Into The Arts And Out of ‘The Real World’

Last week Vu Le made a Twitter post alluding to the fact a lot of corporate leaders will shift to leading non-profits, but you basically never hear of a non-profit leader making a career transition to lead a corporation.

That made me think of a story Howard Sherman had linked to, (apparently back in October, it didn’t seem that long ago), reporting that cultural organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area were courting people who didn’t have previous experience in the industry due to the high level of turn over.

There is quite a bit more nuance to the story than you might expect, especially given the context I created with Vu Le’s post (which remains a valid point, regardless.)

The piece opens mentioning an art administrator who asked for a higher salary upon applying for an arts job and was given it.

A bit later, it mentions that revamping job descriptions and interview questions to include diversity, equity and inclusion was helping to draw people to museum work.

“If you look at our job descriptions, they look like manifestos,” said Lori Fogarty, director and CEO of the Oakland Museum of California.

Each museum applicant who makes it to the interview round gets two documents describing the institution’s work on anti-racism and equity, and that’s not just informational.

“We ask questions about how values of anti-racism and equity actually show up in your work and how you would apply these values to your position,” Fogarty said. “What we’re finding is this is a big reason people are applying to the museum.”

Similarly, revamping job descriptions to remove degree requirements that are not necessary to perform the work and allowing the flexibility to work from home are cited as changes that are making culture jobs more attractive to applicants.

However, there was one part of the article that grabbed my attention (my emphasis):

Even with the arts’ lower salaries compared with many other hours-heavy industries, such as tech, employers say they’re still finding applicants, some of whom are transferring from one position to another within the field or coming from another industry entirely.

“Applicants are easier to find than before COVID,” said the Ballet’s St. Germain-Gordon. “I’ve interviewed people trying to get into the arts out of ‘the real world’ mostly.”


At the same time, the social justice movement has led some veterans of the arts — a field known for its long hours and low pay — to rethink their life priorities in other directions. Some have decided to leave the field altogether.

Michelle Lynch Reynolds, for example, left her role as executive director of Joe Goode Performance Group in September and does not plan to get another job in the arts. She says the problem wasn’t with her company but with the industry.

“My career felt emotionally tied to my identity as a creative individual,” she said. “That is personal, but it’s also systemic. There’s an entire culture built on the idea of, ‘This is what you’re living for.’ ”

Part of me was wondering if this was a “grass is greener” in the easy non-profit world and the folks moving into the field are in for a rude awakening or if the arts and culture world has performed a sufficient degree of self-reflection and will provide a better work environment for experienced new hires and new entrants to the field.

Around next October I would be interested to hear how things have been going, whether in SF or other parts of the country where a similar shift is playing out. Near the beginning of the article the authors mentioned that the inclusion of people from outside the arts and culture world might introduce some productive change. If new entrants are coming in at the early- to mid-career level positions, the ultimate outcomes may differ from when someone moves from the corporate to non-profit world at the executive level.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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