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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Guys, seriously. Running a small nonprofit with two other part time staff members, one part-time intern, and several volunteers and event staff is difficult. 

I feel bad today because I made a mistake twice in the space of one week that has to do with acknowledging another nonprofit that is involved in a collaboration. I thought it was a two-way partnership, but it isn’t, it’s a three-way partnership. I feel frustrated with myself and embarrassed that it happened again. 

I think the thing that is hardest for me is just how much customer service my day involves–opening the door, cleaning the bathroom, taking out the trash, booking last minute rehearsals, walking artists through contracts and rental options. It’s all necessary and important work. But it takes up so much time, and I constantly feel unable to focus and concentrate on the larger scale projects that will bring about long term sustainability. 

Anyway, grumpy grump. Off to work I go, an hour “late” even though all my time for today and tomorrow is unpaid (well, comp) time. 

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I wrote a lot about the problem of ‘brain drain’ in the American theater for my masters thesis, this idea that the best and brightest artists pursue careers in television and film because theater pays too little, leaving behind a less talented group of artists who persist in the theater despite themselves. This problem is deeply sensitive to discuss and harder still to treat, since it’s a labor problem, a wage problem, a love problem…and the wage gap between live performance (even in union houses) and the money to be made in commercials, TV and film is just too enticing. Or law school. Or culinary school. How many former actors do we know?

But I also am starting to see this phenomenon among my arts administration peers. It’s not always about money, though suppressed wages across the sector don’t help. I certainly couldn’t raise a family on the salary that I have now. I can barely take care of myself. I am subsidizing my organization by working 15 hours a week more than they pay me to, and by taking outside work in order to support myself.

But I have also spent my career supporting, caring for and managing a variety of amazing artists who honestly drain the life right out of me. I feel like there is a ‘heart drain’ happening for me and for others I know. It’s not about money, it’s about having a “normal” job where there isn’t daily yelling, crying, acting out, expectations of mind reading, unclear goals and no planning. Since I am currently inspecting my life for codependency and finding it everywhere, I will diagnose many arts administrators as being deeply co-dependent with their jobs (and the other artists they work with). Since the show must go on, “no” never seems like a real option for me. I am working on Saturday night because all the four event managers who I usually have working at the space are busy. Hey, I should also be busy. But I make myself un-busy. Because “we” have to have “someone” at the show. We have to. There is no option otherwise, in my mind, and so I fall on my sword.

As you know, I spent a lot of this year considering alternate career paths that I could take once my unemployment crisis was over. Therapist keeps coming up for me, as does the idea of pursuing a PhD in organizational psychology, or perhaps organizational management in a business school context. I wish I could be a dentist, I would be a really great dentist. I wish I could work in philanthropy.

But really, I wish I could come to work and set boundaries and have those boundaries be respected. I wish I could be paid for my time. I wish I could have benefits. I wish I could pay my staff and the artists who work in my space enough so that they felt they were being well-compensated for their time. We are trying really hard to make all these things happen. This lament is not really related to my current position–I know what I signed up for. I agreed to this. But not forever, and not even for long.

But I worry that when I look back at my career in arts administration, it will be filled with ghosts, including my own, of people who used to work in the arts, but left. Maybe because of money, maybe because of how emotionally tiring it is. I know I fit into that second category. Being broke doesn’t really bother me, but chronically worrying about money, both my own and my organization’s, is draining in the extreme. Caring for, teaching, and handling artists is tiring. Trying to build a business is tiring. Navigating government grant websites is tiring. It grates, it grinds. Eventually, it breaks.

What’s the word I’m looking for here? Sisyphean? In French, it is “la lutte,” the struggle.

For me, I chose to do this work. I remember talking to an actor in Chicago one night at the bar, who told me that if I could do anything else with my life, I should, because being an actor was so horrible. But it was the only thing he “could do.” He had to act. He waited tables and was a temp, and we almost 30 when we had this conversation. He is still acting. Just like I am still working in arts administration, though my experience has taught me that it will not really ever get better.

The older you are, or the longer you work, the more control (or illusion of control) you might have in your work. But I meet so many people who are so burnt out that by the time they are in a position to manage, lead, set agendas, and make change, they are too tired and too bitter to really enact anything other than the abuse that was heaped upon them when they were young arts administrators.

I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I know that I have to keep fighting to do a great job at most things, and not to slack off. I contend that doing to a pretty damn good job at a lot of things isn’t hard, it just requires planning. So that’s what I am trying to do at work now. Plan, share information, try to foresee crises in advance so that I don’t get slapped in the face later down the line. It’s not going to be perfect, but holy lord help us, we’re going to get some cool stuff done.

My current workplace is very funny in terms of being both intensely public (I work in a glorified hallway, in truth) and also a little lonely. My office is in a wide hallway that sits between the door to the outside and the rehearsal studios. I am right by the bathrooms, and my office also doubles as the dressing room when we present performances. My scissors are constantly being stolen (ahem, taken at night). People knock on the door all day long, despite the fact that they have door codes and should know how to enter the space without help. It’s kind of weird. I am half a secretary, half a babysitter.

This makes it hard to focus on long term projects, writing, phone calls and other moments when privacy would be a boone.

I also have two part-time colleagues, whom I manage. Both come in two-three times per week.We often interact in these times, because it is so much easier to meet in person than it is to constantly communicate over email. I think we have found a good pattern.

So morning like this one, when I am “alone” in the office, feel productive on an almost ludicrous scale. People are rehearsing, but there aren’t big groups of dancers trickling in each of whom needs to be let in and escorted around the space. I am writing documents that really need my attention, and now taking time to write this.

Never mind the fact that I probably should take the day off, since I am not technically being paid to be here this afternoon or tomorrow, as I am a part-time employee.

Only my house is maybe not the most reliable new construction by some crazy Russian people. I also feel like I have a husband who has a lot of feelings about everything.

But no! I just have a performing arts space and several bosses, all of whom have strong feelings about everything everything ever.

I say this because today I started discussing boundaries with someone and even thought it was incredibly awkward, it is ultimately for the best. I think I can just keep gently suggesting that we make policies and have collective decision-making processes.

This is the real gift of being an arts administrator is being able to set boundaries that make the artists feel supported instead of limited. This kind of smoke and mirrors, the positioning and timing of information and explanations, *never* making faces ever because they are always misinterpreted…these are the gifts.

Every month, when I run payroll, I feel so great. Not because of the money that goes into my bank account, which is great, believe me, but because I love paying people for their work. Everyone who works for me is awesome and works really hard, according to their own high standards and it makes me really pleased to click ‘run’ on the ADP website.

That’s it.

I am paid to work 30 hours per week. This week, I will 45.

I have this need to be productive, to solve problems, to work hard now so that there are not emergencies down the line.

My concern is not that I can’t handle a 45 hour week, because I can. It’s not a big deal. My problem is that I need to convince these people to hire me to work full time and give me health insurance, and there are two ways I see this thing going down:

1) they see how hard I work and that I deserve and need to be full time with benefits in order to acknowledge all the work I have been doing and will do to build the organziation

2) they think they can get a 45 hour week out of me for the price of 30 and don’t go get the extra money they need to hire me full time, since I will, apparently, work those extra 10 hours for free

I want to believe that I won’t get screwed over, but it’s hard to predict. What is going to happen. So this week, I came in to work at 11am twice and once at 12pm. Because I don’t work at 9am for free, for real.

When I was in college, I studied abroad in Athens. One day in Greek language class we were practicing vocabulary words, and we all had to say what we wanted to be our profession. I said “actress.” My dad used to tease me that I could be a “doctor on TV” because I loved science, but was very bad at it, and I liked theater and acting. I really wanted to go live in Ashland, OR, and work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I never really knew what I wanted to do.

I really wanted to make theater, but I never settled on one specific role in there, or goal. I wanted to make theater, or work at a theater, and work with my friends, but also work with cool artists. I started out working at a box office and stage managing shows and worked as a business manager for a small theater part-time. It was really fun. I was really broke. So I took a day job with health benefits. I still worked on shows at night, but I completely stopped acting. Eventually, I stopped doing theater completely. Then I went to graduate school for arts administration, thinking that would be a creative career for someone who didn’t want to be in rehearsal all the time, subsidizing a career in stage management with a day job I didn’t like.

Anyway, here I am 5 years later. I worry that I don’t have a dream, or that my dream is really not a dream at all, but rather some kind of functional self-preservation thing that I am doing because I like to buy shoes and go on vacation more than I like to get yelled at by directors and doing show laundry that smells like weed and sweat. I knew that I was never going to be a professional actress when I was 22–I can’t sing and I look terrible on camera (I was even too embarrassed to get head shots, and I look like a freaky monster on film). But performing was so fun, and so easy. Stage managing was harder, but I still got to be in the room, to make suggestions and observations, and to see a lot of beautiful work. It seemed like a good compromise. In a theater scene where nobody got paid, I would get paid a couple hundred dollars. One stipend paid for my vacation to see my boyfriend who was teaching summer camp for gifted kids in upstate New York. But it wasn’t a living, and unless I stopped working with the artists I liked, it never would be.

So arts administration was my new dream, and graduate school was my way to escape Chicago and find a place that was “more serious.” I love arts administration, in contexts where I am not treated like I am a dumb idiot. It’s fun, and challenging, and I think I’m good at it. Also, I’m not working in theater anymore, I’m working in dance, and services for artists. So is this really my dream?

I ask not because of the Les Mis song that I have been listening to nonstop for two weeks, but because I just watched Sleepwalk With Me which I loved, which is a movie about a comedian trying to launch his comedy career while his relationship falls apart and he develops a serious sleep disorder. It’s wonderful, and available on Netflix streaming. It’s a movie about being an artist, and sacrificing (not in a good way) for his art. It was sad and funny, and honest. When I see movies, plays, art, literature that tackles this subject of why artists create, I get a little sad. Sometimes I think I need a new dream, or that I need to just think of having a dream as more of a goal for having a complete life (you know, a job and a boyfriend or maybe a family,  a house, a hobby, travel, a pet, whatever).

Oof, this is weirdly personal. But I think it’s important for me to think about it.

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