Mary’s Way Enriching Arizona Arts
Writer Lara Pi
Photographer Loralei Lazurek
Paradise Valley resident and Valley arts philanthropist Mary Way has been impacting the arts since kindergarten. As a girl, she studied dance for 12 years and after high school, earned a degree in art history and political science at Whitman College. She then studied classical singing for 12 years and worked as a writer, director and producer for several television shows.
Mary later moved with her husband to England (where her kids were eventually born) so she could work at the Royal Academy of Arts and, with the help of Diana, Princess of Wales, served on the founding development board of the London City Ballet. They later moved to Tokyo, where Mary curated and became the chairman of the world’s largest exhibition and sale of Japanese contemporary prints, called hanga.
“I guess all these experiences gave me a hard knocks education that helped inform my participation in the arts in Arizona,” Mary explains. “In the arts, people seem to be divided into two groups: those who are creating the art, and those who are raising funds so that they can.”
Mary crossed that creator-administrator line with her London City Ballet board appointment. When she moved to Phoenix in 1995, she served on the board of the Contemporary Forum Asian Arts Council at Phoenix Art Museum. Her husband, Bill, became chairman of its board of directors. After many years of serving there, they joined the leadership board at ASU Gammage, where Mary became co-chair. Eight years ago, she joined the advisory board of Southwest Shakespeare Company, where she began as chair of the board and then accepted the position of executive director.
“Southwest Shakespeare has a wonderful artistic and production team,” Mary says. “I am back where I started: creating programs designed to enlighten and entertain—even though I still have to figure out how to pay for it.”
In June, the company’s warehouse burned down, taking everything it owns with it. Twenty-three years’ worth of costumes, props, sets and signage were gone in six short hours.
“They are pulling themselves together for the season opening September 8 with ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged’ at the Mesa Arts Center,” she reports.
She’s also been a directorial apprentice to Tony Award-winner Bill T. Jones, served on the National Endowment for the Arts panel for American Masterpieces and has coached actors at the National YoungArts Foundation finals in Miami.
“The most fun I have is working with students,” Mary says, adding that she has worked with the English Speaking Union and the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s national and regional high school competitions.
This year, Mary’s work in the arts was recognized by Arizona Citizens for the Arts (ACA), a 35-year-old 501(c)(3) that advocates for Arizona’s non-profit arts and culture sector. Mary received its first Philanthropy Award for her extraordinary philanthropic leadership, for her financial contributions and for engaging others to give, as well.
“Mary was chosen by a panel of her peers—philanthropists themselves who are not only generous with their money but also give their time and their talent to the organizations they support,” explains ACA executive director Catherine “Rusty” Foley. “Mary is not someone who seeks the limelight for herself, so it was a pleasure to not only recognize her for her philanthropy, but also to acknowledge her selfless attitude.”
The organization recognized Mary’s significant impact on the Valley’s major arts institutions, including her recent chair for the $15 million capital campaign at ASU Gammage and her work and donations to Phoenix Art Museum.
“Non-profit organizations, especially the arts, have always depended on the financial support of philanthropic individuals,” Catherine continues. “Recognizing these philanthropists is not only an opportunity for the arts community to say thank you; it also gives us an occasion to tell the story of why individuals like Mary Way believe support for the arts is important. Hopefully, others identify with what motivates Mary and feel compelled to provide more support to the arts.”
ACA also recognized the impact Mary’s contributions and volunteer hours have had on Southwest Shakespeare, which have helped transform the once-struggling company. In the last one and a half years, she helped install a new board, raise significant capital, install new reporting systems, balance the budget and reduce their debt.
“Arts are not only entertaining and uplifting, they are potentially transformative, both in terms of empathy and in terms of academic performance,” Mary says.
She notes seven studies that demonstrate live classical performance’s significant impact on students’ grade point averages and standardized test scores across all socioeconomic strata.
“In Arizona, we have not only an opportunity but also a moral obligation to bring classical theater to as many people as we can,” she advocates. “Give all the rural students of all ages the same opportunities as those in the cities.”
Her work has been gratifying in many ways, Mary shares.
“I am grateful for all the kind, generous and creative people I have met along the way,” she says. “I am inspired every day by these friends and coworkers who help us advance the great cause—and those who support them. Thank you!”