Andre Kimo Stone Guess Has Big Plans as New President and CEO of Fund for the Arts
Writer / Stephanie Wright
The arts have the power to bring hope, healing and connection to a community. Andre Kimo Stone Guess knows this power, and that is why he was recently named the president and CEO for the Fund for the Arts (FFTA) here in Louisville. The incumbent, Christen Boone, stepped down this past May after serving for seven years. The pandemic and social injustice have brought Guess back to his hometown to start advocating for change.
As a native Louisvillian, Guess grew up in Smoketown. His family holds roots in the area that date back to the early 1900s. Growing up in the same house his father grew up in, he had aspirations to become a physician, with a love for jazz music. His passion for jazz exists today. It all stems from time spent at Lloyd’s Barbershop, where barbers and patrons taught him about the instruments, blues, and the innovative modes of jazz music. They had a significant influence on his being, and jazz remains a large part of his life today.
After graduating from high school, Guess moved to Boston for medical school. However, he soon found out that being a physician was not in his heart. He came home to finish college at the University of Louisville, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in economics with a minor in actuarial math. This career change led him to his first job at Capital Holdings in town. After a few years, Guess wanted to leave the corporate world for the nonprofit sector. He graduated with his Ph.D., and served as vice president and producer of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) in New York City. Following his tenure in New York, he became president and CEO of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center located in Pittsburgh.
In addition, Guess has owned and operated his management consulting firm, GuessWorks, Inc., successfully for more than 14 years. He has managed many award-winning artists at the firm, leading him to travel the world and visit some impressive art centers.
One of his most significant accomplishments manifested in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. Guess narrowly escaped the city right before Katrina hit amid mandatory evacuations. However, when he returned to New York City, he saw the devastating damage on the news. As a result, he and his two friends, one being the artistic director of the Lincoln Center and the other a music producer, planned and executed the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert at the Lincoln Center. In 10 days they put together a star-studded, five-hour concert event televised nationwide. The occasion raised an estimated $3 million for Hurricane Katrina relief.
“The beauty that was in the building that day to deal with the tragedy of Mother Nature’s wayward daughter Katrina – to be able to be in the position to do something, and be able to see how it affects and healed the people mourning the loss of loved ones while seeing the therapy happen in real time, was amazing,” Guess says.
In the midst of all this, he and his wife wanted to give their two daughters a more stable home, so they moved back to Louisville to settle down. Even though he still traveled quite a bit for most of the year, his family finally found their forever home and currently lives in St. James Court. His youngest daughter just graduated from high school this past May. As an empty nester, Guess wanted to find ways to get involved in the community by using his connections to help benefit this town. He let go of his artist management business and went back to working on consulting projects, many outside of the city.
Once settled, his life changed when a friend sent him the posting for the CEO and president position at the FFTA, via LinkedIn.
“I saw the job description, and there was language in there about the transformative power of the arts to heal, and I saw there was a significant push that started in 2017 about equity, diversity and inclusion,” he says. “I saw how serious the fund and the board were for the cultural plan to try to overcome the tragedy, COVID, isolation and destruction of the community. I knew right at that moment that I was meant to do this job.”
Guess, along with his wife, wanted to be involved and serve their town. This position was the best way to do that.
The Breonna Taylor tragedy struck the city in March of 2020, right as the pandemic was starting to take hold. Along with others, those two events, in conjunction with the other tragedies happening across the country, like the death of George Floyd, impacted Guess.
“It brings you to a situation where you understand that these things are going on in the country, but now the world was watching it unfold, and it was up front and center, and we had to confront it,” Guess says.
Those tragedies convinced him to stay in the city.
“We’ve got to be a part of the solution,” Guess says.
As he embarks on this new adventure with the FFTA, Guess has many tools to ensure a safe journey.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have had, as a black man, five meaningful mentors, and I would not be where I am today without their help,” he says.
His cherished mentors have taught him much about fundraising, performing arts and working in the nonprofit realm. One of these mentors is named Aaron Walton, who served as chairman of the board at August Wilson. When the organization’s search for a CEO began, both Walton and Guess were contenders for the role. When his friend and mentor learned that Guess was a contender, Walton went to the board’s current chairman and said, “I’m withdrawing my name. Give that young man the job, but I want to be his chairman so I can help him.”
Those relationships and his experiences also enable him to serve as a mentor to others. He continues to work with mentees in his field.
“Because of what’s been done for me, I have to be very intentional about doing that for other people,” he says.
Guess wants to bring the wisdom from his mentors and lessons learned from his career to Louisville to improve citizens’ lives, while meeting community needs.
Guess reflects on the current FFTA mission and his outlook for the future.
“My goal is to make sure that ‘every’ means every person across race, culture and sexual orientation where we don’t see representation across those lines,” Guess says.
He reflects further on the importance of increasing collaboration across all arts disciplines. He envisions people in separate fields, like visual arts and performing arts, taking down any barriers, to come together and work toward increasing diversity and inclusion.
Starting in August, Guess is opening his office doors to the public.
“I’m actively engaged in a listening campaign right now,” he says. “I want to have office hours once a week and allow anyone in the community to come in and talk about needs or give their opinion, so people can see what we are doing and that we are transparent.”
He is also intentionally going out into the community to set up town halls for the public, in churches, art facilities and community centers.
On the personal side, Guess is an artist himself. He holds a passion for writing in his minimal spare time, and has been writing for 30 years.
Andre Kimo Stone Guess is going to make a significant impact on the arts in Louisville. His passion for the nonprofit sector and the community is felt when you hear his words about the city and what it has meant to him. Congratulations, Andre.