Today I listened to a webinar entitled “Starting a Nonprofit: Upsides, Downsides, and Alternatives” presented by the Pro Bono Partnership. It was very educational if not super exciting, but then again much of the work we do in arts administration is not always very exciting. The first spark of righteous creative empowerment fades as soon as you have to figure out all of the mundane, business and tax implications of the road ahead.
Why would you ever want to start a nonprofit in the first place? It takes money, a whole lot of time, and working with other people, some whom you may not see eye-to-eye with. Why not just continue working with arts organizations that do all of the boring work like raising money, hiring staff, and keeping track of tax paperwork so you can enjoy doing the fun stuff, like teaching and coming up with more and more amazing ideas? This is a question I asked myself before I chose the Arts Administration fieldwork track for the Fall 2020 TAP cohort.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, it turns out that without the boring stuff, none of the good stuff gets to happen right? I was the VP and Chair of Programming for a small arts organization for 5 years, as a volunteer. It was the hardest job I ever had and yes, it was an unpaid JOB. There were clashes with board members and town government, lack of funding for programs, and way too much building of infrastructure that was done for free. There are so many of these organizations, in towns all over the country providing programs with a staff mostly made up of volunteers or very minimally paid employees. They are doing a lot of the grassroots, hands on delivering of art and culture to schools and individuals in their communities.
This small organization on Long Island was also the place where I learned the most about myself and about the community I was serving. Because we were serving a community. We were providing entertainment, education, and comfort and in a much smaller way than I hoped, nonetheless, bridging gaps between people that lived right next door to each other in a town with a very beautiful and diverse population. The most important lesson I learned was that representation matters. I think we all know this but sometimes we think about the abstract instead of the literal definition of that phrase. Being on a board and working with an organization that only minimally reflected the community they were serving, made it an uphill battle every day to encourage and support programming that would engage the people who needed it and in turn would keep us in business. It may sound callous but if you can’t stay in business, you can’t do the work.
So, what do we do as teaching artists? How do we find an organization that fits us? That was one of the questions from our arts admin fieldwork that really spoke to me. Maybe the answer is: we don’t. Maybe we become advocates for our own projects, create our own network of artists, teachers and advisors that can help us navigate the boring stuff. Maybe a 501 (c) 3 is not the only choice. Maybe we need to take on a more active role in local government to empower and encourage more local arts organizations and collectives that will in turn encourage larger entities like NYSCA and NYFA to invest in them. We worked closely with NYSCA and they are very encouraging and open to helping smaller groups to thrive. Maybe we also understand that our skill sets can come from valuable personal experiences. Before my gig as Chair of Programming, my only early experience with organizing anything had been 15 years of volunteering at my children’s elementary school and being PTA president. Believe me, the PTA prepared me for dealing with small town government way better than any advanced degree could have.
As a teaching artist, what will you do? Join an arts council, work with a non-profit, start your own grassroots network or some other version of these that we have yet to create? Whatever it is make sure it is what fills your heart with joy every day, and know that it will be the hardest work you will ever do but remember, you will not be alone.