My life has been defined by multiple hats, switching each of my career roles as necessary. My first love was the theater, but I was also involved in music from a very early age. Dabbling in the visual arts, film and dance provided me with lifelong appreciation. Add to this many opportunities that came my way growing up near New York City, and it doesn’t surprise me that my career paths reflect my multiple interests and training.
As I look back, I am fortunate that my parents had a small family business that gave me a valuable model for self-employment. When my husband Jeff von der Schmidt and I decided to form a non-profit corporation many years later, we knew what that would mean on a daily basis — bookkeeping, employees, answering phones, and the responsibility of being in charge. But we knew that it also meant that we would be in control of our careers, which in the arts is extremely important.
I was fortunate that my college, Tufts University, offered a double major. My degrees in both music and theater continue to serve me well, and I went on to receive a Masters in Music from Boston University when I decided to focus solely on music. Despite not pursuing theater as a career, the skills learned in directing, lighting, and production assisted me as I went on to manage artistic projects and concert production. I didn’t become a theater director; instead I became an executive director.
There is no degree path for an executive director. There are arts administration programs, leadership institutes, entrepreneurship training, executive director-targeted seminars, but I have yet to find a specific long-term program to train a person to become an executive director. In a non-profit organization, it is the most important position, and in an arts organization, the executive director is a partner equal to the artistic director.
I took the position title with some trepidation shortly after my husband and I founded Southwest Chamber Music in Los Angeles. I didn’t know what it meant, but some advisors told me it was the appropriate title for the tasks I would be overseeing. Jeff’s title of artistic director made sense for an arts group as we were founded to realize his artistic vision; my title encompassed managerial tasks that could bring his artistic goals to fruition.
Thirty-two years later, I can see why it is impossible to set a curriculum for executive directors. Each executive director’s skills reflect the organization they are leading; the arts, social services and education all have very different requirements for leadership despite their underlying structural similarities. In the case of the arts, the non-profit executive director needs to have, or must quickly develop, an intimate knowledge of their organization’s art form in partnership with the reason they exist, their mission.
I will explore these ideas more fully in future blogs, but I want to provide my readers with some background as we go forward. My multiple career hats — executive director, musician, producer, educator, and cultural entrepreneur — weren’t adopted overnight. They all developed over time from my education and experiences, developed day by day. Each hat brought numerous new people into my life, from so many walks of life, and from many countries and backgrounds. I look forward to sharing stories of these friendships and experiences with you.
One story that stays with me came from our educational programs. After we won our first Grammy Award, one of our students asked me a question at an in-school concert: “When you were a teenager, did you ever think you would win a Grammy Award?” I could only answer “Never!” Her question gave me the opportunity to explain that day-to-day work was of first concern and that an artist should not focus on the potential for recognition. We were surprised and thrilled that our work was noticed and valued by our peers but recognition was never the reason for pursuing our projects and goals.
I recognize as I get older that what encouraged me at every step was not potential reward but inspiration from creativity expressed in music, theater and the arts; wonderful teachers; cultural entrepreneurs before me; artistic colleagues; and the world around us. I plan to share my inspirations with you to encourage your own explorations.
I treasure the friendships I have developed as a musician. This is a photo above of my dear friend Mitsuyo, who was the first violinist of our student string quartet at Boston University forty years ago. She and her husband Ippei’s generosity and friendship inspires us to learn more about Japan on each of our visits. I look forward to sharing stories about our upcoming visit when Mitsuyo and I see each other in Japan later this fall.