The Apprenticeship Option

Recently Marginal Revolution blogger and economist Alex Tabbarok linked to an article he wrote a year ago suggesting that the United States would be well served by adding a focus on putting students into technical apprenticeships to the current push to get kids into college.

He starts out by applauding the now familiar push by governors in many states to provide incentives to students pursuing STEM fields over Liberal Arts. “We should focus higher-education dollars on the fields most likely to benefit everyone, not just the students who earn the degrees.”

I particularly oriented in on the part of the article where he notes,

“In 2009 the United States graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math, and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual-and-performing-arts graduates in 1985.”

Wow, that is pretty great, huh? But he goes on,

There is nothing wrong with the arts, psychology, and journalism, but graduates in these fields have lower wages and are less likely to find work in their fields than graduates in science and math. Moreover, more than half of all humanities graduates end up in jobs that don’t require college degrees, and those graduates don’t get a big income boost from having gone to college.

Most important, graduates in the arts, psychology, and journalism are less likely to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth.

I initially felt a little indignant at the idea that graduates in the arts aren’t spurring innovation. But then I started wondering if the arts sector needs to take a little responsibility for this. It seems this might be a result of a lack of training and good public relations.

There is an on going conservation about training arts students to take a more entrepreneurial approach to their work so there is already an acknowledgment that this is an area to be improved. Perhaps part of that training should emphasize not undervaluing your work so that people don’t undervalue the work that artists do.

In terms of public relations, I think there is a lack of circulation of stories about successful creatives like those I recently cited about the winners of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Competition (one with a BA in East Asian Studies and Chinese Lit., the other with a BA in Aerospace Engineering) and the Rotman School of Management’s design competition.

The main thrust of Tabbarok’s argument isn’t so much to diminish the liberal arts degree as to advocate for apprenticeships. He notes that some people are simply not suited for college but vocational education programs have a stigma of being the dumping ground for high risk kids. He points to the model of Germany (among other European countries) where students normally opt for technical training and apprenticeships that provide real world work experience while the students are in high school.

What appealed to me about this was the idea that if there is room in the day for a high school student to receive vocational training, then you have to allow that there is time in the day for arts classes.

But I am not suggesting that some kids be allowed to paint while the other kids go learn to weld. I think high school vocational training should seek to provide opportunities for students to train and apprentice at local arts organizations as well. Who says you can’t take some of your welding classes in a scene shop or art studio or that you have to do your apprenticeship in a shipyard?

Apprenticeship programs like this could strengthen ties between schools and arts organizations and reinforce the idea that vocational skills don’t have to be applied in purely practical ways.

On the other side of the coin, I have a vague recollection of reading an article that suggested many visual artists today don’t have a good understanding of the materials they use because they haven’t had a lengthy exposure working/playing with them. Even if my recollection isn’t correct, the opportunity to work with materials still exists.

The reality is, four years of college isn’t the entire key to becoming an artist either.

You Wanna Be Where Everybody Knows Your Name

As I have stated before, I grew up in a rural setting in upstate NY and just before I started blogging, I worked at a rural arts and music center. But now that I am paying much closer attention to the lives of arts organizations and the communities they try to serve, moving to work in a rural environment has given much greater insight into the impetus behind Scott Walters’ efforts on behalf of rural arts organizations that lead to the creation of the Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education (CRADLE).

There may not be the financial support or audience attendance in numbers that larger cities and communities enjoy, but the impact of arts programs and opportunities can be much more immediate and apparent. This is not to say there isn’t just as profound an impact in other places, just that the feedback loop is that much smaller. Because everyone knows everyone, even if a person doesn’t make a comment about their experience to you, you are likely to hear about it from someone else.

Case in point, I met an administrator at the university early one Friday, later that day he got his haircut. That night his hairdresser, whom I had never met before, said he made positive remarks about me.

What has been interesting to me is to have confirmation of many of the benefits we in the arts claim we bring to the community.

People from the local hospital told me my arts center is important to the health of their organization because they generally don’t have problems attracting doctors to the area, but after a year or two pressure from their families often sees them moving away due to lack of activities. The better a job I do, the better it is for them.

The community board which helps us fund the bulk of our presenting was invited to have a fund raiser at a local wine store. The board had a band playing and the store owner had wine and beer tasting. The community board made quite a respectable amount of money that night so they were happy.

The owner of the shop said the arts people attracted the type of clientele he was looking for. They came, they chatted, they browsed, they bought. He was happy. I think everyone hopes there will be another opportunity to do that again.

Yeah, you can say this only reinforces the stereotype of arts people as effete wine drinkers, but you can grab a six pack of Bud in the supermarket. This business owner is focused on attracting people who drink wine and craft brewed beer and smoke cigars and the arts board helped to deliver them.

On the other hand, there were many people to just stopped in to grab a six pack and bottles who picked up performance season information and bought raffle tickets so the store potentially delivered new audiences to the theatre.

The last incident falls into the “big impact/change of life” category. This past weekend the local arts council had its first ever community arts awards event in my theatre. It was actually pretty well put together for a first attempt. Each award was interspersed with performances by youth performers.

I was surprised to learn that not only does this small town have an organization that teaches kids to do aerial acrobatics, but that the school is under the umbrella of the local museum. I am going to have to check it out. It may give Nina Simon and her Museum 2.0 a run for her money.

Probably the most conspicuous example of the arts impacting lives was the honoree who had been teaching piano for 60 years and so had a legion of people, from music teachers to kids attending top music conservatories, speaking her praises.

Among the other honorees were the Irish owners of the local pub who declared “what good is a pub without stories and music to fill it?” and the owners of a plumbing supply house who between them have sat on the boards of just about every arts organization in town.

There was a visual artist who had moved from Seattle and was instrumental in the founding of the local visual arts center. Known to be something of a recluse, the awards organizers went to his studio and made a really nice video of him talking about his art and his process. I wondered if the reception the film received from the audience emboldened him a little because he spoke a fair bit when he went on stage to accept the award.

Granted, there is a big fish in a small pond element to all of this. In terms of reaching numbers, a performer doing a show in Tampa impacts the lives of more people in one night than one of those honorees might in a year. Many times that is what foundations and granting organization are looking for.

But as I sat there Saturday night, I couldn’t help but think that what was happening in this town was what many arts organizations dreamed of. The results of an interaction with the arts, both positive and negative, and the bonds it creates between people are so easy to observe.

Person A and Person B may leave an event and separately speak about their experience with Persons C and D, respectively. No only is there a high chance that C and D will meet and speak about the experience related to them second hand, there is a good chance C will meet B, another person who actually attended, and get their view on the experience. All four then share a common bond around the experience.

Unless all four travel in the same circles, what is the chance that this interaction will happen often in a city of 300,000? Here it happens many times every day.

Obviously, there is a downside to this lack of anonymity. I was both amused and a little uneasy about having the an opinion of me by someone I just met come back to me via their hair stylist at a wine tasting that same afternoon. I am certainly going to have to step carefully at times.

But it also strikes me that for those willing to listen, it can be very easy to collect a fairly accurate view of the community without the need to resort to a lot of guess work.

Speaking of drinking wine and beer, this entry title brought to you by Cheers, of course

They Call Me…The Stabilizer

A couple weeks ago a job listing from Springboard for the Arts’ job board came across my Twitter feed simply listed as “Stabilizer.”

Intrigued, I followed the link and discovered that it was for the job as Climb Theatre’s accountant.

As you might imagine, many of the staff at Climb Theatre have non-traditional titles. While I wonder if “Leader of the Pack…Vroom, Vroom” might be a little too whimsical for the executive director and question how confident people might be at giving money to an organization with a “Gambling Manager” on the executive staff (Managing Director? CFO? Artistic Director?), I immediately liked most of the connotations associated with “Stabilizer.”

The only negative association I had was that the organization wasn’t fiscally stable and they were looking for someone to save them. But in the job description they say, “Happily, CLIMB’s financial position is quite solid and cash flow is not an issue.”

What I liked about the title was that it implied if you took the job, you would be an important part of the organization’s life rather than a functionary in the back office. The job description says that too, but that was the first impression I got directly from the job title.

The job title also hints that there is an attempt to make the job environment an interesting and enjoyable place to work.

Changing job title terminology may seem like an empty gesture in place of real change, and granted it often is intended to manipulate. However, there can be a difference in the way you feel about yourself as a result.

Would you rather be a sales clerk or sales associate even though the job is exactly the same? As a customer, do you think you would treat one a little differently than the other? The difference may be small, but they can accumulate over time to result in better esteem.

I am not advising a mass change of titles to make people feel better about their jobs. In performing arts organizations especially the performers and technicians get recognition and praise for executing a performance well. Directors, both administrative and artistic, get interviewed and asked to speak before crowds.

The back office people may know they are doing work that is important to the organization, but can easily feel they are interchangeable with any other accountant, human resource officer or receptionist in an organization where so many are recognized for specific and often unique contributions.

In small non-profits where rewards of any sort are especially hard to come by, it can be especially important to make everyone feel like they are an integral part of the staff who would be difficult to replace.

Crazy titles will certainly come across as disingenuous if it isn’t part of the existing organizational culture. Besides, something unique to your own business culture will go further in making someone feel they are unique.

And by the way, if the job sounds appealing to you, you have until June 10 to apply

Modulating the Flow

A few years back I was reflecting on a study that found arts administrators sought online data and learning opportunities that were relevant to the challenges they face. The problem, as you might imagine, is that they didn’t feel there was enough time in the day to sit down and read articles, much less seek them out. They wanted some sort of information delivery system, but didn’t quite know what those tools looked like.

At the time, I had the insight that this was the same challenge many potential audience members faced. People who may not have participated or attended arts events, upon maturing personally and financially, might desire to start becoming involved but don’t know where to learn about doing so.

At the time my suspicion was that whatever delivery system solved the arts administrators’ problem could probably be used to provide information to audiences.

But now, 6-7 years on, I am not sure a solution as arrived for either group. If anything, the situation has become even more difficult due to need to choose from among a greater proliferation of choices. There is far more information flowing from arts bloggers, forum discussion groups and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. But there are no consolidated, dependable sources of information to tap into. The individual must attempt to curate their own information.

Even though I am judicious in who I follow on Twitter and via my news reader, it is often all I can do to keep up with the flow of information coming to me. If I weren’t motivated both by a desire for professional development and material to blog about, I think I might give up on making a serious effort to stay current.

But your mileage may vary as they say. If anyone has found a method to gain the professional guidance and information they seek and not become overwhelmed by the experience, please share it.

Likewise, if you know of a good resource for audiences seeking orientation about the arts that doesn’t condescend, let me know as well.