Monday, December 7, 2009
Stepping out on a Limb
Inspired by Michael Kaiser, I've been thinking about this for a while now and I'm not sure that the professionalization of Arts Administration is always a good thing.
What?! Don't I work for an organization that is all about helping artists with business skills, helping them run their careers professionally? Yes. Springboard is all about helping artists be better business owners and better managers... for themselves.
I know there are many excellent Arts Administration programs out there and goodness knows I'd be the first to tell you that this job is one that requires some skills. Nothing gets my hackles up faster than someone referring disparagingly to "administrators" as if we were corporate fat cats pulling down the big bucks on the backs of artists. Nothing, perhaps, except when someone refers to artists as flakey, unreliable, navel-gazers. But I worry that capital "A" Arts Administration makes both of those stereotypes worse. My fear is that, as we've put more focus on Arts Administration as a career, we've driven a wedge between Administrator and Artist. It's either or. And we're losing the idea of the artist as leader.
Full disclosure, I have no arts administration or nonprofit management degree and I came to this job wholly unprepared for the challenges of managing a budget, a board and the emotional responsibility of being "in charge". What I did bring to the job was a steadfast passion for the arts, a belief that I could handle being "in charge" and experience as an artist. And I learned the rest. I'm not saying that arts managers don't need to learn those things - I'd be sunk without the excellent training that I had from great organizations, great mentors and great workshops. But there is something to be said for gaining those skills on an "as needed" basis.
I've been doing a lot of informational interviews lately - lots of people out there looking for work and trying to build their network. A couple weeks ago, I had coffee with a woman with substantial work experience and a recent degree in nonprofit management. When I asked her what kind of job she was looking for, she detailed her (many) qualifications and said "I think I'm ready to be an executive director of a mid-size organization or the second in command at a large institution." Thinking that she she misunderstood me, I said, "I mean what lights you up? What's your passion? community arts? arts ed? urban? rural? grassroots? theater? dance?..." And she said, "You know, I'm not really a passion-led leader. I just think I have the right skills for this job, I'd be happy anywhere, as long as it isn't full of a bunch of flakey artists."
Hrm. I wouldn't open with that in a job interview.
It's not so much that I think that we don't need the skills or the education to run successful organizations, it's more a question of order. Passion, commitment and dedication first; finances, networking and fundraising second. Mission first, management second. Art first, administration second.
Also, could we think of a better name for this? I hate "arts administrator", that sounds like such a boring job...one that involves a lot of paperwork. I use arts manager, but that's not much better, plus its confusing to people who think you're an agent or publicist or something. Someone called me an "arts organizer" once, which I loved. What do you think?