Toward a New Definition of Arts Administrator


Moving Out From Behind the Desk

By JR Russ

You might have heard the saying: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” In fact, if you’ve worked in the arts, not only have you most likely heard this, but you might also consider what I feel is the implied third part of this phrase, “Those who can’t do either, administrate.” This article is ultimately about arts administrators.

At the 2014 Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium in Washington, D.C., one panel covered the “Relationship Between Artist and Administrator.” The interesting thing was that as the conversation progressed, it became less about managing the relationship between two separate people, but rather how one person manages the relationship between both roles within one’s self.

As I tweeted during the symposium here: “Awesome panel, with Marcus of , Julianne of , and Lee Anne of . .”

While at the University of Maryland, College Park, studying to receive my B.A. in Dance, one of my mentors, dancer/choreographer/teacher Alexander Gish, shared some advice and insight that has always stuck with me. He believed that in order To be a well-rounded dancer, one needs to take class, teach, and choreograph. Even if a dancer does not intend to be primarily a teacher or a choreographer, simply the practice and skills of each, inform the others.to be a well-rounded dancer, one needed to take class, teach, and choreograph. Even if a dancer did not intend to be primarily a teacher or a choreographer, simply the practice and skills of each (even if only in the studio), inform the others. So I never understood the aphorism, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” particularly because I know many dancers who are both excellent performers and skilled teachers. They are good at one because of their ability at the other.

But I digress, as ultimately we are talking about arts administrators. I mentioned the above anecdote because it definitely contributed to the foundation of a holistic view regarding how I view my arts career. And there are two more legs to this professional stool.

One of them is that when I finished my undergraduate degree, I had no ideal or prescriptive belief about what being “successful” meant. As long as I worked in the arts and entertainment fields in some capacity, I would use what I have learned, I would develop new skills as needed, and I would move forward, whatever that meant.

The other leg actually goes back to what got me involved in the performing arts in high school: being a techie. Before I ever set foot on stage, I was completely content to hang lights and build the set for our theater productions. [Insert techie quote of choice here.]

But what does this all have to do with where we started? I once auditioned for a show and didn’t get called back for a role. But the artistic director contacted me inviting me to become the touring manager. It was not the role I went for, but it was a role that was no less important for the sake of the work. And so begun my road down the arts administrator path. Because in addition to being able to create and perform, there are people that are also good at dealing with a budget, they happen to be great at writing copy for press releases, they can coordinate the schedule of a production team and keep everyone to task in a timely fashion.

While the on-stage cast reaped the applause, I realized that there was a larger ensemble at work to make the art happen for the audience. And every role is just as important as another, every job requires skill and experience to execute it well. And sometimes, working on the administrative side of performances is asking artists to step up to the task, not to step down from the art.

So if you were to quote anything from this, for me, it would be, “those who can, administer; when no one else wants to.” But I still keep in mind my mentor’s advice: I still get out from behind my desk whenever I can, to work on stage or in the wings; because they all inform each other. And here in Washington, D.C., there are many who don’t see themselves as either artist or administrator, but as a hybrid of both -- especially members of smaller companies where it is all hands on deck, and everyone wears multiple hats. It is why I wouldn’t say I’m an artist at times, and an arts administrator at others. Just call me artist administrator.

JR Russ is a Washington, D.C., native. He took his first dance class at Joy of Motion and proceeded to study at Montgomery College and then the University of Maryland, College Park, where he received his B.A. He went on to pursue his M.A. in Arts Management at American University. After being introduced to the Burning Man community in the past year JR took up Contact Staff and his current New Year’s resolution is to take trapeze classes, particularly silk. He is currently the grant manager for Performing & Literary Arts Fellowships at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.


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