(Friday, June 3rd, 2011)

Donna Dowless

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Ever since a close friend of mine told me Donna was once the VP of Ticketmaster, I’ve wanted to know her story. I was intrigued by the fact she never brought this tidbit of news up in any of our conversations over the past few years. Not one “You’ll never believe this onetime at Ticketmaster” story. Not even a name-drop.

Still, I didn’t pursue this interview for a very long time. I was waiting for the right moment. And then finally, earlier this year, I started pushing myself towards it, even though I wasn’t sure if it was timely enough. I had started questioning myself. Am I making excuses? Is there ever going to be a ‘right’ time?  Or am I just lazy?

Wanting to prove to myself that I wasn’t a procrastinator, I pushed forward. And then the strangest thing happened. The morning of this interview, I resigned from two positions I cherished very much, including stepping down as the publisher of Burrow Press, the very company I had created. Only I hadn’t told anyone yet. I wasn’t sure how to tell anyone, except my boyfriend who supported me very much.

There was no better time to have lunch with Orlando’s Ambassador of Love. Sometimes interviews come at the most appropriate times, even when I don’t plan it that way on purpose.

Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born?
Tampa, Florida. At MacDill Airforce Base. My father was in the military.

What was your childhood like?
Interesting. Challenging. We moved to many different cities. On the air force base, we were always the ‘other people’, which taught me great lessons about not being afraid. And that it’s okay to meet new people and introduce your self to people without preconceived notions.

What places did you live in?
Interesting places. Dallas, Texas. Rapid City, South Dakota, Roswell, New Mexico.  Spokane, Washington.  Sacramento, California. Riverside, California. Los Angeles,

California. Washington D.C.. Virginia. Maryland.  Lakeland, Florida. Orlando, Florida. And of course, where I was born Tampa, Florida.

Now did you go to college?
I’m a high school graduate.

So how did you go about your journey from a secretarial position to vice president of Ticketmaster?
My father wanted me to join the military. My mother thought that if you were a secretary, you’d always have a job. Well, my father took me to see a military recruiter. Military life was very good for our family. We traveled. We received education. We got to live in places we probably could have never gone before.  My father got to travel internationally. We never made it. Still, it wasn’t for me.

As far as my career, I worked my way up through the ranks at live sports and entertainment venues.  It was interesting to me and I wanted to do it. I was always told, “It’s not a woman’s business,” and “You don’t have an education” and “You should maybe think about something else.” I never listened.

How long did it take you rise to your ultimate position?
It took me 5-6 years to become a supervisor and then a manager/director. After ten years in Washington D.C., I moved to Florida to work at the Lakeland Civic Center. In 1981, I became the director of it. I had progressed through the ranks there as a ticketing manager, then assistant manager and then manager of the whole operations. Then I was hired as the Executive Director of Ticketmaster, Florida.

After being at Ticketmaster for several years, I became Executive Vice President of the Southeastern Region and also Vice President of industry relations. It was a lot of responsibility. My territory covered seventeen states. So I had seventeen managers and almost two thousand employees, because we also had a call center, a customer center, and mangers for marketing and general managers of operations. I had a large division and large territory, and close to three thousand clients—from the smallest nightclub that held forty people to largest stadium that held 100,000 people.

It takes a certain type of person to be a good manager. Where do you think you learned those skills?
That’s a real interesting question. I know a lot of managers. I’ve been a manager. And I’ve had a lot of managers. I learned many important lessons by the way people treated me, you know, hands on experience. Immediately I’d know that’s not the way I want to be or manage.

I always wanted to be around people that were smarter than me, people I could learn from. I was around the sports field a lot and you see team spirit often. My management style was about being a good communicator, and sharing information and asking a lot of questions.

So when you’re living that kind of lifestyle, you know hanging with celebrities and such, what makes you leave that job?
I always was an artist too, self-taught. I was self-taught as an artist and also in my career. [Pauses] I was full-time at work and full-time doing my art, and it was my art that was taking over.

Also after working at different jobs and having accomplished many goals, I’m a person that likes to keep going and sharing and giving and loving what I do. I’m still a consultant for Ticketmaster. I have my own arts and entertainment consulting company, xoxo Media Group, and have been consulting for the past six years and will continue to for years to come. I love the industry. I love being involved.

Now I get to use all the skills I have learned to support the arts with being the chair of the Downtown Arts District. I get to be active in the community and active in the industry. I’m active at Full Sail [University] and am on the advisory board for the entertainment business school. I guest lecture there twice a month.  So I love giving back and sharing with the students.

I’m very honored to have an Honorary Degree from Full Sail. The students actually suggested to the management that I get an honorary degree because I didn’t have a college degree. That was always the story of my career. Sometimes I wouldn’t get a promotion because of it. All these years later I’m very thankful to have my honorary Full Sail degree.

What planted you in Orlando?
Ticketmaster was a young and growing company. They had offices in New York, and an office in L.A., and Chicago. The Orlando arena was under construction here in the late 80’s—’87 or ’88—and Ticketmaster was looking for someone to run the offices for the state of Florida. They wanted to set up here with a plan of expanding throughout the Southeast. At the time, Tickettron was the big ticketing company, among a few other smaller companies. So Ticketmaster pursued me to be the Executive Director of the Florida offices with the intention to expand into the Southeast region, which we did. It made since to locate the head offices in Orlando because it had good infrastructure, you know, with technology, and you had the new buildings being built, you weren’t far from Atlanta, Miami was having a new arena built. So it was centrally located. I moved here to take that job.

I continue to love Orlando and this is where I choose to live and work. Such a vibrant and exciting city on the move. And the people … they are amazing. Orlando is my home.

How did you gain the title Orlando’s Ambassador of Love?
That’s a title I cherish and treasure very much and I accept my responsibility with an open heart and a strong mine. In giving back to the community, in working with the arts and bringing communities together and in the theme of my art, the message is love. I have always been an advocate of the arts—the venues, the performing arts, visual arts, all of it. I think that’s what makes a vibrant and sustainable community.

Years ago there was a National Ambassador of Love over the United States appointed by Richard Nixon, the entertainer Pearl Bailey. And then the United Nations appointed her to be the Ambassador of Love for the entire world. Mayor Dyer knew of that.  I had had some discussions with the Mayor about different opportunities throughout the city. He would come out to the art shows, along with the rest of the community, and he would see the reaction to the artwork—the love and the heart. About three years ago, he made a formal proclamation [for me] and I love it.

I love being the Ambassador of Love. We’ve had articles about it in the New York Times. I was on the Samantha Brown show on the Travel Channel. It’s a very unique thing. We’re the only city in the nation that has one. It’s very nice.

What is your definition of love?
Wow. [Pauses] I think love is a way of life. Love is understanding and caring and sharing and being patient. It is feeling responsibilities to yourself and others to love and be loved. I just think it’s the greatest gift of all.

Loving yourself, loving others, loving your community, loving humanity, loving the arts—it’s just a feeling you have. I think everyone has it, just not everyone is great at expressing it. I’m not afraid to say ‘I love you’ to people I know and people I don’t know. I truly give the gift of love. And I want to.

Is that why the theme of your art is love?
I paint hearts, and love, and words and expressions of love, like the face, angels, the big red lips—I just have always loved life. I’m in love with life. I’m interested in people. I’m interested in community. I think that purpose and respect is just what comes out in my artwork. I don’t control what comes out in my artwork. I just paint.

Do you think these feelings stem from your upbringing or life experience?
I think a little bit of both. You learn from family and being around family. Watching love that people share for one another. And I think being around so many different people, and seeing the reaction to audiences of people, like what happens at a sporting event when everyone comes together, or what happens at a musical when everyone is laughing or crying together, or when you go with your friends to a concert, it’s just … [sighs] such a wonderful feeling. I’ve been around a lot of love. I’ve been around a lot of heartache too.

I’ve seen challenges. I’ve seen people living with nothing and people living with so much. I’ve experienced so many things and I think it’s a combination of it all.

What is your recommendation for overcoming heartache?
I think heartache happens from time to time. We’re always gonna have it. I think once we reflect upon why we have it, we understand why our heart is aching. We wise up. And we move on. There’s no feeling like loving someone and loving the people around you. I always say, “The journey we don’t always understand, but we travel it everyday.”  And if we choose love over everything we will be okay even when the days are terrifically tough.

What has been your proudest moment as an artist?
I have so many of them. One of the proudest moments for me is when someone sees one of my paintings, they make a connection with it and it changes them. It has an impact on their life. So much that they take it off the wall and take it home with them to live with every single day.

To have my art in the Art Collection in the Amway center. To have collector’s all over the world. I have a lot of proud moments. My artwork is in Paris, London and Hong Kong, and people I know and don’t know get to experience it in collections all around.

Something else I’m really proud of is that I was one of the first artists to teach a class at the Coalition for the Homeless. They have a program called A.B.C.—Art By Children.  One of my friends volunteered me without telling me. I taught a six-week course to children, ages 5-years-old to 15 years old, titled Stories from the Heart. It was just the most amazing thing. To see children expressing their feelings and pain—it just breathes life into your soul.  That’s definitely one of my proudest moments too.

You have come to a point in your life where you can relax. Wait, I don’t want to say that because that’s not true. But you’ve come to a point in your life where you can do anything you want and you have recently chosen to be the Chair of the Downtown Arts District. What motivates you to keep working and giving back?
[Laughs] I see the difference that it makes. I know the difference that it makes. I think it’s important to life and it’s important to people. It’s important to cities when you’re growing and developing as much as Orlando is. It’s one thing to have the best arena in the nation in regards to lights and technology, but we also have a million dollar art collection in there. The owners of the Magic and also the City both acknowledge the importance of art and how it enhances life, so they commissioned it.

It does make a difference. That’s what keeps me going. I want to. And I chose to. Of course, every now and then I’d like another day off … [Laughs]

What direction is the Downtown Arts District going?
Growing. That’s what we’re doing. We’re growing and doing more community outreach. We have a new young artists program at the CityArts Factory that is doing so well. It’s bringing artists together and giving them the opportunity to learn how to show as a professional artist. We’re looking to expand into other venues. The Downtown Arts District is on the move.

What are the challenges it faces?
We’re challenged by funding, always. And finding new people to get involved. It’s the same challenges I think all non-profit organizations face. You have to have funds to operate. And coming up with new creative ways to do that can be challenging.

What keeps you grounded in Orlando?
I love this city. I love the people. There’s something very special about this city. I’m really proud—and this is another one of my proudest moments—that people have stayed in Orlando because they have felt the compassion and heard the passion in my voice to what a great city we live in. They were going to move away to a bigger city, but they stayed. And that’s terrific! There’s only one Orlando. I mean, c’mon!

If you could sum up Orlando in five words, what would they be?
Five words? I think we’re a smart city. A vibrant city. A growing city.  A special city. And I think we’re a changing city. We’re always changing and trying new things. I think our citizens are committed to our city. They’re loyal and devoted.

Where do you see our city in 10 years?
I see the Performing Arts Center open. I see more people traveling here for our attractions. I see better transportation networks. I see us with more artists, and more art, and more creativity throughout the city. I see more business moving to our city.

And what about the love?
The love has always been here. [Laughs] And will continue to be.

Interview Date: May 19, 2011

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