So, What Do You Do?
“Fill a space in a beautiful way.” ~ Georgia O’Keeffe.
I’ve always loved this quote and this artist. I’ve always admired her use of gorgeous colors and these powerful words. I am the proud Associate Director of Education at Ruth Eckerd Hall’s Marcia P. Hoffman Performing Arts Institute. [cue reflective music here]
In 1968, the Garden State Arts Center (now the PNC Bank Arts Center) opened in Holmdel, NJ—a beautiful venue consistently ranked in the top five amphitheaters in the country and top two outdoor arenas within the New York Metropolitan area and, more importantly, a place that will forever be magical in my memory.
Judy Garland performed here weeks after it opened. Symphonies and ballet companies from around the world have graced its stage and portions of Jackson Browne's landmark 1977 live album, Running on Empty, were recorded here. Trust me, it is a special place.
I was blessed with parents who took my brother, sister and I here often and I always left thinking how amazing it must be to work there. And now, several years later (you do the math—my date and artist references have given me away, I’m afraid) I have the privilege of working at a performing arts center—in the education department, no less. It is a gift.
I learned early on in my career that I needed more than a job, I needed to feel that I was making a difference and was fortunate to have been led to the nonprofit sector. I served for several years as a director for a worldwide, fundraising organization and following that worked with my local school system developing volunteer initiatives and community relations programs. My background, essentially, is in the “traditional” nonprofit field—volunteer management, fundraising, public relations.
My heart was always in the arts, however, and when the opportunity came to combine all of my education, experience and personal passions—I leaped. Not without warning, though.
Colleagues who truly knew me were not on board with my decision at all. I can still hear their comments and caveats in my head daily.
“You can’t be serious. Working with ‘artsy people’ will drive you nuts. You are logical, calm, level-headed, organized and will NEVER fit in. Do you really want to deal with those kind of high-maintenance personalities every day?! If you work in the arts, you’ll never enjoy the arts again. And my personal favorite—You have a degree in sociology? That’ll be perfect.”
I was told repeatedly that while I was actually ideal for this job—no one who cared about me could, in good conscience, recommend accepting. It still makes me laugh—more nervously on some days than others, but laugh nonetheless.
So here I am four years later. I currently manage a full-time administrative staff of fifteen, with a part-time adjunct staff of arts instructors in the double-digits. I am responsible for the operations, marketing, and presenting divisions of a performing arts school that happens to be located within a performing arts center.
Each day presents new obstacles, both inside and outside of our walls. There are the “standard” challenges of the nonprofit world, combined with the world of the arts.
Is it difficult? You bet. Is it heartbreaking? Painfully so. Is it a constant struggle for resources of which there are never enough? Absolutely. Are there high-maintenance personalities involved? No comment. But here’s also what it is—it is never boring. It is never bland or void of gorgeous colors. It is fun and glorious and joyful when it goes well.
And hopefully, along the way, it is making a difference.
In just one week last month, my staff and I welcomed 200+ students into a free school-time performance, coordinated a master class pairing award-winning technicians with fifty local “tech kids” hungry to learn their trade, prepared to award several performing arts scholarships in an upcoming ceremony, and went about our usual daily business of offering voice, drama, dance and instrumental music lessons and classes to students of all ages and abilities.
All of this happening in conjunction with the performances on our main stage (this week a variety of rock concerts, plays and opera lectures). I was right—it is amazing.
Those of us who work in arts administration and education know how difficult it can be to explain our jobs and what we do. It isn’t exactly tangible. You feel it more than you see it.
The results are not always obvious or as immediate as they are in traditional nonprofit efforts. In the world of fundraising, where I started, things are pretty clear—you either raise the amounts needed or you don’t. When you do, you can see the impact. People in distress are fed, fostered, nurtured, and given the means to survive. And that is work to be proud of.
In the arts world, souls and spirits are fed. Talents are fostered. Dreams are nurtured and given the means to survive, to take flight and to “fill space in a beautiful way.”
So there’s my answer. I help to fill the space of this world in a beautiful way. I work to provide continued access to the arts. That’s what I do and I recommend it highly. Thanks, Mom and Dad. And thanks, Georgia.