During the last Americans for the Arts Annual Convention in San Antonio, I had the privilege of facilitating a roundtable on how to navigate a mid-career shift to the arts. The remarkable individuals I met during that discussion reinforced one of the things I love about arts administration and the arts in general, their entry points were varied and all are vital to the field.
Since entering arts administration a few years ago, I have had numerous conversations with arts leaders of all ages regarding the question of getting a Masters Degree. Part of the reason for this is that I did get a Masters Degree in Arts Administration in 2010 and I am often called on to tout the benefits of my alma mater to prospective students, which I do enthusiastically.
When I graduated three years ago, I would have told you that a Masters Degree is absolutely necessary, which was completely true in my case. I would never have the opportunities I now have without my graduate program. In the past three years, however, I have discovered an additional inescapable path to leadership, the road.
The road is paved with obstacles and pitfalls that every leader must face and that no Masters Degree program could possibly teach. They only thing the very best ones can do, is prepare you for the journey.
A year and a half into graduate school I was moved from my job as the Secretary to the President of the New York City School Construction Authority, to being a Project Manager for Public Art for Public Schools. It was a blessing, I had an arts job, but I had no experience as a Project Manager, or with public art. I had hit the road.
Armed with my half of a Masters Degree I jumped in with both feet and fell directly onto my face. Not immediately, slowly…very slowly.
I made mistakes, of varying degrees of severity, but I learned. I learned that sometimes you have to push and be aggressive, even it that isn’t in your character, just to get things done. I learned that grants get awarded late and funds will be held up, but the timeline won’t change and you still have to get it all done and you have to do it without an attitude, because it just has to get done.
And I learned that arriving on a construction site with your “man-bag” was not the best way to start off a “working relationship” with most construction crews. But mostly, and most recently, I have learned that sometimes you have to be the grown-up in the room, and that often sucks, but it is all part of leadership. And only life can prepare you for that.
What my Masters Degree program did for me, was pack years of experience, in the form of tales from the road, and condensed them into three years of networking and mentorship. The course work gave me a road map so that I could survey the land and avoid roadblocks when possible. It also gave me the vision of what it would look like if and when I got it right.
I needed a Masters Degree to get my journey started, and I would recommend the same for anyone in my situation. I also acknowledge however, that a lifetime of experience, in any industry, is applicable to the arts field.
Case in point, my colleague, who also works for Public Art for Public Schools, does not have a Master’s Degree in Arts Administration. However, she has been a Project Manager for Public Art for Public Schools for the past 12 years.
She knows exactly what to anticipate and works diligently toward avoiding the pitfalls that I have had to learn the hard way. I am constantly going to her for advice on next steps and she has eased my transition into this new world of Project Management. Without her knowledge of the road, this tip would have been much harder.
On the flip side, our program has just applied for and received its first grant. The knowledge that I gained from my degree program was instrumental in navigating the planning, execution and final reporting necessary to receive the funding.
You will have to decide which path is right for you.
In order to thrive as an industry, our field needs leaders who are trained in formal training programs, as well as those that have developed their leadership through experience in and out of the arts.
We need road-savvy leaders who can provide a smooth road, as well as those formally trained leaders to help us navigate. Then we can harness our disparate backgrounds and views to form a team working toward a common goal, access to quality arts for all.