Why Continue a Career in the Arts? (Part 1)

Posted by Jessica Wilt, Sep 26, 2011 12 comments

With the national focus shifting from the financial crisis to job creation (and now, this week back to the financial crisis once more), I thought I would use my personal story as a midcareer arts administrator to help shed light on the impact the economy is having on jobs in this field.

I’m in my mid-thirties and keep asking the question, “How much longer does work have to consume my entire life before the level of financial security matches my professional accomplishments and experience?”

I’ve made great professional strides in the arts education field living in one of the most ruthless and expensive cities in the world. However, the cost and sacrifices, both financial and personal, have been significant over the past several years leaving very little to show for my efforts.

In his blog post The Twelve Attributes of a Truly Great Place to Work, CEO Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project, recently wrote:

“great employers must shift the focus from trying to get more out of people, to investing more in them by addressing their four core needs – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual – so they’re freed, fueled, and inspired to bring the best of themselves to work every day.” 

Amen Mr. Schwartz -- count me in! Now, where in the arts, education, and nonprofit industries can I actually find these attributes in action?

The recommendations posed in his twelve attributes list are very practical incentives many nonprofits, big or small, should seriously consider. It’s unfortunate that most do not, simply because, “Sorry, we can’t. There’s no money.” is an easier answer.

And since we’re on the topic of money, let me address the issue of living wage.

In 2008, I held a great director of education position, with respectable pay, that was eliminated due to a knee jerk reaction to the madness unfolding on Wall Street. For nearly eight months that followed I collected unemployment. Day after day I would beat myself up for not finding work all while being made to feel like a criminal for collecting from “the system” that’s meant to be there for you when you need it.

Eventually I would be faced with accepting an almost identical position that offered a salary at close to $20,000 less. In New York City I was officially living at poverty level. But beggars can’t be choosers right? It is after all a job!

My mindset at the time: this is temporary. While continuing to explore other employment options, I worked harder than ever before, building back my career and coming home to emptier pockets. Temporary became two more years with no greater opportunity for career advancement or financial relief.

Something is very wrong with this picture: work more for far less.

It seems less has become the new normal not just in our field, but across the country. A recent NPR report speaks directly to a similar experience the younger generation of workers is facing.

As quoted from the story, "These people will be scarred, and they will be called the `lost generation' in that their careers would not be the same way if we had avoided this economic disaster." For those in their 20s and 30s the statistics for having successful and productive futures is alarming...in the arts, I would say downright frightening.

Kathy Schrier, the Director of the Actors Work Program at the Actors Fund of America works daily with artists who are scrambling to find work while making ends meet. Schrier says, “In today’s market it is not unusual for those building a career in most fields to do so by enhancing their resume through volunteer work or internships; but professional artists are unique as they continue to work for no pay or small stipends during mid-career or advance career stages.”

Mid-career level arts administrators are experiencing similar discomforts.

We obtain multiple college degrees. (And by the way – I don’t believe colleges do a very good job preparing artists for real-life careers. Read college president Ron Jones’ blog post Understanding the Professions to Which Our Students Aspire). We also have established ourselves in the field professionally and currently provide a large portion of “the innovative work.”

Yet when it comes to job expectation and responsibility equaling pay, there seems to be a definite fundamental ethics gap in our field. Quite possibly even more troubling, the human aspect of how this trend affects us as people has deeper and potentially longer-lasting consequences.

In part 2, I’ll identify some of the “solutions” organizations and companies are enacting to keep up with the ever changing financial times.

I’ll also offer a few suggestions that might help those of us who are struggling to keep our heads above water feel more confident in making a change.

12 responses for Why Continue a Career in the Arts? (Part 1)


September 27, 2011 at 11:44 am

Thanks for speaking up for our educators Lorraine! I see on a regular basis here in NYC administrators and teachers overwhelmed with the bureaucracy of laws, testing mandates, IEP reporting, curriculum standards and budget cuts. The very art of teaching and preparing our children for successful and productive futures as adults is being lost because of the endless red tape. The national average of a 30% drop out rate is proof what we're doing at school with our kids isn't working so well. It is unfortunate that those who are responsible and have the power for making the decisions do not have a realistic day to day understanding of what our education system faces.

You mentioned the Bill Gates Foundation money hindering teachers ability to teach. I'll be curious to see what happens with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million commitment to Newark Public Schools in NJ. A recent report states a majority of the funds will support teachers, but we'll see.


As for your question about how we prepare young professionals, see my comment to Tiffany below.

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Sahar Javedani says
September 26, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Thank you Jessica for speaking up! As a NYC choreographer and full-time arts administrator (currently working for an organization that does NOT offer health care/transit benefits)if it wasn't for the support and comprehensive care of the Actor's Fund Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic http://www.actorsfund.org/services-and-programs/al-hirschfeld-free-healt... I wouldn't be receiving any medical care.

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September 26, 2011 at 2:45 pm

The Actors Fund has been an amazing support network of people and survival resources for me over the years (and for hundreds of other working artists too). I highly recommend visiting their website: www.actorsfund.org

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Tiffany says
September 26, 2011 at 8:35 pm

A story rarely told, but vigorously discussed among many! As a 20-something, the frustration usually sounds the tune of 'I finished college, interned many places (or not), need to pay my loans, now what'. No one in college said anything about competing with 30-somethings who had (astronomical) more experience than us, and of course, no one told the 30-somethings they'd be taking astronomical pay cuts and settling for entry level pay. The job crunch is taking its toll on many of us, on so many different levels that its hard to see the forest from the trees. It will be years before higher education shifts to accommodate the needs of a 21st century society. Our world needs a different kind of citizen, and our governments, our schools, our economy will take a while to move in order to meet those needs. I think the key will be innovation and creativity; we have to think like never before and blaze paths that don't exist yet. Easy right?

This talk sums up our need to rethink education: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html
This website represents the new take on success and motivation by our generation: http://onlyup.org/

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September 27, 2011 at 12:02 pm

The Ken Robinson TED talk is excellent! Thanks for posting the link and I believe Tim Mikulski with AFTA also reposted it in his blog today.

I always think back to my years in college and how cool we all thought we were. Knowing what I know today (by learning the hard way often) I think about so many choices ending badly that may have been prevented if someone had just pulled me aside and said, "hey, this is how interest on a credit card works." Or, "you know, this organization provides really great job search help and career networking," or, "you probably should seek some legal advice with this contract before signing your life way."

Guidance counselors offer advice on how to navigate the college catalogs that help you earn graduation credits, but who is guiding our young people to the realities of what they will face upon graduation?

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September 26, 2011 at 3:57 pm

High Five for making your voice heard! Speak up, people. The situation we are in, not only in the United States, but world-wide, didn't happen overnight. Every problem has a solution. I am witness to my daughter's dilemma - she is an elementary school teacher in Hillsborough County in Tampa, FL. Teachers have become the favored whipping posts for politicians. A million dollar grant from the Bill Gates Foundation has made the lives of teachers a total hell - all in the name of 'money'. Very sad. Many good teachers are so demotivated. They love teaching but what is happening in the schools isn't about teaching.
Our young professionals are stepping out into a frenzied world. How can we help? What and where are the answers?

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September 26, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Thanks Johnnie. I've been having this conversation privately with colleagues for quite awhile and was encouraged to speak out. Although it does at times feel depressing, my hope is to bring attention to the matter so that in greater numbers our voices can be heard.

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Sandy Fortier says
September 26, 2011 at 1:41 pm

This is certainly hitting close to home. Thanks for writing about it. Looking forward to Part 2.

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September 26, 2011 at 11:04 am

As a member of this "lost generation" as an art history graduate in the class of 2009, I greatly appreciate your commentary on this bleak situation and anticipate Part 2.

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marvella says
September 27, 2011 at 7:15 pm

I just want to thank you for today's post. I am a graduate student (in my last year) working on an M.A. in Arts Administration. Job (I mean career) opportunities are rare and the competition has increased with so many people in the same situation, as I, that are unemployed.

There was a previous post by John Abodeely about this same topic, but emphasizing on the issue that the economic climate is not our fault. The jobs are there. I have applied and have not been hired- yet. An individual that was very qualified filled the last job I applied for and I learned that she has two masters! How many degrees must one have now?!

I have been volunteering and completed an internship and give it my all because I care about the organization. Yet, I cannot deny that I have some hope there may be some funds to hire me- part-time?

Yes, it is discouraging and the art organization employers' attitude needs to change in their perception about the monetary worth (for lack of better words) of their employees.

Well, I think this turned into a venting letter, but I also want to thank you again for your insights, which are relatable to many.

Looking forward to reading part 2!

Marvella Muro

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September 30, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Marvella - Although it may not seem very encouraging, I would suggest you keep interning and volunteering with organizations that you enjoy working for, and that do not take advantage of you. It's also a good idea to get involved with networking groups (in person and online) so that you meet as many people who are working in the field as possible. Like you said, so many are applying for what few jobs are available. These days it's all about who you know and how to get your resume noticed at the top of the pile. Good luck and don't give up!

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