One Thousand Words on Arts Administration

I went to a conference in Canada a while back and when I was going through customs, the agent asked my profession. I was proud to say, “Arts Administrator.” I received a blank look in return. “Um, ok. Why are you visiting Canada?” I’m ashamed that I didn’t take the opportunity to wax eloquent on what arts administration is and why it was important. A lot of my colleagues have similar stories and one even tells of how she held up traffic at the border crossing for fifteen minutes while she explained what it is she does exactly.

The road to my career choice wasn’t a straight one. I didn’t grow up saying I wanted to be an arts administrator. But every year while I was growing up, my mother and I attended a local community theater production for my birthday. The evening was a special celebration and consequently the theater became a magical place for me. I still remember standing in the aisle, my mouth open in awe of the beautiful red seats and sparkling chandeliers. When deciding on a profession, I could think of nothing better than working in the theater, but I struggled to find the right the right role.

In high school and college, I became involved with technical theater; working on running crews, creating props and stage managing but, although fun, none of these seemed like legitimate career options for me. By my junior year of college, I had decided that I wanted to be a lighting designer. Although I realized fairly quickly that I didn’t have the instinct of a natural lighting designer, I remained on that track because it seemed to be my best bet for working in the arts. I even applied for graduate school in lighting design. I remember going to an interview at Temple in Philadelphia and bringing this beat up looking folder with my “portfolio” in it. In the waiting room, all the other interviewees had fancy leather cases, thick and impressive. I knew I was outclassed before I even talked to the interviewer.

Looking back on it, I think it’s a shame my advisors never discussed arts administration with me. I had very strong organizational skills, (perhaps my strongest skill) but I was unaware that the field even existed. Were they unaware too or just too focused on their goals of producing students who worked in “legitimate” theater? If we didn’t act or design for professional or educational theater it didn’t count. There was no discussion of community theater, or arts administration. Honestly, I loved my professors but it was a rather short-sighted view for the program to take. How many people can support themselves solely by acting? How many designers does Broadway actually employ? And how many of those are students from a small liberal arts college in Vermont?

I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Theater and then floundered. I didn’t feel confident enough in my designing abilities to go on in the field, and frankly that’s a good thing because I wasn’t good enough to make it. I still loved the arts but felt unable, or unwilling, to live the life style of the “starving artist.” I had loans to repay and wasn’t comfortable not knowing when and if the next job would come through. So, I found a nine to five job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I still participated in the arts, and even founded a community theater to help keep my love theater alive, but I resigned myself to being a part-time participant and gave up on my dream of working full-time in the arts.

Words can’t describe my excitement when I applied for and was offered the position of Box Office Manager at a local performing arts center. In fact, it was the same theater where we went to see musicals for my birthday! After just a short time, I realized that a career in arts administration not only fulfilled my desire to be involved with performing arts, but was perfectly matched to my skill set.

Being an arts administration starts with the belief that the arts are important. Whether children, adults or seniors, the arts positively affect individuals and help bring communities together. There are studies that prove it. It’s exciting that the public realizes how important the arts are to our world, but, at the same time funding for the arts is being cut at the federal, regional, state and local level. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts are competitive and hard to come by. State arts council’s are underfunded. New Hampshire is looking to cut their arts council completely, which is a scary thought. Local and national foundations don’t have enough money to fund all the requests they receive. And individual donors are focusing their philanthropy on more urgent needs… homeless shelters, food banks, and the like. Rightly so? Maybe, but I still believe that feeding the soul with the arts is as important as feeding the stomach. Can you live without the arts? Yes, but would it be a life worth living? Not in my book.

In order to survive this challenging environment, arts organizations must take a look at how they do business and the importance of well-trained and innovative arts administrators grows. And while, like other administrators, we have to balance our books, effectively manage our personnel and all the other things needed for a successful business, arts administrators can’t stop there. Arts organizations walk a very delicate line between responsible corporate practices and artistic integrity. In order to balance their books, they must curate a powerful, artistic and sell-able season, not build cars or computers or widgets. Whether as an arts presenter (more on what that is later) or producer, our seasons have to not only be financially successful, but artistically challenging, fulfill to the organization’s mission and appeal to our audiences. This balance of business and artistic quality is unique and thus requires a unique field… and arts administration is born.

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