Why Continue a Career in the Arts? (Part 2)

Posted by Jessica Wilt, Sep 26, 2011 15 comments

In part 1 of my blog post, I started to talk about how the economy is affecting arts administrators. Specifically, how the financial and jobs crisis is weighing heavier on midcareer level individuals. Now, what we can do about it?

Here are three things I see happening today, mainly due to the economy:

#1 - Unpaid internships have now replaced what used to be the entry level job. Anyone can be an intern, no matter what age, and companies get by with more unpaid labor. Ultimately this helps with their bottom line, but in turn is destroying the pay scale. What used to be respectable manager/director pay is often times now entry level salary.

CBS Sunday Morning recently did a great story highlighting the new trend employers are quickly taking advantage of. Just get an intern! They can fix and solve all your problems…for FREE! I’ve watched job posting sites like NYFA.org and Idealist.org shift from a plethora of full-time job listings to include more internship posts.

#2 - Due to budget cuts and downsizing, full-time jobs are being given part-time titles with no benefits. Or, full-time employees are asked to take on even more responsibility with less staff, give up percentages of their pay, watch benefits disappear, and participate in work furloughs.

#3 - Those at the top who would normally be nearing retirement are holding onto their jobs for dear life, which in turn, hinders midcareer level folks like me any chance for “moving up the ladder.” Not that I blame them for staying, it’s just become the new reality. (And honestly, a few really do need to retire).

What do I see are the options?

1.    While we make do with our current situation, we can go through extensive and time-consuming job searches that take months, or in some cases years. This is what happened to me. Stressful and beyond frustrating, yes. But the pay off for practicing patience has been rewarding.

2.    We can accept positions that require us to uproot and relocate, or worse, move back home with Mom and Dad. Once I was open to look outside of New York, ironically more job options both out of state and locally came my way. It’s all about the energy you put out into the world.

3.    We can change fields completely or go back to school as John Abodeely talks about in his recent post on ARTSblog. I asked myself, do I really need a MBA or PhD?  And then, do I simply want to escape reality for a few years and dig myself into a deeper hole with mounds of student loan debt waiting for me later? No, not really.

4.    Whine and complain - The easy and less productive option. Yes, I am guilty. A big thank you goes out to the colleagues, family, and friends who have supported me with your patience through difficult times.

5.    Or, what I ultimately would recommend and finally chose to do: be the change you seek.

After working in an environment surrounded by financial uncertainty, chaos, and borderline employer abuse, I resigned from a job where I truly loved the work. In my last post, I mention the four core needs that Ted Schwartz speaks of – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual (I would add a fifth: financial). When all of these needs were balancing out to a big fat zero in my life, I recognized, despite my emotional ties to the work that it was time to go.

Now, I’m not in any way suggesting you quit your job! However, I will say that sometimes the only way you can get the “powers that be” to listen is when you hold the power by speaking up for yourself and present realistic solutions to your concerns. If a compromise cannot be made, at least you can say you tried.

I’m happy to report that after another extensive search, I’ve accepted a position that puts me back in the arts education field. The job’s salary, still below where it should be, is far better than before. Benefits such as transportation reimbursement, central and accessible office location, and paid professional development related to my position’s responsibilities also made the decision more enticing.

Most of all, I feel appreciated and respected for the experience I’m bringing to the organization and see room for personal growth as an arts administrator. How cool is that?

For better or worse, the past few years have forced me to reevaluate my profession not once, but twice. Constantly I’m second-guessing whether I’m doing the right thing by digging in my heels and putting up with the craziness for the sake of being an artist.

But then again, if I chose a life working in the government or corporate sector, and instead lived my passion for the arts through volunteer service, would things be any different? I’m not so sure.

So, “Why continue a career in the arts?”

People may say I care a little too much about work, but I often put up with the nonsense because I know my involvement in the arts education field changes children’s lives for the better. And for that, I can’t imagine living my life any other way.

15 responses for Why Continue a Career in the Arts? (Part 2)


Kirsten Darrington says
September 26, 2011 at 6:54 pm

You are so right. I'm at the beginning of my career and already faced many of those options because of the recession. We just constantly have to keep asking ourselves "why am I in the arts?" As long as we have an answer to that question we're in the right place.

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September 26, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Thanks Jessica again for spotlighting this issue. It is clear to me that the passionate few of us will come out of this with one thing in tact, our clear understanding of our selves and awareness of gifts and talents to society. If I am this persistent and stubborn to stay in the Arts, I know I have chosen the right career path.

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Sandy Fortier says
September 26, 2011 at 2:27 pm

I just decided to leave an arts job for all the reasons you listed. I don't have much lined up, but know there must be some other arts job out there with more benefits and balance. I know it's tough, but like you, I care a lot about the arts and want to stay in the sector. I owe it to myself, however, to go out and find the RIGHT arts job for me. It's scary to do right now with the economy being so rough, but I am feeling good about making things happen. It's much more exciting than complaining and staying at a job just because it's a job in my field.

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September 27, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Deciding to leave a job without something to jump right into is scary, so congratulations for recognizing that taking care of YOU comes first! Practicing patience during this process I found to be the hardest part. Be sure to surround yourself with those who are supportive and encouraging.

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October 12, 2011 at 9:49 am

Perhaps escape may not have been the best word choice. I've been longing for an experience as you have described here, so it was not my intent to use "escape" in a bad way, but rather as an opportunity to leave the work sector for a short while to learn and grow in other ways. You are right, there are ways of going back to school without paying tuition if you have the patience and the time to do the research. That's how I earned my MFA and would do the same for any other degree. I only wish there were more opportunities for people who have the experience and college degrees in the arts to find both job satisfaction and a respectable living wage in the work place. Your story demonstrates it is possible. Thank you for posting.

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September 27, 2011 at 12:09 pm

After having ready Part 1 I was excited and optimistic about the possibility of new innovative solutions to the problems that we seem to be facing every day. I am at the very end of finishing my MA in arts management and, so, am experiencing the very worst of the art economy. The inability to even procure a single position let alone one that pays below the cost of living (which is a whole different argument). I have been an intern within organizations that I absolutely love, hoping to transition to a full time job, but there just isn't any money right now. I was hoping for new ideas that organizations could implement that would begin to push these jobs and opportunities back to the top. I'm not sure that I'm getting that in Part 2. All of these points, while true, are not particularly new ideas. I have and am in the midst of carrying out Steps 1-5, along with a majority of my cohorts. What I think would be really interesting and very much needed is to develop new practices within arts organizations. You had mentioned in Part 1 "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..." but I'm not seeing that concept really applied to your solutions (which are mostly focused on an individuals options within this currently broken system). When it comes down to it there is only so much an individual can do before the organizations need to begin rethinking their internal culture.

#1 While internships are wonderful ways of gaining experience, they are also not the answer to a loss of full-time staff. How do we change this mind-set within the organization itself?

#2 It is, in my opinion, unacceptable to eliminate positions, and push the workload onto an employee remaining in the organization without compensating them for their work... how do we remedy this situation? You brought up this point above but didn't provide a solution to the problem.

#3 this of course is, a constant issue within arts organizations. Employees who have been in their positions for decades with no sign of moving on, drive the org into a sort of stalemate, making it very hard for the organization to grow and remain contemporary and relevant. It also makes it that much more difficult for those of us who are trying to jump-start our careers to even begin.

I don't have all the answers. Changing the culture of an organization takes time and is a hard thing to do, but what we need are new solutions, and open conversations (and maybe this is what this post will produce). What I'm looking for, as someone just starting their career in the arts, is for new practices within arts organizations that provide the physical, emotional, mental, and financial obligations expected of any employer whether in the corporate, non-profit, or governmental sphere.

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September 27, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Thanks so much for commenting! I guess my intent writing this blog was to initiate the conversation so that more tangible solutions would follow. I greatly appreciate your honesty and your constructive feedback.

Although not impossible, I have found through personal experience that expecting the culture and or structure of an established organization to change is less likely when 1). the leaders themselves do not want to change or 2). there is no clear vision for the organization’s future. This is the part, as a young professional, that I struggle with as often times my ideas and suggestions for improving something is seen as an immediate threat. How do we continue to push for productive and realistic change when our ideas are met with resistance from those who are decision makers?

Although the financial crisis is the direct cause for so many of our problems,(and I probably will upset some by saying this) I feel in a way, organizational leaders are using the economy as an excuse to continue to do more with less (like placing great burdens on already overwhelmed staff), while maintaining status quo with old ways of spending that are detrimental to everyone – well, almost everyone. That in itself is probably a great topic for another blog!

All employees young and old must take ownership, gather in numbers, and approach their leaders with realistic solutions to problems without being threatening. Otherwise business will continue on as usual and we’ll all quietly suffer. I would suggest everyone read, print out, post and forward Ted Schwartz’s blog to decision makers and board members as the first step in creating dialogue. Perhaps by shifting the focus from taking advantage of staff, and instead, offering practical solutions as Schwartz suggests, our moods will lighten and the work environment will adapt to the challenges the economy still throws our way in a less stressful way.

Here’s a condensed overview of Ted Schwartz’s 12 attributes. To read the entire blog go here: http://www.theenergyproject.com/blog/twelve-attributes-truly-great-work-...

1. Commit to paying every employee a living wage.
2. Give all employees a stake in the company’s success…
3. Design working environments that are safe, comfortable and appealing to work in.
4. Providing healthy, high quality food, at the lowest possible prices, including in vending machines
5. Create places for employees to rest and renew during the course of the working day…
6. Offer a well equipped gym and other facilities that encourage employees to move physically and stay fit.
7. Define clear and specific expectations for what success looks like in any given job.
8. Institute two-way performance reviews…
9. Hold leaders and managers accountable for treating employees with respect and care, all the time…
10. Create policies that encourage employees to set aside time to focus without interruption on their most important priorities…
11. Provide employees with ongoing opportunities and incentives to learn, develop, and grow…
12. Stand for something beyond simply increasing profits.

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marvella says
September 29, 2011 at 12:41 pm

In response to Brieahn's point #3: Employees who have been in their positions for decades with no sign of moving on, drive the org into a sort of stalemate, making it very hard for the organization to grow and remain contemporary and relevant.

As a mid-career individual, the number of high-level positions eliminated also scares me. Although I strongly agree with this point, the organization's leader is responsible for the organization's growth and willingness to open up to new ideas. Therefore, if that employee is not providing contributing and leading the organization in that direction, it is time for them to step away. But I also believe that sometimes these situations can be remedied, if the employees is open to, working with individuals who are more connected with the new trends and ideas- even if they do not have as much experience. Finding a progressive balance is key.
When looking at the health of an organization, directors must not only look at their financial stability and programs, but at the well-being of their employees. These are all necessary for the success of an organization.

There was a great article in the NY Times in April about how Universities feed into the world of overworked and unpaid internships. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/opinion/03perlin.html?pagewanted=all

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Thomas says
September 27, 2011 at 12:34 pm

I just wanted to thank you for this inspiring post. After graduating with a Masters in Arts Management, I took a position at an arts organization that I believed would be temporary. It has now been 2 years and as you said, an "environment surrounded by financial uncertainty, chaos, and borderline employer abuse" is an apt description.

I recently participated in an interview process that would have placed me in a city and arts organization that I love, unfortunately after one and a half months of hopeful interviews at this arts organization that is simply amazing, they decided to hire someone local. It has been truly heartbreaking, but this post has helped me to continue my job search while working at position that seemingly provides none of Schwartz's 5 core needs.

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September 27, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Thank you for sharing your story Thomas. The interview process is such a mind game because it sets you up for the idea of exciting possibilities and you start planning for the future (which is a big mistake as I've learned.) Then, when it doesn't work out you feel completely disappointed and taken for a ride. In the middle of an out of state job search this summer my current position literally fell into my lap. Please know the right job will come, probably when you least expect it, and view your current work situation as an opportunity to gain as much experience as you can.

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Thomas says
September 27, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Thanks for the words of encouragement. I'm hopeful that things will work out despite how bleak they may seem at the moment.

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September 28, 2011 at 2:22 pm

I quit the arts scene because there was no money for me to get there, maybe wasn't I good enough..

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September 30, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Thanks to the Center for Arts Education I was happy to find this really interesting article on Huffington Post, "Sorry:Art is a Business." http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-m-eger/the-business-of-art-and-a_b_98...

"Art leaders, educators and policymakers need to better understand that the status quo for arts education is missing a few things; specifically, the importance of business savvy and the increasing demand for arts trained executives."

I'll have to go back and take another look at the SNAAP report as I'm curious to know the demographics of the people used to compile their research for this study. And further, how can those of us working in this field step into the "arts trained executives" roles Professor Eger describes?

Homework: Read his book!

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September 30, 2011 at 1:19 pm
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Shawn says
October 07, 2011 at 12:48 pm

I opted to "escape reality for a few years" after losing a beloved job as an arts educator without warning. One minute I'm on my way to the Kennedy Center for the Partners in Education annual meeting and the next I was instead driving my packed suitcase to a local bar to figure out why I has been laid off. My "escape" into an Ed.D. program didn't dig me deeper into debt because I worked with the university to get an assistantship, adjunct teaching opportunities, and waivers on some course requirements. The "escape" provided time to heal from the deep hurt that I experienced in having my life truncated due to the arts organization's lack of vision and leadership. The "escape" trained me in how to regain a sense of positive leadership assets. During the "escape" I reflected and I learned. And now I have changed fields and am in higher education administration. Last week I participated in the SNAAP survey and found that only 4% of the surveyed arts majors ended up in doctoral programs in 2010. Doctoral programs aren't an "escape." Instead, they're an effective environment for imagining other possibilities and carrying out those alternative perspectives. More arts majors should try it out.

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