Five things I learned quickly in arts administration

There are some instances in which one is thrown into an environment, perhaps an environment that is highly foreign, unexpected, and one in which one is frankly unqualified to participate.  That is what I found myself in as a receptionist at the Hartt Community Division.

I was a senior at The Hartt School, looking for a source of income in a field I wouldn’t hate.  I applied to the Hartt Community Division (HCD) for any staff position, not knowing that they needed receptionists, but knowing I needed something outside my studying.  My resume was nearly blank in terms of professional accomplishments, my people skills were dulled after years of mental illness, and I wasn’t sure what would happen to me after college.

Granted, my resume still won’t compete as heavily as I would like, my people skills are much sharper–but I’m still notoriously awkward (in a warm, inviting way)–and I have some semblance of what I hope my life will be in the future.  I’m now the Registrar at the HCD.  In truth, I have come a long way from those days working those late nights on Fridays and early mornings on Saturdays, and I in no way look down on–and rather applaud–anyone working the very front lines in customer service.  I am no better than anyone else, and were it not for some fortunate opportunities that presented themselves, I might still be in the place I used to be, mentally, professionally, artistically.

But, enough of my life story.  Here are 5 things I learned quickly as I took on more tasks as a receptionist and was fortunate enough to turn that into a full-time position:

  1. Only the inquisitive, double-checking, detail-oriented people and projects succeed as well as they possibly can.  You cannot rely on other people to simply tell you a task is done.  If you do not verify their data, if you do not proof their prose, if you do not ask follow-up questions to ensure the job was done (or will be done) properly and completely, your lack of thoroughness will hurt the project.
  2. Ask, “but how would they know?”  Communication is key in any professional environment, and especially in a chronically understaffed, overworked field with so much fluidity.  When you make a change, formulate a plan, or realize something, ask “who would need to know this, and how would they know about this if I didn’t tell them?”  The answer, of course, is to tell them yourself, even if you think someone else will pick up the slack (hint: the slack will remain loose).
  3. Tone matters.  A lot.  The tone of any important email communication, and any public communication, must be vetted for correct tone by at least one other person.  If they can’t immediately perceive an acceptable tone (eg. non-threatening, matter-of-fact, positive, cordial, etc.), you need to work with your team to rephrase your message.  People will become infuriated at even the best-worded email; the goal here is to not create an eruption of ill will towards your organization and to present your organization as a caring, intelligent, thoughtful, and capable entity that customers, faculty, staff, and the public can trust.
  4. Take time off.  I admittedly still struggle with this, but I have been burned out multiple times in my few years in this field and know the pain of not taking time for myself.  The work will always be there.  There will always be more work than you can possibly do.  There is never a good time to take time off.  You have to carve out time for yourself, stay strong in implementing it, and not feel guilty or remorseful about taking it off, even if there are “fires” when you’re gone.
  5. Job documentation is essential to the health of any organization.  With any kind of turnover there is a huge upheaval of time, energy, resources, money, and emotions.  Any job that is not documented well (including a typical year’s calendar worth of what to expect) will cause an organization to suffer, current employees stress, customers frustration, and the new staff feelings of inadequacy.  Document your job so that if you should get “hit by a bus” tomorrow, anyone could step in, and, following the documents, get back on track with your work, albeit very slowly at first.

I may be posting more of these lessons learned, but these illustrate some things that I learned quickly in order to survive in the environment of a nonprofit community arts organization.  It is a great field to be in, and I love my job, but I am constantly reminded of how much learning there is to do, and how it, like the amount of work, will never end.  We spend most of our lives at work, it seems, so do something you love, even if (really, when) you learn hard lessons fast.



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