I wasn’t destined for a career “in the arts.”

Despite being a cellist since 4th grade (courtesy of when public schools invested more heavily in the arts) and immersed in the world of classical music all of my life, I was headed to a world of science—either botanist, or field ecologist, or environmental educator. I was part of a hiking, camping, and backpacking family—wedded to the out of doors—and I graduated with a degree in biology.

I wanted to channel my love of science, teaching, and museums, hence my choice over 30 years ago to pursue a master’s degree in museum education with a goal of developing and teaching science curricula (and, in particular, to work at the Museum of Science in Boston).

Ann S. Graham (left), First Night Boston, Dec. 31, 1991.And then at three pivotal moments in my life, three key women entered my professional world and offered me new opportunities that would change the trajectory of my work … all of whom became life-long mentors and friends. It is the wisdom and the trust that these three women gave me at different times in my career that contributed to my deep engagement in the arts, supporting a now-lifelong passion and commitment to working in the field as an arts professional.

Providing mentorship—and seeking mentors—are two critical parts of a career path whose value should not be underestimated.

In my own career, all three junctures—and all three women leaders—provided new professional directions that contributed to opportunities for growth, skill development, and leadership:

  • The Director of the M.A. Museum Education program offered me my first job in the arts, not in a museum at all, but as administrative assistant for the Harvard Summer Dance Center. I didn’t begin with any knowledge about classical and modern dance, but I quickly developed a lifelong passion for dance while getting my introduction to the nonprofit arts sector.
  • My second mentor hired me to serve as “Indoor Production Coordinator” for “First Night” in Boston. I had never produced an event of any size before, let alone one that would be attracting some 400,000 people on New Year’s Eve in Boston. I remember my first day of work—“where do I begin?”
  • And, some 25 years later, my third mentor is with me at Texans for the Arts, where I serve as Executive Director of. Texans for the Arts is the statewide arts advocacy organization, a member of Americans for the Arts, and a member of the State Arts Action Network. I had no prior experience advocating and lobbying at the state level, and continue to be on a learning curve that challenges and rewards me on a daily basis.

Woven through and between these three pivotal opportunities has been 30 years of many other arts initiatives and projects—including a long resume of event production, civic advocacy, orchestra management, site specific public art production, nonprofit management consulting, and much more. And, as a consequence, there have been many other individuals who have played a critical role in my professional life.

Ann S. Graham, rallying for arts education funding, Texas State Capitol, 2012.

However, on reflecting over 30 years of working in-the-arts, I cannot overstate the value and impact of these three key mentors in my life—all women who have inspired, supported, and challenged me, and all of whom have generously shared their insights, their knowledge, and their lessons learned on the job and in the field. And probably, most importantly, they provided friendship, a watchful and supportive eye, and a deep trust in my ability to perform.

My advice is to seek both your own mentors, and ways to serve as a mentor in your field—even if you are fairly new in your career—and think of individuals a few steps behind you in the process. Do not underestimate your own talents and opportunities to share in what you are learning and to learn from listening to others. And, seek individuals who can mentor you and whose style, credentials, and values resonate with your own work interests.

I never say “no” to a call or email from someone entering or moving up in the field, looking for advice or information on how to advance their career or even jumpstart a career in the arts. While these calls and meetings aren’t necessarily long-term mentoring, I can only hope that they serve to inspire and support, letting younger minds know there is a future for leadership.

I can also only hope that my own passion for this field ignites interest in others and inspires and supports them, as I have been so generously supported by my mentors throughout my career. Never underestimate that your own story about how you got to where you are holds value and consequence to the people who follow in your footsteps.

Through the lessons I continue to learn every day, I hope I serve the field of young professionals rising in the field, and offer the same kind of support, ideas, and wisdom to the next generation of arts leaders.