Justifying Arts Programs on Campus

Last month I had the pleasure of joining some fantastic colleagues from across the country at the University of Michigan for the annual meeting of Arts Administrators in Higher Education (AAHE).  I am proud to be a member of this organization and am constantly impressed at the creative ways in which my colleagues accomplish their goals.  Most of our jobs are very different.  The thing that unifies us is a core mission of engaging  students in the arts.  Most of us are under resourced, including staff, finances, and facilities.  Because of that, we frequently find ourselves brainstorming ways to justify or bolster support for our programs.  In fact, at most meetings we include a session with a “top administrator” usually with the stated or unstated goal of finding out what convinces them to invest resources and to what extent they value the arts.  We want to learn their language to be able to effectively frame our argument, and we generally learn a great deal; though I would posit that we are learning more about that particular administrator than we are about how to “justify” our own programs.  Lately, I have found that I can better serve my programs by improving my ability to articulate our own particular story and value at Penn.

One thing that a number of AAHE members have in common is a recent or renewed focus on assessment.  That focus offers us a unique opportunity gather data that tells our story, from our perspective.  In developing an effective assessment tool, we have to construct clear goals, objectives and learning outcomes for our programs.  I have found it particularly useful to be able to articulate what specifically our programs offer Penn students in relation to the mission of the University. I have grown to greatly appreciate the clarity.  Here are the goals of my program – University Life Arts Initiatives – “Our programs offer creative outlets, leadership opportunities, career training and social activity through workshops, performances and service opportunities that allow students to experience, create, and manage the arts.”  Going through this process of clarifying goals and learning outcomes (along with having a few years under my belt) has revealed a few other things that I have found useful in this ongoing dialogue of defending or lobbying for arts programs.  Some might seem obvious, but here you go.

  • There is a demand for our programs  –  Whether we formally provide resources or not, our students will create.  They will dance, sing, draw, act, write and sculpt, and they will find ways to do it.  They will organize and plan and find resources.  They will do this because their artistic life is important to them, regardless of their career plans.  It behooves us to work to support that creative and entrepreneurial spirit when possible.
  • Students are our best advocates – Frequently student voices are more readily heard than those of us lower to mid-level administrators (a sometimes harsh reality).  Student government leaders, class presidents and student coalition leaders have regular meetings with Presidents and Provosts.  Working with students interested in the arts to develop reasonable, clear talking points that they can share with other student leaders has been very effective.
  • We have partners everywhere – We all know that collaborative programs aren’t always the easiest to manage, but when faculty and fellow staff (housing, alumni relations, student affairs, advising, admissions and more) recognize how our programs fit the educational mission of the university and add value to their programs, they are more than willing to advocate and defend.
  • Bullet Train – There is a great deal of talk these days about creativity (Google it), particularly in the realm of education.  Don’t we all want to produce creative thinkers?  And while there are many ways to foster creativity, to quote one of those colleagues from AAHE, Debra Mexicotte (she may be quoting someone else) “The arts are a bullet train to creativity.”

Thankfully, other people are recognizing the value of arts programs on campus.  In the last several months the Mellon Foundation has granted millions of dollars to a variety of universities (MIT, UNC, UMICH to name a few) to research, enhance and expand the role of the arts on their campuses, particularly across the curriculum.  I hope to not find myself feeling again, like I must “justify” arts programs at Penn.  I would much rather be well positioned to participate in the kind of big picture thinking that the Mellon Foundation is supporting.

Validation, Sort of…

Finally, some validation! At 43, I can rest assured that my career choice is legitimate, at least in financial measures. Let me clarify, not my financial measures, but the financial measures of our collective nonprofit arts community. You see, recently Americans for the Arts published Arts & Economic Prosperity IV a “national study of the nonprofit arts and culture industry’s impact on the economy”. The study, a regular feature in my Facebook feed and emails for the last several days, is based on 2010 data (the latest available) that found “nationally our industry generated $135.2 billion of economic activity–$61.1 billion by the nation’s nonprofit arts and culture organizations in addition to $74.1 billion in event-related expenditures by their audiences. This economic activity supports 4.1 million full-time jobs. Our industry also generates $22.3 billion in revenue to local, state and federal governments each year–a yield well beyond their collective $4 billion in arts allocations.” Thank goodness people finally understand my contribution to society! Phew.

If I sound a little snarky, I apologize. First, let me acknowledge Americans for the Arts is a fantastic organization. We need them to do this work, and we need these numbers. But I think we need more. I worry that we aren’t properly framing our argument. Perhaps it is the fact that because I work in education, I have the opportunity, almost daily, to see the college students I work with build leadership skills, think more creatively, build empathy and grow in their experience and understanding of the world through our programs. Shouldn’t we also, just as boldly be making the case for those personal and social benefits of participation (making and/or consuming) in the arts? I know that economics is the language that government officials speak. But shouldn’t we also assume that they, their loved ones and family members are likely also to be arts and culture participants? Let’s make sure voters and officials alike know that participation in the arts develops leadership, empathy, self-confidence, a sense of belonging and more. Children who participate in the arts show improved academic achievement, win more awards, are more likely to perform community service, and show improved spacial reasoning, conditional reasoning and creative thinking. In short, participation in the arts at any age develops more confident, engaged, creative and self-aware citizens. Together, the economic impact partnered with the personal and social impact of the arts seem to me to be a more significant argument. I am certainly not the first, or only one to make this case. Thankfully, in 2012 we have more data on both sides of the argument to back up what, for decades, perhaps centuries, many have known. The arts make us better people.

We should be supporting artists AND developing advocates!

As national and state support for arts and culture regularly faces heated political battles and often cuts, is the opposite happening on our campuses?

A couple of weeks ago the University of Chicago announced the preview opening of the more than $35 million Logan Center for the Arts, a multidisciplinary arts center, the vision for which began in 2001 with the report The Future of the Arts at the University of Chicago, and is further articulated in the 2010 Report of the Provost’s Working Group in Arts and Disciplines.

This week Harvard University will present Arts First – a multi-day festival of student performances and artwork.  Added to this year’s activities is an event entitled “Breaking Boundaries: Creativity and the Harvard Curriculum” which will “showcase interdisciplinary coursework, performances and General Education courses”.  This enhanced program and more come from the recommendations made by Harvard’s 2008 report of the Task Force on the Arts.

Not as recent, but just as significant, in 2006 Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University announced the receipt of a $101 million gift from 1955 alum Peter B. Lewis to support launching a new era for the arts at Princeton.  President Tilghman unveiled an ambitious initiative that included plans for substantially increased support for creative and performing arts and the establishment of an “arts neighborhood” on campus.  At the core of that initiative is the Lewis Center for the Arts, “an academic center…designed to put the creative and performing arts at the heart of the Princeton experience”.

It seems that elite universities are finally coming around, recognizing  the relevance of arts and culture both as an academic pursuit and as a means to support creativity and expression.

All of this bodes well for continued support for arts and culture on college and university campuses.  And that should be celebrated, but, along with providing great creative, learning, leadership and community building opportunities for our students, we need to be training them to be effective advocates as well.  April 16 and 17, was National Arts Advocacy Day in Washington DC, an annual event coordinated by Americans for the Arts that this year boasted more than 500 arts advocates from 40 states advocating for pro-arts legislation on Capital Hill.  Our students should know Americans for the Arts, and should be capable of articulating the importance of arts and culture in our communities.  As an arts administrator on a major university campus, I am ashamed that I haven’t been prioritizing my own attendance at Arts Advocacy Day and taking students.  I can assure you that will change!

Kudos to the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts

On Monday, March 26 the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts was previewed at the University of Chicago, giving the university and local communities an opportunity to explore the facility.  The Logan Center is an “11-story, 184,000-square-foot building as an elegant ‘mixing bowl for the arts,’ in which artists and scholars of many disciplines will work and perform, creating new possibilities for spontaneous collaboration. The building houses classrooms, studios, rehearsal rooms, and exhibition and performance spaces. These innovative facilities will be home to academic and extracurricular programs in cinema and media studies, creative writing, music, theater and performance studies, and the visual arts.” (University of Chicago, release 2012).  If you work in the arts in higher education, or are simply passionate about the arts you will recognize what a tremendous accomplishment this is for the University of Chicago and the surrounding community.  The vision for the Logan Center is inspired and lofty, and if realized will represent one of the most thoughtful and deliberate plans I have seen for integrating the arts into fabric of a university.

In 2001 the University of Chicago published the “Future of the Arts Report” which in their words “described a University culture in which the arts suffered chronic neglect.”  Since then the University developed and “Arts Clarity Statement” in 2007 and in 2010 published the “Report of the Provost’s Working Group on Arts and Disciplines.”  This last report details their approach to the challenge of encouraging and supporting scholarly engagement with the arts, and I want to offer some specific kudos on a few things from that report.

Kudos for acknowledging the value of co-curricular and student-run programs.  Early on the report notes that the University of Chicago has four broad categories of entities that are “active in creation, performance and exhibition.”  Co-curricular and student run programs is in that list.  The report also notes that a 2008 survey found that nearly half of their 4,500 students participated in over 75 student arts organizations, and that many of the academic and presenting programs the university have developed out of student activity.

Kudos for making a clear statement.  This directly from the report. “In order to foster the sort of vital exchange that marks work in the arts at Chicago, it is imperative that the University maintain and extend its commitment to recognizing the arts as an integral part of the research mission and curriculum of the University and its culture of inquiry. To that end, it must simultaneously support the University’s arts entities and encourage work that engages substantively with the arts from within scholarly disciplines.”  And there are many more quote worthy references to supporting the arts and engagement in the arts in their report.

Kudos for noting the “real or perceived lack of institutional support” for the arts, and the frequent “disparity between principled support for the arts on the one hand, and programming initiatives and budgetary allocations on the other.”

Kudos for going the distance and exploring a key root challenge in scholarly engagement in the arts – institutional culture.  “…entrenched disciplinary norms, modes of evaluation, and demands on time are major obstacles both to faculty involvement in the arts, and to arts participation in academic culture.”

Kudos for clear and practical suggestions for moving forward.  “…the University needs structures that will provide incentives for grassroots, ‘bottom-up’ initiatives.” The recommendation comes from benchmarking and exploring their own most successful models.  The Chicago Art Lab is designed to be a program “to catalyze fruitful collaboration between scholars and arts practitioners” modeled after their successful Mellon exhibition program at the Smart Museum, which is “a program of short-term projects at the intersection of scholarship and arts practice, involving students, and issuing in both a publication and a public program (exhibition, performance, etc.).”

I have one more shout out to offer, not from the working groups report, but from the recent public announcement of the preview period.  Kudos for stating upfront the commitment to work with the cultural institutions of Chicago – “The center will work collaboratively with the University’s new Arts and Public Life Initiative to build partnerships with civic and cultural institutions citywide.”  No institution or resource like the Logan Center should exist on a major university campus without thoughtful and exciting collaborations with the community.  Here’s hoping that is exactly what happens.

Career Advice

One day last week, I found myself engaged in four different conversations about pursuing a career in the arts.  While the student community that I work with here at Penn is quite large,1200+, the number of students who plan to pursue a career in the arts is actually rather small, so I don’t have these conversations regularly.  When they do happen, the interests are varied and run the gamete from technical, performing, designing, management, marketing, directing, writing and more.  As you can imagine, these are not always easy conversations.  They frequently involve more questions from me than answers and often reveal a myriad of challenges from relationships with a significant other, parental expectations, financial concerns (duh!) and personal insecurities.  So I tread lightly, encourage heavily and generally offer the following basic advice.

Network, Network, Network. While there are advanced degrees, certificate and training programs, and apprenticeships, everyone pretty much understands that there is no single, direct path to a successful career in the arts.  You can never have enough information.  Talk to old teachers, camp counselors, family members, family members of friends.  Use LinkedIn, Facebook and alumni directories.   Attend events of organizations that do the work you aspire to – fundraisers, receptions and networking events.  In short find any opportunity to talk with people further down the career path than you.  Most importantly, be ready to talk to the people you have identified.  Ask about their path, their training and education; how they came to have their current position.  Be humble, don’t bombard them with your vast accomplishments (if you are so great what do you need them for?).  You can also network more formally by asking for informational interviews.  Again, be prepared.  Be able to clearly state your general career goals and have specific questions ready.  Be sure to thank anyone you speak to for their time, and if you found them particularly thoughtful, offer to buy them coffee sometime so you can continue the conversation.

Surround yourself with supporters, including like minded artists. Carving out a career in the arts can be challenging.  Make sure you have a support system in place (Facebook comments and likes when you whine on your status is not the same thing).  Be intentional.  Let friends know what you are trying to do and ask for their support.  Ask them to encourage you and challenge you.  Ask them to tell you if they see a great opportunity to make some money (you might occasionally need it).  Create an artist group, a book club or a monthly happy hour.  Find people who want to do the same kind of work as you and dream up a project that you work on together – even if you have no idea whether you can bring it to life.

Get just about any experience you can.  Volunteer. Intern. Be present. Do what you can to both explore and get experience.  If you find an organization or people who do what you want to do, or work that you appreciate ask how you can help, and be willing to help.  Again, humility is key here.  If you are not willing to put up posters or lick envelopes, don’t offer to help.  Often the life of an artist revolves around the things that allow you to make art, fundraising and marketing, and sometimes posters just need to be distributed and envelopes just need to be licked.  Use your time volunteering to find out about the organization, the artists, how are things managed, how are they are funded, how they do marketing and how those who run the organization got their positions. All experience is good experience.  In general, smaller to mid-size companies might be better places to explore casual volunteer opportunities.  A bigger organization will have a volunteer “process” and you will likely never connect with those doing the work – unless of course you want to be a volunteer manager.

Manage your expectations and be creative.  It is possible to make a living in the arts whether you want to be a artist or administrator.  Full time jobs are available, but many folks, particularly early in their careers, pull together a living with a string of part-time jobs.  In the theatre (my particular genre) for instance an actor might do plays, film work, industrials, commercials, voice-over work, teach and more.  There is a list of equivalent jobs for every art form.  This of course means that you have to be in an area that has enough opportunities.  Generally that means a fairly large metropolitan area with a strong arts scene.  If there a good number of colleges and universities in the area, all the better; for a number of years, I taught either acting and public speaking, or both at three different colleges in the area.

Keep training.  If you can afford it, take classes and workshops.  If you can’t afford it, find a way.  Ask if they have scholarships, or if you can work off the fee.  Find free lectures, demonstrations and workshops and go.  Learning from any artist or manager it is always good. And you can network like crazy at these events!  Or go to graduate school.  Among the benefits of graduate school, besides the training, is time; time to explore, to hone your craft and build your expertise.

There is certainly much more that could be said about pursuing a career in the arts.  When it gets down to specific careers, I tend to connect students with an alum in that field. I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  But I do know that while it can be a frustrating road, but there is nothing like pursuing your passion!

My Elevator Pitch

This is my first personal post here.  Not that everything I chose to post here isn’t somewhat personal.  I take supporting arts engagement and learning very personally.  But I thought I would provide a bit more about the day to day workings of my office and position. For reference, the name of my office is University Life Arts Initiatives and I serve as the Director.

I was recently asked by a development person, “How do you describe what you do?”.   My response was, “it depends who is asking and how much time we have.”  If it is a casual conversation with little time, an elevator pitch if you will, it goes something like this “I advise and support 43 student performance groups and provide arts related campus programming.”  If the person is generally interested in more information and we have the time, I can give them the more formal “My office has four goals, to support art making, to offer civic engagement opportunities through the arts, to provide career networking and training in the arts, and to encourage campus and local engagement in the arts.”  Of course it can go from there, and if you think about it, it is likely that you still have no idea what I actually do.  The common mistake is to think that I produce or provide quality assurance or content for the student shows.  I do not in fact do that.  What I do helps to create the space and opportunity for our students to do that. What I do is different every day, and as varied as development and assessment work to facility management and career guidance.  Here are a few of the things that needed to be taken care of today, in no particular order:

  • Phone conference with a friend of an alum who has developed a new social media tool that might be useful for our groups
  • Quick overview of production policies and procedures with the leaders of a student group who missed the meeting the other 42 groups went to in January
  • Invites and reminders for our Alumni Performing Arts Career Symposium in March
  • Continue drafting/editing our appeal/search for more rehearsal space for the next couple of years due to a pending building closure
  • Talking to tech folks about why an rss feed calendar function is listed alphabetically instead of by date
  • Scheduling rehearsals
  • Printing posters
  • Nagging a printing company that is supposed to be printing posters and postcards for a major event later this month
  • Signing for packages
  • Setting up meetings to discuss our policies regarding singing valentines (yup we have policies for that!)

You get the idea.  This is a pretty typical day with only a few scheduled meetings.  On a day with more meetings, I get less done, and inevitably return from meetings with more to do! But I am not complaining (at least not this time).  I love my job; I have for 15 years!  I work in a space where I get to see students dance, hear them sing, watch them rehearse and talk with them about everything from their shows to their classes and future careers.  I know that the students who participate in the arts have a rich and fun college experience and I help to contribute to that.  I am getting better at the elevator pitch, but it will never quite accurately describe what I do.

Top artists reveal how to find creative inspiration

Top artists reveal how to find creative inspiration.  From this article in the Guardian.

If you want to read more on creativity – check out this great blog The Creative Mind by Douglas Eby

Another Cognitive Benefit for Musicians, Athletes New research from Germany finds honing one’s music or sports skills enhances at least one important mental ability. By Tom Jacobs

Another Cognitive Benefit for Musicians, Athletes

New research from Germany finds honing one’s music or sports skills enhances at least one important mental ability.


Can you mentally rotate a three-dimensional object, getting a clear sense of how it looks it from a variety of angles? It’s a specific cognitive skill that has been the subject of much study in recent years, since it’s a key component of processing spatial information. Professionals ranging from auto mechanics to brain surgeons rely on this ability.  More

Art and Happiness: New research indicates 4 out of 6 happiest activities are arts-related (!) by Clayton Lord

Last week, an article that was actually published nearly a month ago on Chatelaine.com passed through my Facebook feed four times in two days.  The article, titled “The three times people are happiest—you may be surprised,” rather vaguely discussed a research project out of the London School of Economics that was mapping happiness levels associated with various activities—and the results, per the article, indicated that, behind sex and exercise, the next most happiness-inducing activity was attending the theatre.

This landed with a big thud inside my head, as it sits so squarely next to a lot of the work we’re trying to do to understand the impacts, effects and benefits of the arts beyond the economic, so I did a little research and discovered that the project is called the Mappiness Project and it is the graduate work of an LSE researcher named George MacKerron.  And I emailed him, he emailed back, and we chatted briefly.

So here’s the shocker—the Chatelaine article, and the Marie Claire article it’s based on, left out potentially the most amazing part of MacKerron’s (very preliminary) results so far.  Of the top six most happiness-inducing activities, again after sex and exercise, the other four are all arts-related.  They are, in descending order:

1)      Intimacy/making love
2)      Sports/running/exercise
3)      Theatre/dance/concert
4)      Singing/performing
5)      Exhibition/museum/library
6)      Hobbies/arts/crafts


To Dance is a Radical Act by Kimerer LaMothe, Ph.D.

To Dance Is a Radical Act

The practice of dancing is vital to our survival as humans on earth.
Published on November 29, 2011 by Kimerer LaMothe, Ph.D. in What a Body Knows

To dance is a radical act. To think about dance, to study dance, or to practice dance in this 21st century is a radical act.


Because if dancing matters—if dancing makes a difference to how we humans think and feel and act-then dancing challenges the values that fund modern western cultures.

How so?

1. Mind over body. A first and fundamental value of western cultures is the one that privileges our mental capacity, in particular our ability to reason, over and against our feeling, sensing, moving bodily selves. I think therefore I am. We believe that “we,” as thinking minds, can exert control over our bodily actions, and that we should. We believe that achieving such mind over body mastery is good, and even our ticket to success in any realm of endeavor.  MORE