AFTA and Other Acronyms: Reflections on My Summer Internship
Ask a fine arts professional about arts management and most will respond with something along the lines of, “What is that?” At least that was my experience when I inquired about the field at UNC Asheville. Such reactions lead me to believe I was entering the uncharted territory of a highly specialized, obscure field. This is not the case.
Over the summer, I spent two and half months interning at a national nonprofit organization, Americans for the Arts. A complicated and multifaceted organization, Americans for the Arts’ main objectives can be oversimplified into two main functions: 1) assist local arts agencies across the nation with the tools and resources they need to succeed, and 2) advocate for the intrinsic, educational, and economic value of the arts with respect to national and local policy.
Americans for the Arts hosted eight other summer interns: two in New York City, and seven in DC. We each represented one of AFTA’s respective departments; I served as their Local Arts Advancement Intern.
As my title implies, the majority of my work catered to Local Arts Agencies, or community-based organizations that integrate the arts into the daily fabric of their communities. While the description sounds specific, these organizations are broad in scope: they can be private or public, large or small, serve urban or rural communities. There are over 5,000 of them in the nation.
My job was to identify frequently asked questions, come up with questions and answers, and synthesize all the information into something coherent and user-friendly. The goal was to publish the finished content online so that local arts administrators would no longer have to directly contact Americans for the Arts’ staff directly with specific questions; the resources would be immediately available.
In practice, this endeavor consisted of going through hundreds of emails the VP of Research and Policy, Randy Cohen, had accumulated in his inbox—a task that represents undoing over 20 years of assigning mail to respective outlook folders. A daunting amount of data, the complete list includes 94 categories and 60 sub-folders—amounting to a total of 3,586 files. In case this wasn’t enough information, my supervisor and the previous intern had also acquired a collection of relevant questions.
While initially overwhelming, this project served as the most in-depth introduction to arts management a girl could ask for. During the process, I acquired all kinds of new acronyms and jargon. I learned the difference between the creative sector, the creative economy, and creative industry; a Local Arts Agency (LAA), a State Arts Agency (SAA), and a Regional Arts Association (RAA)—not to mention the respective needs, job titles, and resources they require on a national level.
By the end of the summer, I had put together over 20 documents on topics such as cultural tourism, the creative economy, local arts centers, and barriers to arts participation. As the project came to fruition, I worked with the web team to publish my work online. The staff helped determine where these documents belonged on AFTA’s website, as well as whether they should assume the format of a frequently asked question or PDF.
Ultimately, we decided the larger documents, such as a 14-page list of cultural tourism examples by state, would present better as linked PDFS. On the other hand, a more specific question like, “Where can I access funds for touring?” could manifest itself as a frequently asked question under the website’s “For Artists” tab.
Despite reading through his emails every day, it wasn’t until about a month into my internship until I actually met their author. In July, Randy sent out an email inviting all the DC interns to a local pub. I immediately recognized him as the source of my Never-Ending Arts Data. The event actually carried an official title—Arts Drinking Group, a conglomeration I can confidently say all of us overworked, underpaid professionals are very happy exists.
At the bar, Randy introduced us: the Research Services Intern, an Australian student pursing a dual MBA and MA in Arts Management at SMU; the Animating Democracy Intern, a graduate student enrolled in Carnegie Mellon’s accelerated Masters of Arts Administration program. “You really need to get some interns with some ambition,” remarked Randy’s beer-drinking friend.
Randy was hardly the only staff member who made our acquaintance: over the weeks, we were introduced to the organization’s ten departments and their respective staff members. The Internship Coordinator also organized field trips to Dance/USA, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW).
During the department meetings, each team sat us down in a sleek conference room—windows displaying the tenth floor view of downtown D.C.—to explain to us, in highly articulate language, what it is exactly they do.
Many of these departments had functions and objectives I didn’t even know existed. Or worse: I was familiar with their titles, yet had completely misinterpreted what those titles meant. Take development, for instance: such a vague, optimistic term leads one to think, “Developing what?” The objectives of the organization, I assumed. Instead, “development,” is often synonymous with “fundraising,” which requires strong written and verbal communication skills.
“If you’re not a communicator, don’t go into development,” said Kate Gibney, Vice President of Development. From the head of the table, Kate looked like the epitome of artsy chic as she told us about her career at the Smithsonian, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She said this casually, delivered in the same tone from which she informed us of her college major. Kate’s story was not unusual: so many of AFTA’s staff members had prestigious backgrounds and educations I came to expect it.
Our departmental meetings ran in conjunction with our day-to-day activities. In my case, this involved working under four supervisors on the Local Arts Advancement team: the Local Arts Agency Services Program Manager, my official supervisor; the Public Art Programs Manager; the Vice President of Local Arts Advancement; and the Field Education and Leadership Programs Manager. All of them had different assignments for me to work on.
2014 NAHM “Call for Partners” Instagram Promotion:
One of my favorite projects involved helping develop a social media campaign for National Arts and Humanities Month (NAHM), a celebration of arts and culture hosted by AFTA every October. Given my fine arts background and millennial status, I was put in charge of compiling the Instagram prompt asking artists and arts enthusiasts to #ShowYourArt. What looks like an aggrandized picstitch actually took hours of linking layers and debating composition. Perfectionist or photoshop amateur? I’ll let you decide.
Additionally, I worked with the Arts Education Intern to develop resources on how Local Arts Agencies can effectively support arts education within their communities. Most Local Arts Agencies offer arts education programming in some capacity, but their means differ as much as the organizations themselves. Our project, “What Locals Arts Agencies Can Do for Arts Education,” compiled both internal and external sources on cultural planning, workshops and classes, community engagement, school partnerships, and funding.
As my partner just completed a graduate degree in Arts Education, she took on the role of a content specialist. I, on the other hand, used my editing skills to transform a 20-page case study on “Portland’s Path to the Arts Tax” into a 2-page summary intended to serve as a strong model for arts advocates. Once completed, we presented these projects to half the organization—an intimidating feat, as it involved pitching a powerpoint in heels and a pencil skirt while the CEO scribbled furiously onto an AFTA-branded notepad.
All this exposure to new job titles and specialties gave rise to pressing existential questions of “Who do I want to be when I grow up?” and “What am I doing with my life?” Tell someone outside your prospective field something vague like, “I would like to combine art and business,” or more specific still, “I would like to pursue a graduate degree in arts administration,” and no one presses further. They are impressed you have some semblance of a plan, and continue with their daily dose of small talk.
But at Americans for the Arts, surrounded by arts administrative professionals, this kind of answer doesn’t cut it. Instead, people ask follow-up questions like:
“Do you want to go into for-profit or non-profit? Private sector or public sector?”
“I saw on your resume you’re a writer. Have you looked into development? Communications? Marketing?”
“Who do you want to be when you get out of grad school? As in, what job title would you like to hold?”
“You don’t need to go to grad school. Just go get work experience. Honestly, when I hire, I don’t even look at where applicants went to school.”
“Grad school was the best thing I ever did. Really gives you comprehensive overview of the field.”
And perhaps most frightening:
“You should look at Museum jobs in Dubai or China. Things are happening in China. Nothing is happening in the US.” When I responded that I don’t speak Chinese, my supervisor deemed this inconsequential. “Doesn’t matter,” she said, taking a sip of her third caffeinated beverage of the day.
To get some answers, I scheduled coffee dates with anyone with a caffeine addiction and a willingness to impart an hour’s worth of wisdom (these criteria basically include the entire staff). As it were, I met with team members from development, membership, and research; the COO, the CEO, and the executive assistant, to name a few. I didn’t realize how many notes I’d taken until it was time to unpack my desk, which practically contained a dissertation’s worth of legal pads.
And these meetings are just from the AFTA staff. Everyone knew someone, making it easy to fall down a networking rabbit hole. My supervisor happened to be friends with the Director of American University’s Arts Management program, a charming no-bullshit woman who point-blank informed me, “Your experience is great, but your resume is all wrong.” She proceeded to print it off, grab a red pen, and said, “Let’s do this.”
Of all these conversations, my primary take-away was that no one—not even prestigious arts professionals I so admired—has a direct career path. Unfortunately for us Type A folk, the universe forces you to meander. One VP with decades of museum and independent curatorial experience told us that she’s still trying to figure out who she wants to be when she grows up.
The COO and CEO followed the same trend: while I was hoping for them to divulge some sort of formulaic method they’d all been safeguarding, instead they told me no such process exists. “If you are passionate about your work, if you are engaged and asking the right questions, there is no wrong path,” they told me. My cubicle buddy put it more forthrightly: “Stop doubting yourself. You got this.”