how i get it done

How I Get It Done: Esther McGowan, Executive Director of Visual AIDS

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Esther McGowan is the executive director of Visual AIDS, the New York City–based nonprofit that’s been uniting art with AIDS activism since the 1980s. With a degree in art history, she’s made a career of grant making and fundraising, working her way through the nonprofit sector. In her current role, she oversees everything from the planning of museum benefits to managing the financial health of the organization with the help of a four-person team. Here’s how she gets it all done.

On a typical morning:
I wake up every morning at 7 a.m. I don’t use an alarm clock. It’s something I inherited from my father and no one believes it’s possible. Sometimes if I have a big project or a deadline and I want to get to the office early, I’ll wake up at 6 a.m.

I used to be able to skip breakfast, but as I’ve gotten older I absolutely have to eat breakfast; otherwise I can’t make it through to lunch. I have oatmeal and a mug of tea at my dining-room table. While I’m eating, I read the New York Times on my laptop and I’ll sometimes start answering emails if it’s something that’s time-sensitive. I try not to take too much time because that’s one of the ways I end up being late — if I get immersed in either reading an article or sending too many emails.

I take a shower and pick out my outfit. We’re lucky because we have a really casual office, so if I’ll be at my desk all day, I can dress casually. If I have meetings with one of our outside partners like a museum, or an event after work, or a dinner with a board member, then I’ll dress up a little bit.

On commuting:
To get from my house in Bed-Stuy to Chelsea is usually 45 minutes to an hour on the subway. I’ll leave my house by 8:45 a.m., and then I’m on the subway by 9 a.m., and then I’m walking into my office at 10 a.m. I try to use that time to do emails, check Instagram, and I also try to get some reading done. I’ll either read something for work or I’ll read a book, or I’ll have a magazine with me. I’m a big fan of the print magazine still.

On a typical day:
At a small nonprofit every day is different, which makes it great. There will be certain days, particularly if I have a grant proposal due, where I’ll be emailing or writing all day at my desk. We have a lot of meetings in the office. We do 30 different types of events, including exhibitions every year, all in partnership with other institutions. I’ll have meetings with curators from the Museum of Modern Art or artists that we work with if we’re commissioning them to make an activist artwork.

As executive director, I’m responsible for everything the organization does, and I have input and oversight on everything we do. On a daily basis, I oversee the fundraising, which is writing grants and planning our benefits. I work directly with my board of directors to strategize about fundraising. That’s my big role.

Another really important part of what I do is to think about the big picture of the organization in terms of our mission. I’m trying to encourage our board of directors and our staff to think big.

On after-work commitments:
A lot of my job is to also go out after work, so the day doesn’t end right at 6 p.m. It’s usually dinner with a board member or an art opening or a panel discussion. I want to be out and about. To do my work well, I have to know what’s going on with other organizations, with artists, and with the art world in general. I also try to go to HIV/AIDS-related events, like symposiums or conferences. Those are places to be with our community and talk to people. I also go out quite a bit as a fundraiser; you want to be out there meeting people. That said, I find if I do more than two nights out I get really tired, so I try not to do that too much.

On a small staff:
Our staff is five people, including me, and then we also always have volunteers and interns. We have a very small office; it’s all one room with an open floor plan.

We tend to be busy all the time. We do a lot — that’s what makes it exciting to work here, so to complain that it’s a lot of work doesn’t feel right. It’s also rewarding because we’re not only working around art and artists, but also in a social-justice field.

One of the things that’s tradition here is, we all take a lunch break together at 1 p.m. We’ll order lunch at noon, and then we all sit together at the conference table and eat together for an hour, which is really nice.

On challenges:
When you’re any nonprofit — even a huge one like a museum — you are constantly running from one fundraising moment to the next, so there are a lot of challenges each fiscal year making sure you raise the money you need to raise.

I think the other challenge is around our mission. We are an arts organization working within the HIV/AIDS community. We always want to be sure that every project we do accurately represents the issues around HIV and AIDS, as well as an accurate representation of an artist’s work. It’s very important to us to look at the diverse communities affected by HIV and AIDS, and it’s important to us to be sure we’re stewarding certain legacies of people who passed away from HIV and AIDS in a way that’s appropriate.

On managing stress:
I don’t necessarily share my stress, I’m a person who tends to internalize it. I tend to be calm in emergencies, trying to make the decisions in a way that’s calm and effective. I’m definitely not a yeller, but I think the downside of that is that you internalize the stress. One of the most important things is to know to ask for help. I think we tend to think we can do it all ourselves, or feel it is our responsibility to do it all ourselves, when in fact there are people around you who can help you.

On winding down and sleep:
When I go home, often there is something I need to catch up on, like answering emails or finishing writing something, but if I don’t, I love to watch television. I’ll usually binge-watch a couple of episodes of something that I’m into at that moment, eat dinner, and try to go to bed by 11 p.m. If I stay up too late, it’s too hard to get up at 6 or 7 a.m.

How I Get It Done: Esther McGowan of Visual AIDS