HER 2021 Award Finalist: Deborah McAuliffe Senner
“In 2020, we advised member agencies to prepare for a cut in 2021 funding due to COVID fundraising impacts. However, Deborah wouldn’t accept that. Against all odds, we had a record-setting year, and we were able to fully fund our partner agencies when they needed it the most.”
-Steve Mason, Allied Arts Board Chair
For Deborah McAuliffe Senner, COVID-19 changed everything.
As theaters around the world went dark, the Allied Arts president and CEO worked tirelessly to establish a lifeline for creatives, raising funds to assist local artists and organizations forced to close their doors. She thought she’d seen the worst of the pandemic, as the months of canceled performances, exhibits and programs began to mount with no end in sight. She was wrong.
“My brother, Mike McAuliffe, fell victim to COVID and passed away on Nov. 29. He was a well-known community leader and volunteer, a ‘doer,’ a promoter, and—to me—he was a hero,” Senner said. The hospital was on lockdown, and Senner had to say goodbye on a Zoom call.
“It was agonizing,” she said. “There was no time to grieve, because I was named his personal representative and had to sort things out and make decisions quickly. At the same time, I was running Allied Arts with a goal to raise $3.4 million for Oklahoma’s premier arts groups—many of which were struggling and in crisis due to the pandemic, fueling my determination even more.”
Faith, family, and friends became Senner’s saving grace and, somehow, she mustered the strength to keep going.
“I worked around the clock, seven days a week, managing both efforts for months on end,” Senner said. Last year’s fundraising campaign represents a small portion of the $56 million Senner has helped garner for the arts throughout the past 20 years.
For Senner, the arts aren’t optional; the community needs the arts just as much as the arts need the community.
“We need a strong arts community to attract businesses, retain talent, and boost quality of life,” she said.
Along with Allied Arts’ partners, Senner builds programming, raises continued support, and advocates to make the arts available to all.
“I am inspired every time I hear a story of how the arts have created change in a person, a neighborhood, a school, or a community,” Senner said.
“I am inspired when an underserved student puts an instrument in their hands and is forever changed, or children from a Title I classroom get to experience their first Philharmonic concert, or that shy theater student comes alive on the stage and years later becomes an attorney.
“I am inspired when the arts heal, educate, inspire, and when they revitalize neighborhoods and the boarded-up buildings come back to life after they were anchored with an arts organization.
“I am inspired when senior citizens find joy in sculpture class, or Alzheimer’s patients find relief with ballet movement, or a veteran finds peace with the Guitars for Vets program. There are hundreds of stories like these that are my ‘why’ and provide my inspiration.”
Perhaps Senner doesn’t realize it, but the “doer” reputation she so admires about her brother is also her own. With every Allied Arts endeavor, she carries that legacy forward—and our community cheers.