Ask an expert: Reynold Levy’s helpful guide to a career in the arts, part II

Ask an expert: Reynold Levy’s helpful guide to a career in the arts, part II

Reynold Levy served as the president of Lincoln Center for 11 years and is the former president of Robin Hood Foundation. He has written several books about his professional career, including “They Told Me Not to Take That Job: Betrayal, Heroics and the Transformation of Lincoln Center,” which was a New York Times Bestseller.

His latest book, “Start Now: Because That Meaningful Job Is Out There, Just Waiting For You,” draws on his experience and offers advice on how to network, interview and climb the career ladder effectively. To celebrate the release of the professional guide book, ALL ARTS corresponded with Levy and asked him questions we routinely hear from aspiring art professionals. See his answers below! If you missed the first installment of this series, you can find Levy’s answers to other F.A.Q.’s here.

What is your advice to artists who are offered unpaid positions in exchange for “exposure.” This is obviously a really big topic on social platforms.

My advice depends on how well known the artists may be and whether they can afford to work without pay. If so — and if colleagues are nurturing and helpful — I would encourage volunteering. Being inside an organization, or an artistic ensemble, is a terrific way to learn. To meet those with experience and connections. To acquire skills. To seek mentors.

By proving valuable in the roles you are asked to play, a part-time or full-time paid job is often likely to come your way when the almost inevitable vacancy arises or an employee calls in sick or another takes vacation or leaves for a superior opportunity elsewhere. Nonprofit settings are fluid and dynamic. Being in the right place at the right time often requires short-term sacrifice.

Luck comes not just to the prepared mind, but to those willing to take a chance. If the setting is congenial, if the organization is respected and if the associates you encounter are possessed of integrity, a sense of fairness and an inclination to be generous with their information and their experience, then taking what is initially an unpaid post is often worth the risk.

You now give advice, but what’s the best career advice that you’ve ever gotten, and where did it come from?

Read. Widely. Discerningly. Constantly. Biographies. Memoirs. How-tos. Fiction. After all, there is a limit to the number of people any single one of you can ever meet. To the situations you can encounter. To the organizations you can seek to understand from the inside.

The written word remains the most convenient and insightful way to master a subject matter, satisfy a curiosity and inform your future. Reading will expand your own vocabulary, improve your own writing, contribute to your self-confidence and inform your conversations with others, not to mention impress job interviewers.

This advice came, not surprisingly, from my best teachers and from my parents.

How do you know when it’s time to move on from a role, project, or position?

Are you bored? Have you stopped learning much? Are you having trouble generating enthusiasm for your organizational role or your current assignment? Do you feel that there is a gap between what you are capable of contributing professionally and what you are being asked to do? Have you met others of comparable talent and experience who are more content and who feel more challenged either inside or outside the organization for which you now work?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then sand is running out of the hourglass of your current post. Look around. Ask around. Read. Tap the knowledge and connections of your friends, acquaintances, colleagues and associates. Force yourself to meet new people. Ask of all penetrating questions and don’t be shy. If you help others to assist you by being specific with them in explaining what you would like them to do and why, more often than you thought possible you will be pleasantly surprised by their positive reaction.

Are internships really that important to art institutions? If so, what’s the best way a college student can boost their resume or application?

Almost by their nature, nonprofit arts organizations struggle economically. They are labor intensive, but increasing productivity, while maintaining quality, is virtually impossible. You cannot play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony faster or with fewer instruments or with sub-optimal rehearsal time. Costs rise. Ticket prices, unless they are affordable, meet consumer resistance. The market for philanthropy is intensely competitive and those who raise money well are few and far between.

Under these circumstances, internships really are important to arts institutions. They are even more critical to those who seek careers in the arts. Experience counts. Knowing your way around a stage, with lighting, or wigs, costumes and makeup. Being familiar with stage sets and sound, with casting and with the efficient use of rehearsals. Familiarity with reading operating statements and analyzing balance sheets, with developing funding proposals and with planning and executing superb special events or mastering face-to-face solicitation … All of these disciplines, skills and crafts and many others can best be acquired through apprenticeships and the close observation of others at work. Occupying internships in high school and college can not only enhance your resume, it can also lead you to be comfortable with the disciplines that animate the arts. Poise and self-confidence will emerge as and when you successfully complete essential tasks. Think of internships as investments in your future and not only will they contribute mightily to what you learn but to whom you are able to meet.

What are some common, professional misconceptions you’ve encountered while working in the arts? Why do you think these spread?

Here are a few misconceptions. That graduate degrees in the visual or performing arts are absolutely necessary to secure key positions. That acquiring a masters degree in arts administration is very helpful to job candidates.

Quite the contrary. I have found that in the life of the arts an ounce of experience is worth a pound of formal education and a ton of logic. Professionals are eager to see evidence of what you have accomplished in addressing real administrative and artistic challenges and in discharging concrete responsibilities. Abstract knowledge or proficiency in a musical instrument are helpful, perhaps. But more important is the relationship between the needs of an organization and what you can deliver to it based upon your familiarity with the challenge.

“Start Now: Because That Meaningful Job Is Out There, Just Waiting For You” is now available for purchase. Click here for more information.