Degree of Entry?

Posted by Todd Eric Hawkins On March - 20 - 2013
Todd Eric Hawkins

Todd Eric Hawkins

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.

6 Responses to “Degree of Entry?”

  1. Chelsey Christensen says:

    Thank you for this…to get a masters degree, or not to get a masters degree is a question I’ve been struggling with.
    This article sparked a very interesting conversation on my facebook page. You can find the original post/comments here: http://www.facebook.com/chelseydc/posts/441786052575924?comment_id=68033379&notif_t=share_comment

  2. Larry says:

    Great post – I have been thinking about this as well – it’s a long road with many pitfalls, twists and turns.. thanks for some clarification.

  3. B4njo says:

    I have worked at two organizations that had relationships with two arts administration graduate programs. I must say, purely from my own experience, working with the students and the program leaders disappointed me.

    They did not seem interested in the nitty gritty of running a nonprofit organization, but were much more interested in talking about launching new initiatives and changing paradigms and anything they could do that didn’t involve calling donors, combing through a budget, pouring over ad proofs, understanding contracts, etc. Their program leaders seemed openly disdainful of the day-to-day work of organizations, and this attitude really rubbed off on the students, who were completely uninterested in the work they were asked to do as interns/work study/etc. They loved talking about how they were emerging leaders (certainly not emerging development assistants) and I fear that they will leapfrog into leadership positions with very little understanding of how arts organizations really operate. Again, just my opinion and my experience.

    A positive thing I took from this was recognizing the importance of working for at least a year or two in the field before going into one of those programs, because I think that’s the only way to get the right perspective.

  4. Thanks for the essay, Todd. My graduate degree is as a performing arts practitioner, but my career path has included work producing, grant-writing, fundraising, marketing & promoting independently produced events, and other related fields to an arts administration Masters degree. Many of my colleagues have to juggle these different hats, despite not having any formalized training in the field.

    Depending on the employer, having that graduate degree can be essential. I’ve seen too many ultra-talented people not get a job that they are ideally-suited for, simply because they didn’t take a degree in it. Yet how many of our most innovative leaders have followed the traditional path?

    Conversely, there are many arts-practitioners who, based on the demands of their industry in the contemporary field, would benefit from a graduate degree or other education related to business in their field. Too many emerging artists (particularly in the performing arts industry) seem to have little knowledge or interest in the “nitty gritty” of all the un-glamorous yet super-essential work that is done behind the scenes to make sure the rehearsal, the show, and magic of the art can happen.

    So, I would suggest doing BOTH: get that experience wrought from being in the field and “on the road”, but also be willing to get that formalized education. One of the advantages of a Masters program is that you’re given tools in an efficient manner, and in a safe environment where the risks are monitored and relatively “safe”.

    Brendan McCall
    Manager, Cummins Theatre
    Western Australia

    Artistic Director, Ensemble Free Theatre
    Norway

  5. Hadia Mawlawi says:

    I can relate fully to your post. I am about to graduate with my Masters in Arts Administration from Drexel University and, like you, it has provided me with a road map I would have never had in such a condensed period of time. I learned so much about the infrastructure of non profit art organizations, in addition to meeting so many key players and leaders in the field. I am sure I will also enter the field with the need to rely on those who have had more experience than me but my degree was invaluable in introducing me to all the facets of the arts and for raising my awareness of the challenges we face and the need to think things anew and creatively, particularly funding!

  6. Stephanie Grubb says:

    I am struggling with this question now! As someone who is trying very hard to transition to the cultural sector (from the for-profit sector), I find myself going back and forth on this one. I have been accepted into two Arts Administration programs so far, in Philadelphia and in Boston. Does anyone have opinions on BU’s Arts Administration program in Boston?

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