Leading through Listening
Last week I met with local arts advocate Julie Madden to discuss some of her career experiences in the arts. I was lucky to have met her just a few weeks prior at Arts Advocacy Day in Washington, DC. It just took one exchange to realize that we not only represent the same congressional district, but we actually live down the street from one another! I was so happy to meet with her and to hear the wealth of stories and advice to share. Since 1998, Julie has served with Maryland State Citizens for the Arts and in 2002 became a board member of the Maryland State Arts Council. Additionally, she has served on The Baltimore Museum of Art's Accessions Committee for Decorative Arts and as Maryland's Director of Arts and Community Outreach.
I wanted to find out if she had any advice to emerging leaders from her own personal experiences. Soon our conversation transitioned as we talked about some great opportunities for local emerging leaders, our mutual love of travel, and the vibrant arts culture around Maryland. She also advised that great leaders need to stay perseverant, make real connections with their peers, imbue their career choices with passion, and show up on time.
Hearing her advice and stories about leadership were very significant to me. I say this especially because before starting my internship at Americans for the Arts, I’m not sure I ever considered myself to be a leader per se. I’ve had important responsibilities in group projects and in extracurricular activities as a student, but I’ve never been a “real” leader.
But what is a “real” leader, anyway? I could tease through the meanings of the word, but a lot of these definitions are kind of black and white. They don’t leave much room to imagine new possibilities.
I think there are many ways to be a leader, and they don’t always follow tradition. I’ve realized that one wonderful and very important way to lead is through telling your story and listening to the stories of others. This idea first crossed my mind at Arts Advocacy Day.
If you’re not familiar with the event, Arts Advocacy Day is held each year in Washington, DC. Attendees from all over the country (and even the world! Shout out to the arts administration students I met from China - 你們好!) meet to exchange ideas with one another about ways to advocate for the arts and ultimately affect positive change. We took part in informational sessions and workshops, heard powerful lectures, and enjoyed music and poetry performances. This culminated in a visit to Capitol Hill to speak with our congressmen and women and encourage their support for arts education, arts funding, and more.
Each individual and organization attended Arts Advocacy Day for a variety of reasons, but we were all brought together with a common goal: to push for all the arts for all the people.
As I sat among students and professionals alike, I was moved to hear their stories of how the arts had a positive impact in their lives. And, not only that, but I also had the chance to share why the arts have had such an important role in my own life. It was definitely encouraging to know that I was contributing to a larger conversation.
Something quickly struck me: at Arts Advocacy Day, everyone had the opportunity to be a leader in some way. It didn’t matter how much experience you had or what you had already achieved–if you had a story and a means of communicating it, then it was worth hearing and exploring.
Throughout the day, I heard one piece of advice frequently: if you can’t remember the facts or figures about the arts, at least talk about your personal experience. People are moved by stories because they offer points of connection and relation. I think this is one reason many of us love the arts, after all–they help us find our voice, help us to communicate what it means and feels to be human. They also allow us to express what it means to be ourselves.
Sometimes the jumping off point of telling a story is scary, and sometimes you don’t know where the plot will end. A takeaway from my conversation with Julie is pertinent here; to be sure, many of the issues arts administrators and emerging leaders will face in the future are ones that have been pervasive in the field for years. The question is, how do we address those issues? Sometimes a thoughtful conversation, exchange of ideas, or personal story is an empowering place to begin.
This blog is part of the 2016 Emerging Arts Leader Blog Salon. We asked over a dozen emerging leaders to reflect and respond to this year’s Arts Leadership Preconference theme: “Impact Without Burnout: Resilient Arts Leadership from the Inside Out”.