Educating for Entrepreneurial Arts Education Leadership

I recently spent a semester at Harvard as a visiting practitioner in the Arts in Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

While working directly with the Arts in Education Program, I was also able to audit classes at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and attend special lectures and programs sponsored by the Harvard Business School. Needless to say, the entire experience was fascinating on many levels.

As one might expect, the differences between the course offerings and student culture in the above mentioned schools were striking—yet many of the future challenges students in these different institutions will face are the same.

Based on my experience, the talented students in the Arts in Education Program tended to orient themselves towards issues related to process—the process of learning and the integration of concepts in advocacy, education, research, and policy. Though each of these students expressed a deep commitment to their work, many also expressed trepidation about entering an uncertain job market that is famously under-resourced and socially marginalized.

By comparison, the students I encountered at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School were excited about their potential to begin something new. They were learning how to become entrepreneurs by developing skills related to organizing, team-building, and risk-taking while they were also growing in their understanding of how to garner financial, cultural, and social capital for their future ventures.

These students were learning how to network, build creative associations and think through the necessary steps to arrive at innovative solutions and profitable business ideas. They were learning that experimentation is central to everything they want to do in the future. These students were excited about creating or being a part of something big—and their enthusiasm was contagious!

You might not expect that the two groups of students would approach their work similarly; but, as part of the arts in education curriculum, students are encouraged to spend time developing entrepreneurial projects that they then present to a fictitious foundation. This past academic year, several Harvard Arts in Education students recognized that the skills and ideas afforded to public policy and business school students are likewise necessary to develop effective leaders in arts education.

Projects included everything from using technology as a means of furthering museum participation to developing online literacy initiatives that use multimedia storytelling techniques to encourage creation and collaboration amongst their users. In short, the Arts in Education students received first-hand experience as entrepreneurs.

In reflecting on the current set of arts leaders, I would hope that they, too, could have some time and space to develop the same entrepreneurial perspective and business acumen as those in the business world.

As a consultant working with small and midsized nonprofit organizations, I find that many arts education organizations have budgets that remain stagnant—they are in a vicious starvation cycle because leaders and boards aren’t willing or don’t have the ability to find the necessary capital to launch an earned-income stream, expand programs strategically, commit to an evaluation, or hire the next generation of staff.

One hypothesis is that today’s arts education organizations are reluctant to take on these necessary challenges because we have not given our leaders the tools that they need to reverse the cycle.

This formal and professional level training must include, but not be limited to the following:

  • Identification of the resources that will be needed for their projects whether they involve policy, research, teaching, or advocacy.
  • Practice and support in studying how strategy is developed.
  • Mentorship and training in identifying and making critical decisions that involve the allocation of time, talent, and dollars to the activities that have the greatest impact.
  • Roleplay and training in garnering resources from the wide network of individuals, foundations, corporations, and government agencies that are poised and ready to respond to their requests.
  • Encouragement of experimentation and risk-taking.

Can we learn from the Arts in Education entrepreneurs at Harvard and bring more business focused training to current and future leaders in our field so that organizations can become more vibrant and entrepreneurial?