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  • MFA Program Teaches Students the Business of Arts Organizations

    Spotlight: Art Direction
    A new graduate program at Seattle University teaches students the business of arts organizations
    By Dana Standish, Seattle Magazine

    May 27, 2009

    When asked to describe the past year as a theme, Kevin Maifeld says, without hesitation, “paddling upstream.” As director of Seattle University’s new two-year Master of Fine Arts in Arts Leadership program—which will graduate its first seven students this month—Maifeld is on the front lines of the battle to keep arts organizations and small nonprofits alive. Although the program was launched before the economy went south, Maifeld says his students are learning skills they can use no matter what economic climate they find themselves in. “Our students have to be able to get out there from day one to manage an organization with decreased cash flow. We teach our students how to manage an organization in difficult times for an extended period of time.”

    Maifeld’s proposal for the new M.F.A.—the only one of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, and one of only 25 in the country—was approved in 2007, a year after he noticed that his students in SU’s Center for Nonprofit and Social Enterprise Management Program had no course of study if they were interested in managing arts nonprofits. Maifeld hopes that, along with helping students in their career goals, the program will create a local talent pool from which arts organizations can hire. “Certainly some of our graduates will go back to their communities after they leave our program,” he says. “But many of them are committed to the art scene in Seattle, and there’s a good likelihood that they will stay in this region.”

    While it’s too early to measure the success of the program, demand is clear. “The number of applicants has dramatically gone up,” Maifeld says. “We had 18 the first year, 52 the second year, and 75 this year, from all over the country and the world.”

    Maifeld, who has 25 years of experience running professional theaters (including seven as managing director of Seattle Children’s Theatre), has designed a demanding program. Most students already work full-time and are expected to intern with local arts groups while completing the degree; accordingly, classes meet evenings and Saturdays. Applicants are typically of two types. First, people who have an artistic past, but recently have been working in the business world. To those Maifeld says: Come on down. The other applicants have a business background and are looking for a “less stressful” life in the arts. Of this second type he says, “If they think they were working hard in the business world, they won’t believe how hard they’ll have to work in the art world.”

    Students take a variety of classes, from Human Resource Management to Finance and Budgeting before choosing a specialty in marketing, development, education or community outreach. Not all students want to work for an established organization. Maifeld mentions three students who had already launched their own companies before coming to the SU program: Sharon Williams runs The Mahogany Project (devoted to original theater and film projects by African American women); Tyrone Brown is the founder of Brown Box Theatre (aimed at developing original African American theater productions in Seattle); and Jake Groshong cofounded and is executive director of Capitol Hill’s Balagan Theatre. “After going through the SU program,” Maifeld says, “they told me how much they hadn’t known before about running an arts organization. Now they feel they are going back with the complete skill sets they need to run their companies well.”

    Students say these specific skill sets are difficult to acquire elsewhere. “I did internships, volunteering, stage and production managing,” says class of 2009 grad Williams, “but I didn’t have experience fund-raising—I didn’t know about the development side or how to deal with the board of directors.” Williams, a filmmaker and playwright, is also the manager of budget and operations at SU’s College of Nursing. “When I entered the program I was afraid I would lose touch with my artistic side, but the opposite happened,” she says. “[It] has made me work harder at my art work.”

    But why would anyone in his or her right mind choose a life in the nonprofit sector at an economic time like this? Maifeld contends this is actually a good time to be entering the field. “The state of the economy has changed the curriculum, so that now we are addressing the question of how to manage an organization in tough economic times. Boards of directors are looking for people with experience running arts organizations. It’s relatively easy to manage an organization when times are good and things are going well. But now we’re finding out how creative people are, to be able to keep their organizations going with fewer resources.”

    Sharon Williams echoes this sentiment. “We have learned to dissect what it means to be a nonprofit,” she says. “This has given us a chance to think of ways to bring in different revenue strands. I now have an arsenal of skills.”

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