There's No Difference

Posted by Adam Thurman, Oct 21, 2009 6 comments

Greeting Emerging Leaders and the women (and men) that love them.

My name is Adam Thurman.  I'm 33.  Been working professionally in the arts since I was 26.  In that time I've been the Executive Director of a small theatre, the Marketing Director of a large theatre, a teacher, a consultant, a Board member, a grant panelist, etc.

During my career I've had good days, bad days and "want to punch somebody in the face" days, so I can relate to pretty much any emotion you are going through right now. It's in that spirit that I want to share the single most useful piece of advice I was ever given about a career in the arts:

Stop thinking about it as the arts.

I'll explain.

Imagine you had just gotten your degree in accounting and you were starting your career.  You have a mentor, a grizzled vet who had survived the rough and tumble world of balance sheets and depreciation.  You ask for some career advice.  I'm betting the advice would include something like this:

1.  Be careful who you work for.

The vet would tell you that the accounting world breaks down like this:

20% of the firms are absolutely fantastic places to work for.  They value their employees, do good work and create leaders.  If you need to saw off your arm to get into one of those places, then do it.

50% of the firms are average.  Not bad places, not great places.  If you end up there your mission is to learn what you can and then get the hell out as quickly as possible.  Being at a place like that for 2-3 years is fine.  Being there for 5-7 years is a disaster.

30% of the firms are horrid.  I don't care if they beg you to work there, do not do it.  You'll learn nothing but bad habits.  You'll burn out quicker then a match thrown into a roaring flame.

You would buy that right?

It's the same for the arts.  A few great places to work.  A few more that are ok.  And a significant number that you should avoid at all costs.

As an emerging leaders, the single most important decision you can make early in your career is deciding who you work for.  It would be true if you were looking at an accounting firm.  It's equally true if you want to work with an orchestra.

I know people have been telling you different.  I know people are telling you that in this economy you should take what you can.

Resist this thinking.

A year at a really well run arts organization (of any size) can send your career into exciting places. A year at a poorly run place can derail your career before it starts. So, a huge part of your job now is to identify those places that you really want to work at and create a strategy for getting there.

Do not settle for what is offered to you. Do not settle for a mediocre job at a subpar arts organization because you'll get some "experience." We clear?

Here's the second piece of advice that accounting vet might give.

2.  Remember you are a free agent.

You are going to change jobs a lot.  That's just how the world is now.  So every position you take has to be part of a broader career strategy that you are creating. That career has to have a life that goes outside the limits of your cubicle, or desk, or whatever.

If you like to volunteer, then join some Boards so that people can see your skills in a wide variety of situations. If you like public speaking, then don't be afraid to do a small presentation or workshop about an issue in the arts that is important to you. If you like to write then get a blog and start sharing your views with the world. (And speaking of blogs, mine is over at Mission Paradox.) If you like to teach, then see if a local university will hire you as an adjunct professor.  And you don't need to be old, or even particularly experienced, to teach.  I taught my first college level class at 27.

My point is that the second responsibility you have as an emerging leader is to make yourself viable and relevant to the field.

Yes, having a job is important. Yes, working with an organization is important. But the arts is also a huge field with plenty of areas that you could develop an expertise in. Manage your career.  Get your mentors.  Don't let the fact that you are working "for the arts" allow you to forget how important those things are.

6 responses for There's No Difference


October 22, 2009 at 9:20 pm

"Greeting Emerging Leaders and the women (and men) that love them."

Unless I'm missing some integral premise of this conversational thread you're commenting on, your parenthetical inclusion of men in your opening salvo betrays an assumption that "Emerging Leaders" are straight males.

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Maggie Barrett says
October 22, 2009 at 10:36 am

Thanks for this post, Adam -- really inspiring and helpful.

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October 22, 2009 at 9:02 am

I agree with both Rachel's, every organization can teach you something . . . even if it's just what NOT to do. But that can be a very costly lesson in terms of time and energy devoted to the situtation.

Put it this way, you could learn a lot at a struggling animation studio.

But I think you could learn a lot more at Pixar, and what you learn there would probably be far more useful to your career long term.

You absolutely should make the best out of any situation you are in. But (to Joe's point) there is enough research and info out there that you can use to make an informed and careful choice about who you work for.

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October 22, 2009 at 12:57 am

I'd like to add Rachel C's point. Sometimes you can find out after you've already taken a job that it's a "subpar" place, but that doesn't have to doom your career. Before I took on my current position, I was in an office that was extremely poorly managed. Within a year of me leaving that company, more than half of my former colleagues had left as well. I used my (thankfully limited) time there to learn a) what not to do as a manager and b) many of the event planning skills that I use with my orchestra today. It can be quite challenging to find the lessons in a bad situation, but there is usually *something* you can learn until you are able to leave or turn the situation around.

I really like this post. As passionate as we are about the arts as a field (or a particular art form), we still need to be discerning about which individual organizations we work for. Thank you for the reminder that there is a distinction.

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Ms. Rachel A. Ciprotti says
October 21, 2009 at 9:35 pm

I agree with many of your points. I would just like to say that sometimes working at "subpar" places can be a rewarding experience. You could see it as an opportunity to help turn things around. Of course, this is assuming your position has enough influence to make a difference.

I think the notion of paying close attention to who your supervisor will be is crucial, especially early in your career. But even a sinking ship can have a great, well-respected captain - who may be able to find you a position on the next Ocean Liner in gratitude for your valiant efforts to help keep her ship afloat.

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Joe says
October 21, 2009 at 8:23 pm

I second most of Adam's advice here. In the days of yore when I was starting out, the internet wasn't available to do research on organizations. There were plenty of places I turned up my nose at applying to because I had never heard of them.

Come to find out, a lot of those places were highly regarded, well run places at which I would have likely thrived and learned a great deal as I was starting out my career. I was just thinking last night about a colleague who has benefited from working under at least one person who proved to be a great role model for her.

It benefits you to do some research and keep your eyes and ears open for good opportunities.

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