts and its partners have done in highlighting the need for the arts and securing resources through COVID legislation is unprecedented. The future for us to do even more is bright and full of potential.

In such a time as this, I believe it is the arts that will help us regain a sense of “new normalcy,” both individually and as a people, more than anything else.