There is so much to write in a blog about female leadership in the nonprofit arts world. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my professional and personal life. My experiences in adversity are real, but they are also privileged. I’m white, come from a wonderfully loving home, and am able-bodied. I have generally been surrounded by supportive people—women—family, friends, coworkers. I don’t have a lot of stories about being held back or feeling discrimination, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have them. The Nonprofit Leadership Workbook for Women notes that while 73% of all nonprofit employees are women, we only account for 45% of nonprofit CEOs. Slightly better than the 5% of female CEOs in the Fortune 500. I was honored to become the executive director of my organization very early in career, well before I was ready. But that’s the thing about women, right? We face challenges head on. We take advantage of opportunities when they arise. We figure it all out as we go. We must. We’re spending our days making the world a better place.
The High Museum of Art in Atlanta is working on developing inclusive programs that will support visitors on the autism spectrum all year long. In 2016, the museum began partnering with Tapestry Public Charter School to pilot inclusive programming for students on the autism spectrum. Through this program, the museum works closely with educators at Tapestry to create curriculum-based, student-relevant guided tours and interactive workshops. They receive invaluable feedback from both teachers and students. One such student is Glen Sheppard, a ninth-grader at Tapestry who has participated in the program for the past two years. Glen wrote about his experiences at the High, and we’re thrilled to share his thoughts with you on ARTSblog.
As a woman working in the arts management field, I know how critical it is to look for opportunities and to take advantage of them. I have had several women role models who have demonstrated the importance of being a good leader, and now that I’m at a stage in my career where I am training the next generation of arts leaders, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a woman in a leadership position, and how to create your own opportunities. There are three guiding principles that I continually share with my interns who are just getting a glimpse into the inner workings of an arts organization. First, always be curious about what you are doing and what others are doing around you. Second, don’t sweat the small stuff; work your way through problems the best way you know how and don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. And finally, pass your knowledge and expertise on to the next generation.
How can you change your arts organization's reputation from the “best kept secret” to the most popular place in town?
On June 21, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case South Dakota v. Wayfair. In essence, the Court ruled that state and local governments can require retailers with no physical presence in the state to collect sales tax on those sales. The Court ruled that the standard for determining the constitutionality of a state tax law is whether the tax applies to an activity that has “substantial nexus” with the taxing state; i.e., the Court threw out a previous requirement for “physical presence.” Previously, if the vendor didn’t have physical presence in the state where the buyer was, there was no requirement on the business to collect the tax.. Now, practically, how does a seller know in which state to collect tax? Is it where the seller is shipping it? Is it the billing address? And what does this mean for artists and art sellers?
Often, the pathways to job positions at the highest levels in the arts field are not very clear. The Diversity in Arts Leadership internship (DIAL) helps ensure undergraduates interested in leadership at arts organizations gain the skills, networks, and experience needed to assume leadership roles in the arts. Each intern in the Americans for the Arts’ DIAL Internship has displayed a combination of passion for the arts, some experience leading meaningful projects, and self-identifies as being from a background traditionally untapped for arts leadership. The DIAL internship then provides the platform for competitively selected undergraduates to explore nonprofit careers in the arts, taking the arts practices they love and combining them with meaningful experiences in business and leadership. While most internships can be considered experiential, the DIAL internship is a ten-week experience.
I will never forget the day I first heard the phrase, “If you can see it, you can be it.” Fast-forward thirteen years, and these words ring true in the work I do to help facilitate the annual National Association for Music Education (NAfME) Collegiate Advocacy Summit and Hill Day. Over the past five years, more than 400 undergraduate students from across the United States have traveled to Washington, D.C., to learn leadership and advocacy skills from leaders in the field of music education. Additionally, and arguably most important, is the work these students do to advocate for the importance of music education to our elected officials during congressional office visits. The stories they tell and the passion they bring make all the difference when connecting a face to a name and cause for our representatives on Capitol Hill. These experiences often lead these young leaders and future music educators to report envisioning themselves as leaders and decision-makers—not only for the arts and arts education, but for our country and our world.
The MOCA Teen Program, which I co-manage, is an academic yearlong paid internship for 18 students that supports teens on a journey of self-discovery through learning about art, the museum, and the world. In the process of selecting candidates, we look for individual voices that can become part of a diverse and connected community. Students who come from privilege are empowered to have a voice from a young age. Students with fewer resources are not, and face a disadvantage before even applying for the MOCA Teen Program. The unequal empowerment of student voices illuminates a systematic barrier for youth to be prepared and competitive candidates for art and leadership pipeline opportunities. While the MOCA Teen Program aims to empower the voices of our program participants, we may be perpetuating cycles of privilege if our selection process gravitates towards privileged applicants. We must put more resources and thought into equitable recruitment and application processes to creative pathways if we are to overcome this barrier to diversity in our field.
When people tell me they see me as a leader and influencer in the nonprofit arts world, I must confess that I don’t really see myself that way. I’m in a unique situation as a Lakota woman. First, we actually have no Lakota word for “art.” Expressing ourselves visually is something we’ve always done; it’s part of who we are as Lakota people. Art is life. We also don’t perceive leadership the same way the dominant society does. For me, it’s my honor and my responsibility to find the right ways to care for our people. In this case, I’m very fortunate to be able to help lift up my community through the arts. To me, at its heart, leadership isn’t really about leading something. It’s about using what you learn to forge a path forward. When you grow internally, that shapes what you want to do and the impact you will have. The arts absolutely can empower others in their own leadership journeys, because getting in touch with creativity in any way will change you.
The High Museum of Art has been on a journey of diversity, equity, and inclusion in recent years. With the diversification of our board and staff, the inclusion of programs for students with cognitive and physical disabilities, boosting our family programming, and more, the Museum has taken a concerted effort to truly reflect the community it serves. One of these areas is in our teen programming. In 2016, we applied for a contract with the Kennedy Center VSA to develop programming for students on the autism spectrum. In this program, we work closely with the students, teachers, and administrators to develop tours and workshops that are interactive, sensory-friendly, and responsive to the needs of all learners. The High Museum also has a program called Teen Team, a yearly group of 15 to 20 rising juniors and seniors representing a wide range of students from public, private, charter schools who create and host public programs at the Museum.
The New Jersey State Teen Arts Festival celebrated the third year of its revival this past spring at Ocean County College in Toms River. Thousands of students and teachers from 18 counties gathered with professional artists for the three-day statewide arts festival, to celebrate the important role the arts play in enriching all of New Jersey. This year’s festival was a great success, reaching 3,500 students and 400 educators in attendance. At the center of the New Jersey State Teen Arts Festival programming are the showcases and displays of student creative work. The students that present at the State Festival are selected as the exemplary representatives of the outstanding artistic talent blossoming all throughout New Jersey’s local communities.
Although the average household income in Marin County is high, the income gap in the county is wide. And Marin public schools serving lower income families are as cash-strapped as any in California. Yes, Marin’s pricy private schools offer rich arts experiences. But most of our public-school students receive a haphazard mix of programs hustled together by hardworking PTAs. And in our lowest income communities, where schools often serve predominantly immigrant youth of color, many have no arts at all. During National Arts in Education Week, my organization Youth in Arts and a team of stakeholders will present data illustrating local inequities in arts services before unveiling the first ever Marin Arts Education Plan. This plan offers first steps towards addressing the arts divide and creating a framework for all students to access quality arts learning.
Since the age of five, theater has served as my safe place, my platform, my passion, and my megaphone. It empowers me, strengthens me, and mobilizes me in an ethereal and visceral way that nothing else can. And yet, for the first nine years of my theater career, all my directors and theater teachers were white. Even now, years later, the vast majority of the faculty in my college’s theater department are white. This reality is an injustice. And still, my existence is proof that theater, and more broadly, the arts, shape our notions of what is possible for ourselves and the world around us. Art is restorative. Art is transformative. Art is healing. Art is resistance. It is for this reason, among many others, that arts leadership, and especially arts education leadership, must be representative of those who exist at the intersections of marginalized identities.
Working in any field, we want assurance that there is upward mobility in our careers. Once upon a time, that is something that would often happen. One would start in a specific entry-level role and move up the ranks to be a top-level executive. However, today things in the nonprofit sector, and more specifically in arts education, look a little different. This is due in part to several systemic challenges that often limit the opportunities of growth for emerging leaders. Given these challenges, how can an emerging leader in arts education work through and around these systemic barriers?
My name is Elbert Joseph, I have cultures in me, because of experiences and battles; I have learned. I live in cultures where I have to pick between a community and the chance to fit in. My cultures are Black, Deaf, and Gay. Family, friends, and colleagues are different from each other. Not many of them understand about certain matters: with acting I have to learn mostly on my own to improve my articulation and diction, for the sole purpose of equalizing myself to my hearing peers. I combat hearing privilege in the theatre community, working twice as hard for my skill and talent to be seen and appreciated. But I had to choose to fight.
They say, “It takes a village to raise a child," but the need for a community of support doesn’t end after adolescence. As you move into adulthood, you have the opportunity to expand your village and seek out those who inspire you to join your team. But, before you welcome someone into your circle, you should learn what motivates them. Do they genuinely value the importance of sharing knowledge with the next generation, or are they driven by ego and status? If you are lucky enough to find a mentor who wants to see you succeed for purely altruistic reasons, welcome them with open arms and do everything you can to keep them close.
Dennie Palmer Wolf, mentor: I have half a century of work in the arts field behind me: successes, publications, and big, noticed projects, right along with my full share of mistakes, disasters, and misjudgments. When I speak nowadays I claim my white hair as a badge of office and call myself a “crone emeritus.” I started down that “remembrance road” and then thought, “For what?” Better to pass it on actively—why not mentor a next generation of leaders?
Sanuja Goonetilleke, mentee: I am lucky to have had multiple mentors in my life. Each is a double reminder: first, I am not alone and second, I have a responsibility to the world to pass the torch on. This is not only the torch of mentorship, it is also the torch of doing the work that my mentors have done and continue to do. It is more than knowledge; it encompasses showing up (with a smile), making an effort, pushing oneself to do one’s best, and keeping faith with what gradually becomes our shared work.
In Fall 2017, the Baltimore City Public School district, in partnership with local nonprofit Arts Every Day, launched the Baltimore Arts Education Initiative to address more than a decade of decline in arts education. Advocates knew the realities—a student might begin studying General Music in Elementary School and never have a music class again. Another student might take Visual Art 100 in high school but have no option for advanced courses to prepare them for college or career. Thanks to the ambitious leadership of the Baltimore City Public School district and the collaboration of over 100 arts partners, educators, and district and city leaders, the Baltimore Arts Education Initiative resulted in the 2017 Arts Education Strategic Plan. As organizers, we knew barriers to access would be identified, recommendations debated, data charts created; but what did inconsistent arts access feel like to students?
Jessica Nuñez, mentor: Youth Development is essential in creating this concept of the third space—not home or school, but one that youth select on their own. Designing a safe space creates a collaborative learning environment that produces innovative ideas, lasting friendships, and strong ties to the institutions and organizations that provide these programs. I am a result of that mentorship and of the many opportunities the Explorers Program provided me.
Samantha Joseph, mentee: The word mentor is defined as “an experienced and trusted adviser,” and having a mentor who is a woman of color trust who you are and your abilities, regardless of your background, is something invaluable. Mentorship is more than being there for someone—it means you see them for who they are and help them achieve new heights; and lucky for me, I had the chance to experience just that.
Everyone was a womxn at some point! Then she gave you time and fostered a space within her to help you become what you are. The more women realize that from being able to give birth to being the backbone to almost every successful company, what’s clear is that we are the leaders and have always been the most popular artist. It’s always been that way; we’ve just been the silent partner, the main investor, the proverbial “legs” with others leading as the body. THAT, however, is what’s changing. So what it means to be a womxn in a leadership position at an arts nonprofit in today’s world means being what we’ve always been, but with a voice to say what you want, what you need, having the will to take what you deserve, build what you see, and being the face that represents that.
Research shows that people who look and have experiences like mine are less likely to continue higher education. I often find myself to be the only Latina in the room and the only person from an underprivileged background. Aside from seeing this in my own environment, I have seen it in the works being produced on stage around the country. The first time I saw someone that looks like me play a leading role on stage was a couple of months ago, at twenty-two years old. The narrative has to change. I am diligently working towards doing just that, but I am the exception to a very large statistic. I want to make sure that we all start having colleagues of different backgrounds and skin colors. I want us all to read books, see plays, and hear music that is written, performed, and produced by people that look like us. Providing equitable access to a well-rounded education that includes the arts can do these things.
While helping with research for Americans for the Arts’ Emerging Arts Education Leadership toolkit, I was able to find the true potential in the reciprocal exchange and cyclical mentorship of arts leaders in the field. Originally, I came to this project as just an artist and, therefore, a believer in the power of the arts, but I knew very little of the landscape and infrastructure of support for the arts in my region or my nation as a whole. I lacked that knowledge of how to create coalition as an arts leader, how to inspire others to action in the best way, or that there was even a cycle of mentorship that could tap into. Through this project, I realized how many resources and how much support there really is (and how much support there can be) for the intersections of identity and culture within arts education programs in America.
In an age of unpaid internships, I have done my fair share of work for the “professional experience” it might bring. (I’ve also been asked to do arts-related events for free or at a very low cost—presumably because I am a young person and might want the “exposure.”) I have experienced some of these systemic barriers on my professional journey. It is my hope that arts education can begin to pull away from that linear mode of thinking and gravitate more toward the concept highlighted in our research—a cyclical leadership—that can foster authentic, diverse, and collaborative work environments. This year, as a candidate for the Arts in Education Ed.M Program at Harvard University, I seek to continue this discussion with my academic cohort of teaching artists, arts managers, curators, and nonprofit leaders. We each have a role to play in breaking down the barriers for emerging leaders.
Over the past two summers, I have had the unique privilege to work with three incredible mentees through the internship program here at Americans for the Arts. With all three of these individuals, I worked hard to impart much of my knowledge about arts education, the nonprofit arts sector, the inner working of Washington, D.C.’s advocacy infrastructure, and much more. However, it was through these unique relationships that I also learned from them and grew as a person; we were engaging a process of cyclical mentorship. Often, we approach the leadership pipeline in the field as a departing of knowledge from the older generation to the younger. This process, though utilized effectively in the cultural sphere, leaves much to be desired. As we work together in the field, we must be aware of our own advancement in the pipeline and how we are interacting in relation to other operating alongside us.
As young people around the country return to school, educators take the helm of their classrooms, and educational leaders build learning communities that inspire creative and innovative teaching and learning, the arts education community along with public and private sector leaders join together once again to celebrate National Arts in Education Week. As this school year begins, local school districts and state education leaders have more resources and policies under their supervision than ever before. Our job is to encourage, enable, and empower advocates to get to the negotiating table to strengthen arts education! They need to hear from us. Starting this week, we should get arts education leaders at every table for every decision impacting education and certainly arts education from here on out!