Monthly Archives: July 2012

Two Questions:

1) Do museum-based curators instinctively dislike or disrespect arts administrators? If yes, why?

2) In your opinion, what is the difference between an administrator and an assistant?


I am going to start a consulting service that advises people in unhealthy work circumstances on different lies to employ in order to leave their job gracefully, and without rancor.

I have a number of years of experience and expertise in covering for myself when arriving late to work (in Chicago, my dishwasher broke once every two months, and I got food poisoning at every Thai restaurant in town).

Options for life embellishments include:

  • inventing a fiancée who lives in another city
  • pursuing a graduate degree
  • faking a pregnancy (can be challenging)
  • joining the “Peace Corps” or similar volunteerism abroad
  • becoming a freelance teaching artist/writer/consultant
  • radically redefining your relationship with the Capitalist system and moving to live on a freegan cooperative farm

Now that I have done all three of these in this calendar year…let’s talk a little bit about the benefits and drawbacks of working on salary, hourly rate, and as an independent contractor. This post is not as sophisticated as I want it to be, but I am not a sociologist or a labor historian, so you’ll have to allow me my point of view and forgive any egregious oversights.

I have never worked in the service industry, so I can’t speak to working for tips or that kind of thing (one night bar-tending at the bar in my college’s neighborhood bar was super fun, but doesn’t qualify me to discuss in-depth). At the florist where I worked for one summer, a guy who got drunk and cheated on his lady every weekend would buy her flowers every Sunday morning, and leave a big tip for the girls who were working, which we would spend on coffee from around the corner. Not the same.

But seriously, what are the benefits of being on salary? The Benefits. Most organizations I know begrudgingly give out benefits only to full-time, exempt, salaried employees. Health insurance, dental, vision, 401k or 403b, life insurance, disability insurance, pet insurance (that is not a joke), legal services, employee discounts, and paid time off.

Another benefit is know when your next paycheck will come (and Direct Deposit, a truly marvelous use of technology) and how much it will be for. You don’t “lose a day” when your work schedule conflicts with a holiday Monday.

However, your hours are not the 35 or 40 a week that you sign up for in your employment contract. You are expected to work until the work is done. You are often expected to work 50 hour weeks, night and weekend (for events and other reasons). In my case, this has meant working every other weekend for two months, working full weeks of 14 hours days, and being told that if I didn’t agree to stay until after 7 pm each night to meet with my boss I would be fired. (Not all at the same job!)

There are other ways of keeping you on your toes. Some employers keep “employed at will” workers on yearly contracts, so that positions can be eliminated at the end of each fiscal year. This is a practice that I personally don’t care for, though I understand why it works in some instances. Only a small handful of non-profits that I know of engaged in systematic, long-term employee evaluations processes, and very few have 360 reviews.

The benefits outweigh the costs, without a doubt. Even with comprehensive health care reform that led to individual payer systems, I would still want a salary, especially for the employer match retirement contributions. I like predictability.

Tell me what you think! And look for posts on Hourly and Freelance work later this week (tomorrow).

Many years ago, the office where I worked brought in a communications consultant that the CEO had met at a cocktail party to work with all the employees of the company. We had a number of regional offices that needed to coordinate effectively with other remote offices.

We learned a lot of really great things from the consultant, a kind older woman who had her own practice based in South Carolina. But she taught us one trick that i will never forget:

“Instead of but, use and…”

“But” implies a negative or corrective train of thought, whereas “and” opens the doors for new possibilities. Or something.

Unfortunately, everyone, including senior management, really grabbed a hold of “and,” and started using it all the time. In fact, we would get emails with the word “and” in all caps, in red, underlined. It became an even more aggressive and negative word than a simple “but” even was.

In my current assignment, we are a small office that emails a lot, and I find that most emails I get have a “smiley face” emoticon (either an actual emoticon or  a tiny .gif) included in them. This serves the same function as AND.” Let me tell you, it does not work. Especially when I have made a mistake that you are correcting. 

Email is a difficult medium. It is hard to find the right tone, and the words remain forever (and ever and ever). It’s not the ephemeral phone call. But honestly, positive language is not positive if it is used so aggressively. And besides, crafting an email should be more like writing a letter than sending a text message, right?

In college, my then-boyfriend made fun of me (in a nice way) for wanting to celebrate our six month anniversary. He teased, “anniversary, from the Latin ‘anno’ meaning YEAR.” I thought it was a special occasion, mostly because it was the first time I had dated anyone for more than 6 months. Ah, youth.

Thursday will mark six months since I quit my job. It is both a really long time, and not that long, kind of like how being 30 is both young and old.

This was not supposed to happen this way.

When I quit, I started applying for new jobs and getting interviews right away. When nothing happened, I said to my dad on the phone, “I didn’t expect them all to make me offers, but I didn’t think that nothing would work out.”

Still nothing. Six months later, I am temping and trying to scrape by on about 50% less than I was making before I quit, while working these crazy irregular hours. It’s the uncertainty that is the most torturous part. Not know when and if I will work again, not know how I will pay my bills each month.

I recently starting doing Bikram yoga, which I used to think was a horrible way to torture oneself by being in a room with lots of models in bikinis. This time around, it’s a lot more rewarding, and there are way more women who look like me in the room. One reason is that the classes are horribly hard, sweaty and brutal, but when they are over, you feel so great. You feel great because you made it. When I would go backpacking with my dad when I was a kid, I used to love getting to our campsite each night–when you hike all day and finally take off your pack, you feel like you are floating. Or like when I ran the Brooklyn half marathon for the first time, and I almost cried when I saw the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island: I had made it. It was a glorious feeling.

This job search needs to end soon. The hardest part is that I can’t see the finish line. I don’t know when this is going to end. It’s deeply frightening. But when it does end, it will feel amazing, and six months will go back to feeling like no time at all.

I had two interviews this week, and three last week. I am going to lose my voice with all this polite chatting, and I am having trouble keeping my story straight about my career aspirations (to be involved in the grant-making process as a program officer, to run a theater company, to have my own space, to grow as a nonprofit leader…ugh, who can keep all these fake dreams straight?! Kidding!). But really, I am just trying so hard to keep my cool, to retain some amount of perspective, and to remember that I have value as a worker, despite not being employed.

So, my meetings this week were both a little tough, for different reasons. But I will talk here about my interview yesterday, because it was essentially emblematic of all the experiences that led me to start writing this blog.

I applied for this job, which I saw posted on Idealist on Wednesday around 12pm, by 2pm the Executive Director had called me to set up  a meeting for two days later (yesterday). Wow! So fast! They must be really excited about my candidacy. That’s nice. (A few weeks ago, I interviewed with an organization that told me I was one of five in-person interviews for a job that got over 500 applications. These numbers are staggering. But being chosen is always flattering.)

I left my temp job on Friday at 12:30, giving up two hours of paid work in order to interview with this small arts education non-profit with offices in Chelsea. The woman who interviewed me, the Executive Director, was warm, friendly, engaged and very straight-forward. All good signs. We had a great talk. The job might be a little below my level, it included marketing and development work, but no financial management, which I really enjoy. But it seemed like a nice organization with a fun mission.

Then she let me know that she had recently lost two staff people…out of three. She needed someone who could start right away and pick up the reins really quickly. Turnover often affects non-profits very intensely, because small staffs are already over-extended, and a normal two week notice can seem like (or actually be) a serious crisis. Brutal. But luckily I can start right away. She also mentioned that the position had been part-time but they needed a full-time employee to really devote themselves to the position.

Then we discussed some of the strengths and needs of the organizations–they seemed to have a lot of good systems in place, but just needed to maximize them. It’s always so funny to hear people complain about the donor database that they have but don’t update because it’s so old and confusing–just use Excel! Honestly, I know why these small non-profits use out of the box databases, but it really kills me. Thankfully, it sounded like most of the stuff that was happening was positive, or at least a good start. They use social media and have a blog, and want to find new ways to engage with a variety of audiences.

All in all, not the scariest interview I have had. The organization seemed to be in relatively good shape, given the difficulty of fundraising for arts education and bringing in money during the recession.

So then I asked my questions. It’s a good sign that I even felt comfortable asking these: 1) How do you handle conflict?; 2) What is your communication style? and 3) Ho would you describe yourself as a manager?

These questions are crucial to understanding how a boss will operate in a very small office, and I have found that many people don’t have ready answers for these questions. Sometimes you can glean some interesting information, or dig up an old issue. I had someone once tell me about a long-held grievance against a former co-worker who hadn’t worked at the organization for over 4 years. This ED gave lots of great answers, and aside from insisting that “the new person” (she started just saying “you” at a certain point, which is always interesting) copy her on every email they send and allow her to edit every piece of writing for the institutional voice, it all seemed pretty normal. She even said “I don’t believe in pitting people against each other to get them to work harder–I don’t think that works.” It was all good stuff.

Even though it was a much smaller organization than I really want to be in (I think 30-40 employees would be ideal for me), it could really work. Do some fun arts education stuff, get my mojo back, get some good grants under my belt, this could really work.

And then she looked at me and said…”we have to talk about the salary. Are you going to need health insurance?”

I knew then that all this good chatting was for naught. It was also weird because it felt like she was offering me the job, and I knew I would have to say no.

Yes, I am going to need health insurance. I am not married. I am not in a union. I wouldn’t be able to get another job with benefits to supplement this job.

“Yes, I need health insurance.”

“Well, in that case, I think the best we can do, and this is having already spoken to my Board…the best we can do is probably $30,000.” (Now, in another city, this would be a reasonable amount of money, and it is certainly in keeping with the organization’s budget size. But I can’t live on that much money in New York. I have loans. That is not workable for me.)

So I told her that it just wasn’t possible. She said that if I didn’t need health insurance, she could take that number up (aahhhhh! somebody has to pay for the health insurance!). I told her I was really sad, because it seemed like a great fit, but it just wasn’t realistic for me.

And then she told me that if I wanted to get paid more, I should really look at working at a larger organization. We shook hands and she told me to be sure to stay in touch.

There are two things about this that really destroy me:

1) She insisted that they needed a full-time employee, and yet was offering to pay me less than 60% of my previous salary. I bet I could certainly do the job in three days a week, but they want someone full-time. They need someone who can “really commit.” She, and many other people have said that part-time employees don’t work out. If you need someone to commit to you, you have to give them a reason to do so. You have to pay them enough so that they don’t have to get a second job. You have to offer benefits. You have to try to make the job attractive as a job, and not just because of the mission.

2) This circular reasoning about why salaries are so low (we are a small organization, but we need a full-time person so we can grow, we can’t afford a full-time person because we are so small, but we’ll find some magical person who likes to work for $14/hour, but we need to grow so let’s increase hours without paying more?) is laughable. But similarly frustrating is that this ED knew how low the salary was and made the offer anyway.

We as arts managers, leaders and Board members are setting these salaries. As a field, we are driving away qualified applicants with these absurdly low salaries. I know big organizations that do it, and small ones. Also, when we don’t offer health benefits (including dental), retirement plans and paid time off, we are weakening the field as a whole. To me, it speaks to a real lack of vision to keep salaries and benefits so depressed. Boards and EDs need to be leaders and insist that they pay their staff well. I know how hard it is to raise this money. I know that salaries are not attractive funding opportunities for individual or institutional donors. But guess what? Without people, none of the work happens. Besides, this is how you engender fierce loyalty and retain the best possible staff. Pay them and treat them with respect. It’s not that hard.

So, I went back to my temp job, where I would get paid more by the hour than this job was offering me, and I ate a burrito. I considered getting really upset. And the sweet ladies I work with asked me about my interview (they are so nice!). I told them what happened, and this one girl looked at me and said “You can’t take a pay cut like that, and you shouldn’t have to!”

I agree. I hope she is right.

I know that I am in a place where my previous title and pay were a reach at first, but I did  a great job for 2.5 years, and took a similar title and a significant pay increase at my new job (the one I quit). I know people want me to have more experience, or to need less money. I wish I had another job under my belt too. I wish New York wasn’t a horrible money hole. Yesterday was very much the prototypical interview I have had over and over these past 6 months.

I just want to work at one job, and get paid enough to live on. But in this industry, and with the recession to use as cover, I’m not sure if it is possible.

I have been invited for a second round with the job for which I was 30 minutes late to the interview. Sadly, it is still part-time, so I am not sure it’s the right thing to do. But still, shocking that somehow my (less-than-stellar, on Tuesday at least) personality shone through.

What is happening?!

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