Meet Austin's First Ladies of Culture

By Maddy Hill & Hannah Morrow | April 17, 2017 | People Feature

These five women of power are taking Austin’s arts and culture scene to the next level.



In session: As executive director of the Texas Cultural Trust, Jennifer Ransom Rice recently wrapped up the 2017 biennial Texas Medal of Arts Awards, which honor the best in the state across all disciplines and philanthropy. With that big production in her rearview, she is focusing the rest of the current legislative session on funding for the Texas Commission on the Arts and its Cultural Districts Program.

Personal mission: Rice’s family believed in the importance of arts education, so she took lessons in piano and ballet from a young age. “My parents always made sure we were involved in and exposed to the arts,” says Rice. “To broaden our minds and look at the world in a different way was very important.”

Business sense: The arts, a $5.5 billion industry in Texas, deserves more funding from the government, Rice says. “Business, development, and progress—which we need for our city to grow—has to be done responsibly and collaboratively with our arts and entertainment industry,” she says.



Brava performance: Impressed by her success with Opera Philadelphia, where she increased fundraising by 183 percent over seven years, the Austin Opera last fall picked Annie Burridge as its new general director. Burridge, one of just four women in the US to hold the general director title for an opera house, has dreamed of running an opera since her teenage years.

Crunching numbers: “One thing I’ve thrown myself into throughout my career is being relentless in the pursuit of consumer information and audience information,” says Burridge. “Making data-driven decisions will lead us to serve as wide and diverse a demographic as possible.”

Audience outreach: Burridge would love to expand the Austin Opera, which performs three operas each season at the Long Center. The recent $1 million endowment from Dr. Ernest C. and Sarah G. Butler could help make this possible. “There is potential for more collaboration artistically and in unexpected ways,” she says. “My passion project is to figure out how to add to what we are doing so our programming footprint aligns with the ways Austinites love to experience entertainment.”

MAYA PAYNE SMART | The Wordsmith


The write stuff: When she’s not serving on boards like the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation or the Texas Book Festival and Literacy Coalition of Central Texas, Maya Payne Smart can be found reading and writing inspired content for her powerful lifestyle blog. On, she tackles hot topics with social commentary, interviews, and book reviews for “world-changing women.”

In the (library) cards: “One thing I’m particularly excited about in Austin is the New Central Library, opening later this year,” says Smart, wife of UT Men’s Basketball coach Shaka Smart. “It’s a really phenomenal building with a lot of cool features in terms of sustainability.” The library, which is pursuing platinum-level LEED certification, will house a Recycled Reads boutique and a cookbook-themed cafe run by ELM Restaurant Group.

The next generation: Smart spends time talking about books and ideas with her daughter. “I want her to grow up in a world that is better than the world I grew up in,” says Smart. “I want her to have the kind of skills and perspective she needs to contribute to a better world.”



One-woman show: Personable, fearless, and talented, Mela Sarajane Dailey has tried, and succeeded, at it all: radio host on KMFA Austin, partner at Merick Strategies consulting firm, soprano with the Grammy-winning choral ensemble Conspirare, and wife to Peter Bay, conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra.

Behind the curtain: A busy calendar reflects her work ethic: “Keep chopping wood and carrying water.” Practicing her discipline consumes much of her day, so Dailey chooses her endeavors carefully. “I only do projects that mean something to me and that will leave a legacy that makes my son proud and his world better,” says Dailey.

The crescendo: Alongside her husband, Dailey is producing Leonard Bernstein’s MASS in 2018 in honor of the composer’s centennial. An immensely ambitious show about “a community that lifts someone up during a crisis of faith”, MASS will feature over 250 musicians, dancers, and singers from Austin companies, including herself. “We want to build each other up, so why not do that on a world stage?”

SUZANNE DEAL BOOTH |The Philanthropist


Blank canvas: Suzanne Deal Booth’s career has spanned the globe and art world alike. An art historian, conservationist, and philanthropist, the native Texan serves on a number of museum boards and is co-founder of the Friends of Heritage Preservation.

Mentor musings: She tributes her longtime mentor, art collector and philanthropist Dominique de Menil of Houston’s Menil Collection, for her love of classic and eclectic culture. “There were objects from all different centuries that she would pull together, like a puzzle, and tell a story in a room,” says Booth.

Magnum opus: Since settling here nine years ago, Booth has been investing in Austin’s visual art scene. Her latest endowment, in association with The Contemporary Austin, is the Suzanne Deal Booth Art Prize: a biennial award of $100,000 and a solo exhibit to an artist of any age. “The arts are a critical part of what determines who we are and how we address our history,” she says. “There’s room in Austin to encourage the next step: an enlightened cultural environment.”

Categories: People Feature