Getting “A Real Job” Thanks To Your Arts Job

Last month the LA Stage Times had a two part series on work and the arts. One was on jobs at alternative theatres, but the one that piqued my interest was about the benefits former arts managers felt their arts experiences brought to their for profit finance jobs.

As much as I am sad to hear that people can’t support themselves in arts related jobs, I am always interested in information that makes a case for the value of the arts. Whole entries can be devoted to the brain and talent drain the arts sector suffers due to inability to pay a living wage, but I won’t delve into that here since the two profiled who left for the for profit sector are still very invested in the organizations they left.

One gentleman stepped down from his position, though he stayed on the organization’s board, to pursue an MBA and eventually work for Citibank. He felt his experience helped him develop interpersonal skills that enhance his value to the bank. Returning to work in the arts using the skills he learned in banking is always at the corner of his mind.

“But Tarlow observes how his managing director experiences at Celebration still feed into his current job. “Because it’s not only numbers now,” he says. “It’s about meeting with people and doing things more like I did at the theater. Building relationships…I have to work with people in the same way.”
“[Celebration] was a lot of work, but the rewards I got from it were a great gift,” reflects Tarlow. “When you get to do that kind of theater, you really make what you want out of it. It was a gift for me.” And it’s possible that this “gift” could eventually return him to theater — but in a better-paying job. “I have thought about becoming the finance director of a large arts organization someday. The skills I’m learning at the bank are definitely preparing me for a role like this.”

The second person profiled is also still very much involved with the theatre group he started out with and uses his day job as an auditor to inform the advice he gives to his arts organization and vice versa. Talking to arts people with no background in accounting and finance about those concerns helps him become a better all around communicator on the subject.

“His position takes him to a wide range of companies, both non-profit and for-profit, in all parts of LA. “I’ve worked on audits for much larger arts organizations with ‘real’ budgets,” he says. “Then I look at the smaller Rogue budgets and see where we have opportunities for…growth,” he adds.

Seeing differences between for-profit and non-profit models on a regular basis puts Maes in a constant state of noting challenges for the Rogues, and most small theaters, particularly in terms of keeping theater staff and managers focused on fundraising.


With his added CPA training and work experience, Maes imposes a tougher financial regimen on the Rogues than he did in the beginning. He is particularly geared toward thinking in terms of risk management, a quality he recommends for all small theaters, where even the smallest mishap — such as a show’s underperforming box office or an unforeseen loss of assets — can wipe out a company’s already anemic bank account.


Maes wants every theater company to remember that financial people engaging in a small non-profit are most likely not there because of the numbers. Personal meetings and being involved with creative people is what makes the arts rewarding for everyone, not just the artists….

…It’s also helpful being a good communicator and coming from a communication-driven art form. Being able to explain accounting to artists helps me even if I have to talk to someone with an accounting background.”

The third person profiled has worked in the arts sector for a number of years but is now wondering if she should parlay that experience in marketing, development and producing into a job in the for profit sector or continue working for non-profits. She has the confidence that the skills she brings from her non-profit experience can land her a job in a pro-profit studio or marketing firm and finds herself caught in the classic “passion or pocketbook” internal debate.

Care And Feeding of Development Directors

Hat tip to Rosetta Thurman for linking to a valuable article about the care and feeding of Development Directors on the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Carol Weisman wrote “5 Ways to Lose Your Development Director in 2 Years or Less,” decrying the poor treatment and lack of support development staff receives.

An excerpt of her list:

1. Pay a ridiculous salary. A friend recently pointed out an ad on Craigslist for a development director. The position requires an MBA and five years’ experience or a Certified Fund Raising Certificate. There is a list of 15 responsibilities, including manage all aspects of individual giving, manage Web site, lead $3-million capital campaign, design and write the newsletter, recruit and manage volunteers, represent the agency at community events, and the list goes on. Salary: $40,000. I mean, really.

2. Reward great performance with unrealistic expectations. A friend of mine works at a university. The department she works in raised $350,000 in 2011. She raised $1.2-million in fiscal 2012. The goal she was given for fiscal 2013, $2.5-million. The additional staff support, financial support for meetings and training: zero. After a highly successful year, she is reading the want ads.

3. Provide absolutely no board support.

4. Don’t provide funds or the time for developing additional streams of revenue.

5. Avoid recognizing the work of your development professional.

Weisman expounds upon points 3-5 in the article. I didn’t want to get into reproducing the whole thing here.

As you might imagine, this is a sore subject with fund raisers. There were many comments on the article. One of the first, by a person using the sobriquet “helpfor501c3s,” related the following:

“When I have interviewed for Director of Development positions, I do my homework and read the organizations’ 990s prior to the meetings, anticipating the question about salary expectations. I have found that seeing the previous years’ compensation paid to CEOs and VPs is a helpful guide to preparing for a realistic response. Quite often when a CEO asks me for salary requirements, I am met with a response “That’s almost what I make!”

CEOs and Executive Directors have to get over the notion that they are the only employees that should make a high salary. When the Director of Development is the one responsible to raise the support to pay the CEO, a bit more consideration should be given to amply compensating an experienced and skilled Director of Development.”

I quote “helpfor501c3s” first to advocate for using 990 filings as a pre-interview preparation tool or for pre-application research if you are uncertain if an organization can meet your salary needs. I also cite “helpfor501c3s” for making the point that the development office is frequently responsible for raising the funds that pay the CEO and should therefore be highly valued by those in the C suites.

More than just a pleas to be nicer to Development Directors, both the article and the commenters talk about the importance of including fundraising in board training and education. There was a sense of letting the development office help the board get better at helping them rather than a declaration of “give, get, or go.”

As I read the article there seemed to be this feeling that development offices were expected to go out and raise money without depending on anyone else in the organization. Almost as if the marketing and promotions people were expected to gather information about a play or musical piece and all the artists without asking the artistic staff.

If you don’t think that is an apt comparison of the conditions in development offices, read some of the examples given in the article and the comments. It will probably be difficult to avoid seeing at least some similarities to your organization.

Every department in an arts organization suffers some injustices that need to be corrected, that is no surprise. You may not think about what they might be in relation to your development people that often.

Gatekeeper Processes

The annual program review is a process we go through at the college both to provide evidence for our accreditation and to measure the general effectiveness of the programs in order meet organizational goals. This process helps the school identify “gatekeeper courses.”

Some colleges and universities use gatekeeper courses to weed students out of certain degree programs by making it very difficult to pass.

For our purposes, the designation is used to indicate courses possessing some characteristic which makes it very difficult for students to acquire basic skills. Make no mistake, the professors will bridle at any suggestion that the standards be lowered in any manner.

Often the solution lies in things like re-ordering the sequence in which concepts are introduced so that the class builds knowledge toward a complex concept in a different manner or perhaps providing hands on demonstration of the complex concept. There are many strategies one can use.

In the arts we talk about very much the same thing when we speak of removing barriers to entry for audiences. We look for alternative ways to communicate, allow people to purchase tickets, find parking, etc–anything that facilitates the decision to attend and makes the experience of doing so more pleasant.

There are many aspects of the process an arts organization can’t and won’t compromise, but there are alternatives the organization can pursue or implement. For example, people may have to pay for parking, but the performing arts center can arrange to paint a distinctive logo on the columns of the municipal parking garage as a signal to patrons the best side of the building to park reach the lobby.

During our preparations for the accreditation site visit, I realized there are many aspects of an organization’s operation that can constitute a “gatekeeper” preventing full participation of all the groups you hope to serve and even hamper the effectiveness of the organization itself.

The organization may pride itself on its accessibility to the public but there may be portions of the art class registration process which you see as helping you collect data for your grants which cause segments of the community you are eager to serve to opt out of participation.

You may view the procurement process you have instituted as central to your attempt to control spending but your staff may see it so onerous it constitutes a disincentive to suggest and develop new programs and as a result, your organization is viewed as staid and unresponsive to changing times.

I have talked many times about marketing being the responsibility of everyone in the organization and that everyone needs to feel like what they do is contributing to the success of the organization and its mission.

But I think it is very easy for departments not in direct contact with those identified as the prime constituency -performers, students, audience members, gift shop customers, etc to feel divorced from the mission.

Human resources may say “we hire the people that make our audiences happy” but sees their purpose as making sure no one exposes the organization to any sort of liability, causing employees to be perpetually anxious.

The business office may say “we help acquire the resources to create the stuff of which dreams are made…” but view their mandate as not allowing the idealistic artistic staff to spend too much money.

Just like with the gatekeeper courses, no one would advocate that staff not be fully trained about sexual harassment and limits of labor laws or that purchasing practices not be properly documented and monitored. However, it is worthwhile to evaluate what parts of your practice are impeding the pursuit of the mission.

Can the material in the employee training program be communicated and reinforced in a different manner than a video at orientation and dire lectures on sexual harassment scenarios? If people are having a hard time remembering purchasing subcodes, is there a better way to organize and list the codes? Or maybe the codes should be an intuitive alphanumeric sequence instead of an incomprehensible series of numbers?

Most importantly is how that department defines their relationship to the overall mission. A change in philosophy will lead to the type of changes I mention. I read an example of this, I think it was in Peter Drucker’s Managing the Nonprofit Organization, about two state social service offices. One got much higher satisfaction ratings than the other because it started from a place where it saw itself as helping people access services while the other saw its role as denying services people weren’t entitled to.

Even if the first office had a lower standard for awarding benefits to clients than the second, but I don’t think an organization has to necessarily compromise the rigor of its standards to engender a sense of satisfaction from others. My choice of the phrase “started from a place…” was intentional.

The context from which you start reframes the whole experience for both the employee and customer even if the final answer is “No.” It isn’t that everyone feels happier because the interaction started on a positive note. Rather, decisions were made long before that customer arrived that effected changes to the physical environment and procedures the office felt were necessary to meeting its perceived mission.

Visitors to both offices might have to fill out Form 46B, but the visitor to the former one might understand the necessity and feel generally optimistic about the outcome, while a visitor to the latter may perceive it as yet another test of their worthiness based on capricious standards.

I have strayed a little bit back toward customer service with this example. But I really want to advocate for looking inward at the company policies and procedures that might be acting as gatekeepers and making employees jobs difficult.

I think arts organizations are generally cognizant of the importance of providing good customer service, even if they aren’t doing it well. Internal evaluation doesn’t happen as frequently and admittedly the true source of problems can be difficult to identify. In the classroom, test scores give a pretty good indication that something is wrong.

It is harder to recognize that inefficient delays in the production department can be solved by providing staff with a company credit card with daily spending limits–a move that empowers the technical staff to acquire minor resources so they can continue working while assuaging the business office’s fears of uncontrollable cost overruns.

Passion About Your Work Is Hard Work

Apropos of my post a few weeks back about people thinking creativity as a lightning strike gift rather than a process of work over time is a piece on Harvard Business Review blog site in which the author, Cal Newport, makes a similar observation about the idea one should follow their passion when looking for a job.

Newport notes that following ones passion has become common career advice and includes a Google N-Gram charting the explosive rise of the phrase in print use during the 2000s.

“Why is this a problem? This simple phrase, “follow your passion,” turns out to be surprisingly pernicious…The verb “follow” implies that you start by identifying a passion and then match this preexisting calling to a job. Because the passion precedes the job, it stands to reason that you should love your work from the very first day.

It’s this final implication that causes damage. When I studied people who love what they do for a living, I found that in most cases their passion developed slowly, often over unexpected and complicated paths. It’s rare, for example, to find someone who loves their career before they’ve become very good at it — expertise generates many different engaging traits, such as respect, impact, autonomy — and the process of becoming good can be frustrating and take years.

The early stages of a fantastic career might not feel fantastic at all, a reality that clashes with the fantasy world implied by the advice to “follow your passion” — an alternate universe where there’s a perfect job waiting for you, one that you’ll love right away once you discover it. It shouldn’t be surprising that members of Generation Y demand a lot from their working life right away and are frequently disappointed about what they experience instead.”

The arts career path has long had a “paying your dues” period of near slavery labor for low or no pay internship followed by successfully transitioning to a near poverty level pay. I joke, but only because I don’t want to confuse the poor treatment many entry level people are subject to with the genuine need to actually go through an unsatisfying process of improving your abilities.

The dream of being discovered and making it big is what causes many to pursue a career in the arts. The fact that there are some who can make it big with no apparent effort is something of a plague on the arts industry.

Still for many people, this dues paying process gives people a realistic view of what is expected in the arts career path and they choose to leave it.

Pursuing an arts career with its abysmal pay can be something of a blessing in disguise as part of the dues paying process. The fact we have the stereotype of the actor who waits tables shows that many creative types are picking up other skills in the process of pursuing the dream.

Of course, the benefit of this all hinges on heeding the advice of our grandparents to do everything we do well. It is easy to fall into the practice of not taking a job seriously figuring your effort doesn’t matter since you will be gone soon enough. Then when you revise your career plans, you may suddenly find that as a result of your inattentiveness no one will credit you as having paid some dues.

One of my first jobs was doing yard work which involved everything from mowing and weeding to mucking out horse stalls and polishing brass and bronze pots. I don’t think it directly prepared me for a job in the arts, (though I did end up driving a farm tractor a lot the rural arts center I worked at), it probably instilled a work ethic, taught me about a lot uncommon practices like beekeeping and gave me many problem solving abilities. (Like the time I set fire to the…erm, well I have said too much already.)

Cal Newport calls for career advice to reference the inevitable sour period before you feel inspired by your work.

In some respects, I think the arts are blessed with the stereotype of the wait staff who wants to act. Even though no one believes they will ever have to work in a restaurant to support themselves, that waiter is in our collective unconscious and can’t be exorcised. Part of us always knows that possibility exists. Some may even be motivated to pursue excellence to ensure it doesn’t happen to them.

Still more discussion of that metaphorical waiter needs to happen to make people aware that the pursuit of their passion may not come easily or as directly as they imagine.

Many performing artists would acknowledge their awareness that the pursuit doesn’t come easily since many of them start working hard at eight or nine years old. The problem is that “practice hard to be a success” has been used to motivate them for all those years and it is not a foregone conclusion, especially in relation to orchestras these days.

Arts and culture industries needs to emphasize the fact that the path to success may not be as direct as it has been represented to encourage people to think about and be open to alternative routes.