I write this post on the morning of my graduation day. I had set my alarm for 9am ( I thought I would “sleep in” today), but I couldn’t sleep past 6:30am. I suppose the excitement and anticipation were simply too great.
Today, after two years in the making, I will finally graduate from American University with an M.A. in Arts Management. It certainly has been an interesting two years. One thing is certain – my experiences were not what I would have predicted two years ago when I was applying for programs. However, is this not the case with most things in life? We often expect one thing, yet get another; for better or for worse.
So, let’s get right into it…
First, expectations. For me, undertaking this degree was a necessary life decision. Three years ago, I was in a job and career path that I hated. So, I made a decision while I was still young and unencumbered with obligations, that I would “take the plunge” and go after a life and career that would be personally fulfilling. Since I approached graduate school with this mindset, I suppose I viewed everything in the beginning with rose colored glasses; everything would peachy keen and perfect. It was the option that made the most sense, and was the best thing for me to do if I ever wanted the opportunity to work in the arts.
Second, the reality. But before I get into it, I know what many of you think I’m going to write. You think I’m about to say, “grad programs in arts management are a waste of money.”; that they are “all fluff”. Well, you’re wrong. The truth is, those thoughts have crossed my mind, but they are not the ultimate conclusion about my experience. It’s a little more complicated than that. I will say that I do not think a master’s program is for everyone. If you are thinking about entering into one, I would suggest looking over this rational and frank advice from Yale University professor on what life is like for a graduate student. This website on online masters degrees does a fairly good job as well, explaining what is involved in graduate studies, and also compares traditional masters programs with those offered though online courses. Ultimately, the choice of whether to commit to several more years of college education has to be determined on the individual level. It all depends on one’s prior experience…
Here is what these degree programs CAN do, from my perspective:
- Fast forward your career. If you are new to the field and/or you are making a career transition, an arts management degree can exponentially increase your professional network, and quick. The connections I have made within the last two years, and the doors that have opened, would likely have taken twice as long if not longer had I tried to make inroads of my own. Having the professional backing from the Arts Management program and faculty at American University undoubtedly played a tremendous part in my ability to get great internships and meet great people.
- Lay a solid foundation of the fundamentals. If, for example, you are ignorant of the role development plays in supporting the larger mission of an arts organization, then an arts management program can teach you. If you have never written a grant, developed a strategic marketing plan, done prospect research, developed an organization-wide budget, or understood the complexities of the role played by governments, foundations and corporations in the support of arts and culture, then an arts management program can teach you. You will learn about all these areas, and more.
Here is what the degree CANNOT do for you. Again, from my perspective:
- Act as a magic bullet. Like with most things in life, an arts management degree is what you make of it. By simply enrolling, coming to class, completing assignments on time, writing a Capstone and graduating, you will likely feel at the end of two years that you paid a lot of money to read some books and write papers. Approaching it in this way will leave you just where you started two years prior, only with head full of new information and a mountain of debt. One has to be proactive in making the degree bear fruit beyond the ivy walls. Your career will not flourish just because you attended.
- Add value to an already established arts management career. I write this last point with some trepidation, as I know it will likely draw flack from “the powers that be”; those powers which depend upon enrollment in such programs for their continued survival. My own experience has been that those who come to the degree program with a few years of arts management experience under their belt, are likely left feeling under-challenged. The reason for this is not because what the programs teach is not valuable or correct, but because the perspective from which subjects are taught are often taught from an introductory perspective. This is fine for people like me; people who are career transitioning or going straight from undergraduate to graduate school. However, for someone who has worked in the field; who has dealt with boards; who has managed a strategic marketing plan; the academic instruction of these subjects might seem a little too, for lack of a better word, “academic”.
Again, please do not misunderstand my point of view. I do believe these programs have value. The question is: Can they be equally beneficial to all levels of arts management experience? To be fair, professional degree programs in arts management are young. As an academic field, arts management is still young. It is still exploring its surroundings and trying to figure out the world and how it fits into it. Ultimately, I want arts management programs to offer the most comprehensive, intensive training possible.
For all those considering an arts management degree, my one point of advice would be this: Asses your experience, assess your goals, both personally and professionally, and then make the decision. Do not just go to graduate school because it’s what you’re “supposed to do.” For me, it was the right decision, and I do not regret it. For others, they may realize too late that it was a waste of time.
In the end, the answer to this intensely personal question is the same answer to most questions in arts management: