From the time I could sing I wanted to perform on Broadway. My parents encouraged my living room performances during my adolescence but once college was on the horizon, every time I would suggest a career in the theater my father would come home with an article from the Wall Street Journal about how hard it is to make a living in the arts. A major in musical theater performance was permissible if the program included at least a minor’s worth of academic credit requirements.
I stuck with acting for the first year out of college, auditioning, waiting tables (as a singing waitress no less) and performing in various projects. I did ok in that year but I wanted to move out of my parent’s house and no performing job I got was getting me any closer to that. My temp-to-perm job was in marketing so I decided to do a little creative resume writing when I happened to see a full-time position open up for a Marketing Manager at a theater. I thought I talked my way into the position. I probably was just the only person willing to do it for the pittance they were paying.
I had the mixed blessing of being the first person to ever hold my position there. It was during a transitional period in a growing company so I also didn’t have a lot of supervision or mentoring from anyone with experience in what I was doing. That meant that I had tons of freedom to create all of the plans and policies I wanted, but also meant that I had no structure, no guidance and not a whole lot of professional experience to work from. So I learned through trial and error …and panic …and unfortunately, semi-regular failure. But I found some mentors, worked long hours, cared too much, and got good at the job.
I’ve been in Arts Administration ever since, moving up the ranks from that first job to director level positions at bigger companies where the stakes and visibility were higher. I make enough to have a mortgage on a home and feed my family in the ‘burbs. I don’t miss performing all that often because for me, being on stage was ego-driven; a burning desire to be applauded. Once I realized that my love for the arts and my ego-boost of performing were not part and parcel, I was able to focus my energy and skill on supporting the arts without me in it, funding it and making sure it was seen.
I teach a 15-hour professional studies course in Arts Management and invariably I get the question about how to get a job. My first advice is going to be polarizing but here goes: do not go to grad school for arts administration. Please don’t get me wrong – I believe in higher education and love what the available masters programs do to legitimize my industry. I hope this won’t be my advice forever but the reason? We can’t afford you. There are a lot of jobs in New York City for an aspiring arts administrator and you can earn a fair wage. It isn’t an easy profession and book-learned skills could prove invaluable, but as much as the industry has grown in my decade-and-a-half working in it, the salaries haven’t. A candidate with a Masters has spend a significant amount on their education and they, rightfully, demand a higher wage. I’d love to give it to you but the truth is, I just don’t have it in my budget. And if I can find another candidate who has interned in an office similar to mine and able to work for a little less, they get the job.
So advice #2 is get yourself known in a non-profit theater office. If you can, intern as much as 15 hours a week. Do an internship with a clear project and goals and successfully complete them. When you finish your project, don’t wander aimlessly and ask if anyone has something for you to do, discuss it with your supervisor in a meeting and suggest projects that you think would serve the organization. How do you know what that would be? While you’re doing that first project, listen to what’s going on around you. Get to know the staff and the organization. Ask questions about how it all works and where the challenges are. Seek your own education.
If you can’t intern, volunteer. But heed this advice… if I receive an email saying “Hi, I’m so-and-so, and I love your company and I’d really love to be added to your volunteer list” I pass it on to another staff member, who more than likely files it and never looks at it again. If you’re lucky, they’ll have a mailing coming up and bring you in for 3 hours to stuff envelopes, ignore you while you’re doing it and then off you’ll go, no closer to a job. They don’t mean to be unkind but they’re invariably over-worked and trying to devise a creative project for you will take time they simply don’t have. Instead, try this email:
Hi, “Hi, I’m so-and-so, and I love your company. I also want to build a career in Arts Administration and would like to learn while helping you out. I imagine you have a database filled with duplicate names and old addresses. I want experience in Raisers Edge/Tessitura/etc. I’d like to offer you two hours a week to help clean that out in exchange for you teaching me how to use the database and take time for an informational interview.” Bam. Done. Can you come in tomorrow?
The truth is, I got very lucky in this industry. I happened to start at a time where there was a little money to go around and lots to do, and I was willing to learn. I spent the better part of a decade breathing, sleeping, eating theater missions. I asked a million questions that were beyond my professional scope in order to know what could come next. I was deeply fortunate to create my own practical, hand-on Masters program with unsuspecting “professors” who foolishly agreed to meet me for some coffee and advice. And I welcome the next generation of arts administrators learning under my watch. Give me a call — my database needs some help.