My Career Choice: Deana McCloud – Founding Executive Director of the Woody Guthrie Center

Deana McCloud, the Founding Executive Director of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, collaborated with The Morgan Library & Museum on the new exhibition celebrating Guthrie’s life and career. (Read the review.) She currently serves on the boards of Folk Alliance International, Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, Red Dirt Relief Fund, Outsiders House Museum, and AFT Instrument Donations.  McCloud was a charter member of the board for the Tulsa Office of Film, Music, Arts & Culture and currently serves on the executive board for Tulsa Regional Tourism.

Prior to taking this position, McCloud was a National Board Certified educator. For 17 years, she was a member of the Woody Guthrie Coalition, booking and producing concerts for the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival and presenting programs about Guthrie. She currently serves on the festival’s advisory board as well as the advisory boards for the Woody Guthrie Journal, Center for Poets and Writers, and the editorial board for AMP: American Music Perspective.

Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?

I’m not sure it was one event, but more a combination of my experience in education as well as my work booking and producing concerts and programs for the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. I was involved on the festival’s founding board, and continued to present programs celebrating Woody’s relevance and historical importance for 17 years. That gathering of the Folk Tribe was pivotal in my decision to step away from the front of a classroom and shift my focus to sharing the educational opportunities available in the Woody Guthrie Archives and the Woody Guthrie Center. The lessons are still there, but they’re all centered around the concepts of empowerment and the strength that one voice has to change the world. 

What about this career choice did you find most appealing? 

Much like Woody, I love the messages that the arts are able to share with the public. While the artistic mediums may vary, the messages contained within them speak to my heart. The arts allow us to feel more deeply, understand more personally, and experience the world on a broader level than anything else. The ability that musicians have to share their stories with us is pure magic. Those who tell musicians to steer away from sensitive issues because they should be entertaining us are incredibly wrong. Woody said it himself “I’m an educator, not any entertainer.” These are the lessons that are the most important to our world and to our souls 

What steps did you take to begin your education or training?

My master’s degree is in Library Media/Informational Technology, which fits nicely within the scope of archival and curatorial studies. As a former language arts teacher, the fine art of storytelling is a skill that I use on a daily basis to curate exhibits—telling stories with items first and then adding text—and as the spokesperson for the museum. 

Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?

Of course. We all have those folks who hold us up and make sure that we know our talents are appreciated. I’m honored to have the Guthrie family as part of my support team. Their trust in my ability to represent Woody, their father and grandfather, means more to me than words could express. I’m sure there were some who may have thought discouraging thoughts, but I prefer to look at the glass half full and ignore the negativity. 

Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?

I really never did, even though I was entering a career for which I had no previous experience. I did, however, have an incredible colleague from the GRAMMY Museum, Bob Santelli, who also was one of the co-curators of the exhibition currently on display at the Morgan Library. He was a confidant and advisor as I went through some on the job training. Having someone like Bob who believed in my ability to shift careers and create a successful team and important message through Woody’s work, how could I feel discouraged?

When did your career reach a tipping point?

I always felt confident in my ability to speak about my work, but the deciding point was within the first couple of years when Nora Guthrie (Woody’s daughter and the person who gathered his archive) voiced her appreciation for the way I spoke for Woody, thus allowing her to retire and not have to do so many public speaking engagements. The seal of approval from her has always been an incredible source of personal pride and my incentive to continue sharing Woody’s message in a thoughtful and empathetic manner.

Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?

I think the biggest challenge has always been to take time for myself and for others to simply Be. We all get focused on our own tasks, and often need to take the time to just breathe, take a walk around the block, and schedule a coffee meeting with those with whom we interact each day. Balance is so important to our overall sense of self and health. The struggle is realizing that self care is as important as the next exhibit installation. 

What single skill has proven to be most useful?

My storytelling skills have been incredibly important. They come into play when I’m curating exhibits, writing for a variety of purposes, and functioning as the face and voice of the Woody Guthrie Center. A good storyteller relates well to the audience and is able to express the content that might be elusive to those who aren’t as skillful in that aspect of creativity.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I’m certainly very proud of this new exhibition at the Morgan Library, as well as all of the exhibitions that I’ve had the honor to curate. However, I’m really proud of my ability to gather the tribe, sharing Woody’s relevance while nurturing a new generation of artists and connecting them with others with whom they might work. Putting people who should be connected in the same room and watching magic happen is pure joy. 

Any advice for others entering your profession?

Make sure you know how to multi-task, but mostly, enjoy the ride. Musicians and other creatives are some of the best people in our world, and the arts truly lead the way out of the darkness. Especially over the past few years, we’ve seen how the arts have kept us connected when we couldn’t gather physically and inspired us to remain positive. 

For more information: The Woody Guthrie Center

Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song 
Through May 22, 2022
The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue

Photo credit: Tim Bonea