The Brunch Conversation (or 2030 Vision in Arts Leadership)
This post began as a series of thoughts on the future of human resources in the arts, and opened up into a personal conversation gone global.
Also, it involves something I am deeply passionate about: brunch.
Once a year, my friend and I—let's call her Kay—get together for brunch. It's important for us to check in with one another, to swap ideas about careers, arts management dilemmas, and our Netflix queues.
Kay and I have been friends for twelve years; we've both just turned thirty, we both hold MAs in Arts Management, and we both work in jobs we love, for arts organizations on opposite coasts.
Kay took a big bite out of her bagel and lox and said to me, "I'm leaving the industry."
I blinked three times, as she took a deep breath and told me that, while she loved working in arts marketing, and while it was a fulfilling and affirming line of work, she had desires in life that she and her husband couldn’t reconcile against the current job offerings and future of the industry. I leaned back in my chair, which is the universal sign between the two of us for “game on.”
What happened next was a long debate about what we have in our lives and what we want, and our accomplishments and what’s going to happen next.
She cited domestic and foreign statistics via Neil Gaiman, I threw back an inspiring reflection or two that sparked conversations between us in the past. I reminded her that we love this, that we’re both good at this, and that the reasons we stay are interspersed amidst stories that can’t happen anywhere else.
We’ve both worked exclusively in the not-for-profit arts sector since we were 18; in my various jobs, I’ve found myself feeding peacocks, serving as a temporary guard to a second casting of Felix de Weldon’s Marine Corps War Memorial, debating the finer points of grammar with Edward Albee over a program note, and finding a spare piece of restroom decoration as a show memento for BD Wong (don’t ask).
The point is, in addition to the particular touchstones and passionate reasons for our both being arts participants and advocates, we’d attracted a whole host of unique, weird, beautiful stories by being in this business for the entirety of our adult lives.
We’ve made solid careers in this industry, and will grow into leadership positions of repute if we continue to advance. We’re doing good work, making change possible where and when we can, and that the potential for real growth and change in the American arts landscape does indeed lie ahead.
And Kay, in response, cited evidence and analysis that resources may in fact continue to truncate, into a future where the mid-range arts organization will not exist. She had accepted a position in which her communications and marketing skills would be used towards pharmaceuticals.
She wanted a retirement plan, and a developed human resources policy and protections, and health benefits conducive to starting a family—none of which she could find in her current position, despite its immense level of personal satisfaction and provision of meaningful work.
“I want kids,” she said, throughout the conversation, as a defense against my gobsmacked look of disbelief. I didn’t, and still don’t, buy that as an exclusive to leave the industry, as dozens of fantastic professionals across facets of arts management and administration are able to have families. Of course there are ways to make it work, but what Kay’s sentiment boiled down to was the big questions:
“What can be done to this field to continue and attract the best candidates, in order to keep them from leaving, nurture them into appropriate leadership positions, and leverage their skills to actively grow arts participation and interaction in this country, instead of simply managing a decrease in resources?
How do we keep the best and brightest of us in this field? What is 2030 going to look like if we don’t?”
We paid our check and left the restaurant. And I still haven’t generated an answer I’m satisfied with, as yet.
So I turn the debate over to you, dear reader: what keeps us here? What keeps you in the field, in particular? What is going to need to change or remain in order to retain us in the future? How do we get there?
I look forward to these answers, and I look forward to sharing them with Kay, over our next brunch, in an effort to lure her back. The floor is yours, colleagues.