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Blumenthal Arts
Winter 2024
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Difference Maker
An Artist at Heart
Retired Bank Exec brought Arts expertise to Blumenthal Board
Michelle Lee at The Blumey Awards.
by Liz Rothaus Bertrand
After nearly 40 years dedicating her professional life to banking and serving on the governing boards of many prominent community organizations, Michelle Lee is finally getting a chance to catch her breath.
In July 2023, she retired from her role as executive vice president at Wells Fargo and head of branch banking, overseeing more than 4,300 branches.
In January, Lee also is stepped down after six years of service on Blumenthal Arts’ board of trustees. Board positions are term limited.
Throughout her long and impressive career, she’s made an intentional effort to give back to arts organizations – including serving on the boards of some of the country’s leading institutions – among many other professional commitments.
“It has been such an honor to have Michelle, because she’s certainly one of the busiest people in the banking industry, not just here in Charlotte, but nationally,” said Tom Gabbard, Blumenthal’s president and CEO. “And she’s somebody that has served with a real commitment to what we do (in) the arts.
"Even though she went into banking, her undergrad degree was in performance, and she brought a lot of experience in board governance in the arts, having served on organizations like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and New Jersey Performing Art Center," Gabbard said.
“And when she got here, she actually moved off of those boards because she decided she wanted to focus on us, which is an incredible compliment … we are just so thankful for her six years of service.”
An unexpected career turn
Lee has had an exceptional career, beginning as a bank teller at First National Bank of New Jersey in the 1980s and rising to the highest echelons of bank leadership in the nation. Her many honors include the Maya Angelou Women Who Lead Award, Black Enterprise Magazine’s Most Powerful Women in Corporate America, NJBIZ Best 50 Women in Business and the New Jersey Business Hall of Fame.
But she did not initially set out to pursue a career in banking. Lee studied applied voice at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and took a beginning job as a teller to support herself while she continued her music training.

“At first it was just a gig until the real gig came along,” she said.
That all started to change a few years into her role. She got to know another employee, named Patty, who worked in a back office identifying and fixing errors for the branch and resolving customers’ problems.
“I started wandering back there at the end of the day, and I guess you could say that she was my first mentor,” Lee said. “She started to teach me how to do her job, when she went on vacation and I just kind of fell in love with it.”
"The arts are very important and lend a lot of character to young people. It's a means of expression ... it teaches them how to collaborate with others, and I just think that there's so much that you can get from the arts."
— Michelle Lee, retired executive vice president of Wells Fargo
Lee saw how she could really make a difference in people’s lives working at a bank. It was more than a place where people cash their checks, she said. A bank is where people can fulfill their personal and financial dreams, whether that’s someone buying a first home, sending their children to college, a young person buying a first car, or newlyweds trying to secure a stable financial future for their family.
“I think that same gift that helps you connect with people through music translated to working in a bank – having compassion for people, understanding how their problems might differ, depending on their background or their ethnicity or their situations in life.”
Her experience in the arts, she said, opened up possibilities and taught her many skills that have served her well throughout her professional career. That’s one of the reasons she has prioritized arts organizations in her board affiliations.
As a young girl, her exposure to classical music and opera expanded her vision.
“It helped me see the world beyond Newark, New Jersey, where I was growing up,” she said. “The arts are very important and lend a lot of character to young people. It's a means of expression ... it teaches them how to collaborate with others, and I just think that there's so much that you can get from the arts.”
Lee said she is proud to serve on Blumenthal's board of trustees, where she’s long been impressed by the wide range of programming. And her perspective has been enriched, observing what happens behind the scenes, especially the effort that goes into ensuring Blumenthal is accessible and welcoming to all.
“Having a seat on the board is just giving me insight to how intentional they are to ensure that the programming is diverse and that there's something for everyone,” she said. “And that everyone feels – and is – included.”
Michelle Lee introduces award winners at a Blumey Awards ceremony.
Memories on the Board
A defining moment for the board and Blumenthal during her tenure was the organization’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a situation for which there was no precedent. She said she was impressed how Blumenthal, under its leadership, weathered that storm and stayed connected and responsive to customer needs by conducting surveys and getting feedback to better understand patrons’ concerns.
“There kind of isn't a playbook for a performing arts center when a pandemic hits and you can't open,” she said. “So I'm proud of how the Blumenthal center handled that and how they came out of it, as well.”
She has also loved having the opportunity to connect with and celebrate the achievements of young people. Lee has served multiple years on the selection committee for the Gordon Hay Scholarship, an annual award given to support young artists pursuing a behind-the-scenes profession in theater, including make-up artists, set designers, costume designers and others.
“That's been just a real source of joy to award that scholarship to someone who is committed to their craft and wants to pursue a career,” she said. Her very favorite honor as a board member has been introducing the Best Actress and Best Actor awards at The Blumey Awards, a program for which Wells Fargo served as the title sponsor from its inception until 2023.
“It's just such a great evening, and the talent of these young people … it's unbelievable. So, it's an exciting night. It's great to be a part of it.”
What’s Next?
For the moment, Lee is enjoying having a flexible calendar after having her schedule planned down to the minute for the last 30 years or so.
Having studied French, German and Italian in college, she hopes to travel. First on her list are visits to Italy (where she’s never been) and Africa. She also wants to spend quality time with family, including her six godchildren.
Two of them came to spend a week with her in August 2023, shortly after her retirement, and it was a revelation.
“That's just not something I ever have had a chance to do while I was working and traveling for work,” she said. “I'm enjoying being with my family and not having to excuse myself because ‘I have this one meeting,’ or ‘I have one call that I need to take’ … just being able to really be fully present with the people that I love, it's invaluable.”
She’s also looking forward to getting reacquainted with that other side of herself: Michelle, the singer and musician.
“I loved my job, I loved what I did. I’m grateful for all the opportunities I had in my career,” she said. “And I feel so incredibly blessed to be at this point in my life where I can go play as hard as I worked.” ◼