Strength in Numbers

K. Emerson Beyer was in Mexico City in late 1999 when he picked up a Chicago Tribune, spotted a story about the School of the Art Institute’s graduate program in arts administration, and uttered, “Awesome.” After almost two years in Mexico, where he worked for a management consulting firm, the Loyola grad was ready to return to Chicago and to school. He’d been thinking he’d study English (his undergraduate major) and pursue an academic career, but as soon as he read about the arts administration program his plans changed. Less than a year later, after a six-month contract job with Arthur Andersen, he became a full-time student at SAIC.

By last fall, he was sitting in a bar with fellow students Regan Grusy and Britton Bertran, looking down the barrel of a miserable job market and wondering to do next. “We were feeling sorry for ourselves,” he says. “The big news that day was the official word that the economy had contracted.” It wasn’t a complete surprise, “but we were going into our thesis term and looking at our debt load and saying, ‘Oh my God, what have we gotten ourselves into? There’s no money to pay us. And we don’t want to do work we don’t believe in. We don’t want to take jobs that won’t use our skills. What can we do?’ We made a list of everyone we knew–emerging leaders and established leaders and our colleagues at other schools–and said, ‘How can we bring these people together?’ And not just to sit around and complain, but to say, ‘Here’s what’s going on. We need solutions that aren’t just individual.'”

The problem is a clash of traditions and trends, Beyer says. Arts administration has traditionally been done by artists pressed into service and operating ad hoc. They learned on the job, with career development moving at a glacial pace. (“It’s not uncommon to meet people in their first directorship in their early 50s,” Beyer notes.) But since 1995, when Congress slashed the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, the cultural sector has been pushed by both foundations and corporate donors to function in a more businesslike manner. In response, universities began to develop more degree programs like the one at SAIC, and students began to specialize in narrower sectors of the field. For example, Beyer says, fund-raisers might now train in something as specific as corporate relations for museums.

Just as these new programs were chugging into high gear, the economy tanked. Now nonprofits have more need than ever for skilled managers, but less money to pay them. Government support is largely gone; corporate and foundation money (always more available for special projects than for operations anyway) began to dry up when the stock market headed south. At the same time, Beyer says, the new generation expects to be decently rewarded for its work. “The culture worker has traditionally been driven like a dog–to work for low compensation and to settle for a slow career path. But people aren’t the same kind of idealists [now]. They want to build skills and move into leadership quickly. I’m amazed when I see postdoctoral students taking internships in museums. The amount that’s been invested in their education is enormous and they’re in their late 30s and they don’t have a leadership position yet. It’s great, but to me it’s a bit saintly.”

Beyer says he’s still committed to the arts but wants change. Sitting around that bar ten months ago, he and his friends cooked up an idea they think can help. They’re calling it the National Conference for Professionals in the Cultural Sector. Working without funds and passing the word by E-mail, they’ve pulled together a convention to be held September 6 at the Chicago Cultural Center. Sponsored by SAIC, DePaul University’s graduate program in public services, the University of Chicago Cultural Policy Center, the Illinois Arts Alliance, and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, it will offer current and future culture workers a day of panels, workshops, and networking and a keynote speech by founder Mark Tribe. (Registration is $40 in advance, $45 at the door, and $25 for staff and students from any of the sponsoring organizations. Call 312-543-4057 or send inquiries to They’re guessing 150 or more people will show up and hope a journal and a national membership organization that can function as a job and training clearinghouse will grow out of it.

Only two of nine American students in Beyer’s class had full-time jobs lined up at graduation this spring. (Seven other graduates were foreign students who returned to their homelands and whose job status isn’t known.) Beyer was one of the lucky ones: next month he’ll start a two-year gig with the Ford Foundation in New York, creating “guides to philanthropic practice.” After that, maybe an MBA. “It’s redundant,” he admits. “But it adds value. The master’s in arts administration is not perceived to be as valuable as the MBA, despite the fact that it’s covering the same skills. And that’s another issue.”

OK, He’ll Stay

As the Grant Park Festival season ended last week, director James Palermo announced that he’d changed his mind about dumping his job in order to spend a year studying in Italy. Culture Club reported Palermo’s puzzling resignation in May; it would have taken effect in September, just one season before the festival grabs global attention by moving into its Frank Gehry-designed band shell in Millennium Park. Palermo’s boss, cultural commissioner Lois Weisberg, is “delighted” he’s staying.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.