Leadership in Arts Education

Posted by Ms. Erika Atkins, Jul 24, 2019

In early May 2019, I had the honor of being one of 75 participants of the Spring 2019 American Express Leadership Academy (AELA). I gathered with others from across the country to explore our own personal strengths and weaknesses as leaders, and to collaborate on strategies to take that information and be better.

Previous to AELA, we took a series of assessments, including a 360° review (completed by our superiors, bosses, peers, direct reports and others), the Change Style Indicator, The Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behavior™, and Influence Style Indicator. We spend three days digging into those assessments through conversations and activities. We also got to hear from panelists including alumni of the program, other non-profit leaders, and representatives from American Express, such as American for the Arts Board Member Timothy J. McClimon

Towards the end of the week, we each met for 90 minutes with an executive coach who’d reviewed all of our assessments, self-reflection, and organization information. We also began to reflect on how we could practically use our epiphanies and discoveries. The experience was incredible. Never before have I been afforded the luxury of three and a half days to focus on myself, not just myself in the context of the work I do. 

My fellow cohort members included a variety of nonprofit workers from across the sector, and while we all had a lot of common challenges, each of us had various strengths and areas of improvement that were specific to our respective fields (tech, research, advocacy, etc). The information I received allowed me to ruminate on what I was learning and how it specifically impacts leadership in the field of arts education—and what I can pass on to my colleagues in the field. 

Learning is a lifelong process

It is a no-brainer to most educators that not only are we all constantly learning and growing, but there is a considerable amount of time and investment that has to go into letting that happen. We spend our days educating others, and the tools we learn to manage our students often become a part of how we manage our employees. Events and meetups often just aren’t about networking; they are opportunities to learn. 

When the facilitators spoke about investing work not just in ourselves, but in our employees, it was like a light went off inside me. I thought about how my supervisors had invested in me the same way they would in a student; and I, in turn, did the same as I grew into management roles. It’s important that arts educators reflect on how we manage so that we can pass on those techniques to others and continue to develop the more empathetic culture we all want.

I’ve committed to working with my direct reports to create a safe environment where they can actually learn and sometimes fail. I know this will be a big struggle for me—especially since I deal with projects around finance, HR, and public communication. However, being given the opportunity to learn and grow (and sometimes fail) through my work experience with the guidance of my supervisors has instilled in me confidence in my ability and ownership over my work—which is exactly what I hope my students gain from my classes. 

Balancing creativity with pragmatism 

Artists have a reputation for being the “big idea” people in the room. As I mentioned, we learned about Change Style Indicators—or, the spectrum on which people react to change—the three styles being conservers, originators, and pragmatists. Not to my surprise, I am one of those elusive artists who falls on the pragmatic side of the line. I was sure that if I took the test with past and present co-workers, while a few might be on the side with me, several would fall on the innovator side of the spectrum. 

So what does that mean? It means that as a field, I believe arts education is full of originators who ask, “But why?” and want to challenge the status quo. However, sometimes in the big brainstorming sessions, the details and practicalities of a plan can get lost. If you’re the more pragmatic person on your team, sometimes it can feel like the weight of making sure these tasks actually happen in a compliant way falls on you. As leaders, I think it’s important that when building our team, we make sure we have an even balance of both perspectives. Ultimately, I think our work will be better for it. 

I plan to have my own staff at Opening Act take the Change Style Indicator so that we understand who’s on our team. I believe this will lead to more efficient teamwork through a better understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, and preferences when we undergo programmatic and institutional change. It will also help us identify who’s missing from each department so we can have a more holistic representation of viewpoints as we continue to grow and change. 

Merging collaboration and delegation 

Many arts educators come from an artistic background that requires collaborative teamwork to complete their productions and projects. I’ve found that most of my colleagues have brought this same spirit to our administrative work. This can sometimes prove tricky depending on the task (has anyone here ever written an employee handbook?) but can prove to be crucial to even the most mundane of tasks (has anyone here ever written an employee handbook that people thought didn’t reflect your group’s culture at all?) 

It’s important that arts administrators intentionally use their creative art-making strategies to achieve actionable work plans. What’s the process for exploration and gathering the opinions of others to make sure people’s voices are heard? Do we need input or feedback? What are the breakdowns for who’s doing what? Does everyone understand the final goal and why we’re doing it? Our brains often already work this way, so let’s lean into it, not away from this. 

What does that look like? Fortunately, this has almost always been a given for me in an arts education career. Recently my organization has experienced rapid growth, and we continue to do work to keep ourselves and the new staff grounded in mission through our values and goals.

We do this through individual reflection through writing and drawing, sharing out, creating pieces that demonstrate our views, and then following up with specific action steps to make it a reality. It may sound a little artsy, but why push individuals into a corporate structure for thinking when we already have a pretty great way of coming up with ideas? If you ask me, I think that corporate mindset could come a little closer to ours.

There are so many lessons and insights I gained from that amazing week that I am still processing. I wish for everyone that they have the opportunity to be guided through a rigorous process of meaningful self-reflection and how to apply their findings to their own lives and work. I hope that as I continue to reflect, I can find ways to apply what I learned not only to myself and my organization, but to the field as a whole.