Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders Network

Connecting emerging arts managers with skill-building and leadership development resources.

Meet a PEALer:

This month’s “Meet a PEALer” features Jesse Montgomery, Manager of Artistic Development at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  Jesse will be hosting our first Fireside Chat of the season, featuring Janet McCall, Executive Director of Contemporary Craft on Wednesday, November 4th.  Register for your free ticket HERE.


Jesse Montgomery

Manager of Artistic Development
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

1. How/why did you get involved in PEAL?

I got involved in PEAL thanks to some gentle nudging from current and former PEALers. I’ve attended PEAL events off and on since I moved to Pittsburgh in 2011, and felt I had finally put down enough Pittsburgh roots to make a real contribution to the group and the Pittsburgh arts community.

2. Who has served as a strong role model for the type of leader you would like to be
My first boss, Jim Mazzaferro at the Cazadero Performing Arts Camp. Looking back, Jim had the ability to honor the organization’s traditions while always evolving, and did a fantastic job synthesizing input from a wide range of stakeholders.

3. Who is your favorite visual or performing artist?
Am I allowed to say an orchestra? The Pittsburgh Symphony is an amazingly talented group of musicians, but the San Francisco Symphony is still my hometown band. I’m also a big fan of the guitarist Pablo Villegas and the pianist Daniil Trifonov.

4. What was the last book you read?
Fiction: Purity by Jonathan Franzen, Non-fiction: Mover and Shaker: Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers, and Baseball’s Westward Expansion by Andy McCue.

5. What was the most ridiculous job you ever had?

I did maintenance work for a Brazilian music and dance camp in the redwoods of Northern California. There was drumming going on 24 hours a day.

From small talk to code switching…

I recently came across a blog that NPR started earlier this year called “Code Switch” which delves into the frontiers of race, culture, and ethnicity. Code switching, according to their blog, is a linguistics term that encompasses how we mix and meld language and speech patterns. The bloggers, a team of 6 different people, are looking at this phenomenon in its broadest sense in “the different spaces we each inhabit and the tensions of trying to navigate between them.”

I’ve been fascinated by this term ever since I first learned about it in an “Intro to Anthropology” course at college, primarily because it was a light bulb moment of, “Oh yeah! I’ve been doing that for years!” I heard the term a year after I had studied abroad in Ireland. At that time, the US was not viewed so favorably by other countries, and so while in Ireland I often adopted a longer “o” sound and threw in an “eh” at the end of my phrases to sound more Canadian (I’m from MN, so admittedly this wasn’t hard to do). But you know what? It worked! And my consciousness of code switching has only increased since then as the spaces I’ve entered since then–graduate school, a different state, the “arts professional” world, etc.–has grown.  Anyone who has ever been to graduate school knows full well the “academic speak” that you’re forced to adopt and use in order to survive and graduate!

But as an arts educator and someone deeply invested in community engagement, the concept of code switching strikes me as particularly important in how I conduct my day to day business. I work in numerous communities throughout the city of Pittsburgh with people from varying backgrounds and partner with numerous organizations, but I do so in my current position as a representative of a classical art form. A tension arises between how you can maintain the integrity of who you are (or in my case, what I represent–an artistic tradition strongly steeped in the traditions of white European court culture) while at the same time meeting people where they are, with respect to the content of the conversation, vocabulary used, and the patterns and style of my speech when I’m talking. Let me tell you straight up that I speak very differently with my peers at a PEAL Happy Hour when I’m discussing ballet than I do with preschoolers or with older adults who are subscribers to the ballet (noticed how I just code switched there? I feel that you–the nebulous readership of this blog–are my peers. “Straight up” would not enter into the conversation with the other two groups I mentioned!).  The idea of code switching absolutely encompasses race, but also so much more, and I appreciate the bloggers at NPR for their discussion on the topic.

In some ways, we’re talking small talk–how can we interact in the moment with the people who are right in front of us in a way that is authentic to both’s lived experiences? In some ways, we’re talking about situational leadership, a concept drilled into me this past year through the Arts Education Collaborative’s Leadership Academy, whereby you change your style of leadership depending upon who’s in the room in order to affect the most change and meet your objectives. In some ways, code switching is just another name for marketing of ourselves and of our product. In other ways, we’re talking about how we communicate on such a fundamental level, beyond just words, but also our body language. The fact that I stand up tall most of the time–something I’ve worked hard to do to ease the tension in my back–often leads people to believe I’m a ballet dancer, which is flattering and might have been somewhat true 10 years ago, but not so much anymore. I wonder–do those people who remark on my posture take me as more of an “expert” in ballet simply by the way I carry myself? What would happen to their perception of me if I slouched in my chair?

So my questions are this:

  1. How do you code switch–or not–in your personal or professional lives? Why do you choose or not choose to code switch?
  2. How can we as arts managers use the concept of code switching to engage new audiences? In  the art itself? In how we present it (marketing)? In how we teach about what we do?

Alyssa Herzog Melby is the Director of Education and Community Engagement for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Other spheres she navigates: motherhood, young arts professionals, DIY homesteading, and her church community. 

Spotlight on…Amy Garbark

Pittsburgh’s great. Have we mentioned that before?!? This entire month there has been so much energy around celebrating women artists in honor of International Women’s History Month, from the Kelly-Strayhorn’s Sun Star Festival to SWAN Day Pittsburgh 2013 and many other events. We’re going to round out our brief exploration of women artists in Pittsburgh* by spotlighting Amy Garbark, founder/owner/artist behind garbella, a company that specializes in hand screen-printed apparel, accessories, and home decor.  I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Amy for several years now and am in awe of her entrepreneurial spirit and passion. And although she echoes the sentiment that Pittsburgh’s great, I would argue that she–and all of artists we have here in Pittsburgh–make it so.

Portrait of Amy Garbark

Amy Garbark, owner of garbella

1.   Describe your current work with garbella. Why did you decide to start your own business, and how has it grown? I have always been a maker.

I went to school for Art, I worked as an Art Teacher, and then for an Arts-based non-profit. I have always had some kind of creative outlet.  In 2006, I opened an Etsy shop (at the time it was a new online marketplace to sell handmade work).  During that time, I was having so much fun crafting: sewing, making jewelry and clocks out of bicycle parts, buttons, etc.  I didn’t sell much, but it was fun!  I kept making and then decided to make a t-shirt for myself and friends.  I went to an open studio at Artist Image Resource to print it and I was hooked!  I spent a few weeks riding my bike to the Northside with a ton of t-shirts in my messenger bag. After being accepted to Handmade Arcade in 2008, I decided to set up a little screenprinting studio in my basement so that I could prepare without the bike commute.  My husband had just found an old table-top screenprint press that somebody was throwing away; it was perfect.  My DIY studio set-up was not pretty, but it definitely got the job done!

Slowly, but surely, people started buying from me on Etsy and I started traveling to other cities for indie craft shows.  I did this for the next two years while working full-time and the business slowly grew.  In 2010, I had a meeting with a woman who contacted me on Etsy saying she was going to be opening a card and gift shop in Pittsburgh and she’d like to carry my work.  That woman was Rebecca Morris, the store is Wildcard (in Lawrenceville), and that’s how I got my first wholesale account!  Now, I have more than 50 wholesale accounts and this is my full-time job.

It has been fun to see people that I don’t know wearing garbella- It happens with more frequency now and it’s usually people that I don’t know! My brother recently sent me a photo of a guy wearing one of my shirts in San Diego, a friend spotted a Pro Skateboarder wearing a shirt in a Thrasher Magazine video, and my Mom found a discontinued, old garbella design at the Goodwill!

2.   How have the arts helped you become a leader and entrepreneur? What skill sets did you have to acquire?

The arts have helped me to connect with a supportive, vibrant community in Pittsburgh.  As a maker, I connected early on with lots of creative folks in Pittsburgh and developed relationships that have been vital to my success.  I meet with a group of creative small-businesses once a week over early AM coffee to talk about ideas, share experiences and struggles. Having this kind of support from other artists has been essential to my growth as a leader and entrepreneur.  I feel like I am continually needing to learn new skill sets as my business grows, but generally I have had to develop business and marketing skills.  Oh, and how to juggle working a full-time job at a non-profit with a growing business on the side!

3.   How did you become a leader in your field? What has been your greatest success as a leader and entrepreneur?

What has been your biggest challenge?   It’s an honor to be thought of as a leader and I think this has been a slow process.  My greatest successes have come from setting big goals (the kind that scare you) and pursuing them with determination and purpose.  My greatest challenge has been making the time and space to create new work while managing all aspects of my business.  I still struggle with this issue, but am working on it.

 4.   Why is it important for women to create their own opportunities in the arts?

I definitely think it is important to create your own opportunities in the arts because you are your own best advocate.  Pittsburgh is a city in which you can do this and I think that is what makes this city so interesting and exciting.  I love to hear about all of the awesome new projects, collectives, shows and events happening around the city.

Handmade Arcade, I Made It! Market, Wildcard are three local organizations/businesses that really, really helped me get this little business off the ground.  All three have women at the helm that have created their own opportunities while also supporting and creating lots of opportunities for women and men.  There are many others that have helped the business grow and I’m grateful for all of them, but these 3 really were integral to garbella’s growth.

5.   What advice would you give to emerging women (or of both genders) artists and arts administrators?

Work hard. Do your best to figure out what makes you feel fulfilled and then pursue that with passion.  Create a community and network of supporters: support others and let yourself be supported.   Set some big goals and take some risks. Whether you succeed or fail, you will be better for it.  “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”


From start to finish, all products are drawn, designed, and  hand screen-printed by Amy Garbark in Pittsburgh, PA.   She studied Fine Art at Alfred University and spent a few years as a Public school Art Teacher, followed by several years as a Program Director for an arts-based non-profit.  During this time, she set up a screen-printing studio to work on personal projects and quickly developed a passion for printing.  Since 2008, Amy Garbark has been exhibiting at retail shows across the United States, developing new lines, and creating long-lasting relationships with customers and retail stores. When not working in the studio, Amy can be found connecting with youth and community through teaching, cooking, renovating her house, riding bikes, hanging with Steevo, and traveling to indie craft shows across the United States.

*Our spotlight on women artist in Pittsburgh was very very brief…please forgive us for not being able to do more. But hey–if you’ve got a suggestion for someone to spotlight in the future, let us know!

Spotlight on…Tressa Glover

In honor of International Women’s History Month, PEAL is spotlighting a few women around town who are making things happen. First up is Tressa Glover, Producing Artistic Director of No Name Players and co-founder of SWAN Day Pittsburgh.

Describe your current work with No Name Players and SWAN Day. Why did you start SWAN Day Pittsburgh, and how has it grown over the years?
I’ve been Producing Artistic Director of No Name Players since 2005. When I first learned about SWAN Day, I knew No Name Players needed to produce an event in celebration of it because of its importance to both women and the arts as a whole.  Artistic Director Don DiGiulio and I decided that, in addition to theatre artists, we wanted our SWAN Day event to include artists of multiple disciplines.  SWAN Day Pittsburgh 2013 will mark our 5th annual SWAN Day event.

Having been born and raised in Pittsburgh and having worked as an actor here, I was well aware of the large number of amazingly talented women artists who make Pittsburgh their home.  And I was also aware that there were, across the board, less working female artists in the city than male artists. Creating a SWAN Day Pittsburgh event would be one way to bring attention to these women artists and hopefully increase awareness of, and generate a larger following for, every female artist in Pittsburgh.

Our first SWAN Day Pittsburgh event involved 37 local artists and 2 crew members. It featured both world premiere and existing works.  SWAN Day Pittsburgh 2013 will involve 92 local artists, 9 crew members and all of the pieces will be world premieres inspired by interviews with girls and women from the Pittsburgh area. In 2012, we were honored to be named an International SWAN Day partner alongside producers in Kenya, Bulgaria, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Florida.

How have the arts helped you become a leader? What skill sets did you have to acquire?
My training as an actor has given me a greater awareness of others as well as myself and an appreciation for different points of view.  It also requires compassion, strong listening skills, creativity, and focus. Being a producer has required organization, determination, attention to detail, and confidence. I believe these qualities and skills are vital for a leader.

How did you become a leader in your field? What has been your greatest success as a leader? What has been your biggest challenge?
Hard work and determination. I consider my greatest success thus far to be when No Name Players was named an international SWAN Day partner by SWAN Day Co-founder Martha Richards. I’m also very proud of the fact that we’re about to produce our 8th season of theatre here in Pittsburgh.  The greatest challenge has been building and maintaining a stable audience base.

Why is it important for women to become active leaders at all levels (emerging, established, etc) in the arts? Why do you think there is such a disparate lack of representation of women at the higher levels of arts administration?
Though all women are individuals, there is a unique female point of view that we all possess that needs to be represented . Our strengths, talents, thoughts, and voices are essential to every discussion at all levels so that we may learn from and mentor each other, as well as our male counterparts.  In addition, it’s important for younger girls to see women in leadership positions; it gives those girls the confidence to become leaders themselves.
I honestly don’t know why there’s a lack of representation of women at the higher level of arts administration, other than to say that it’s that way in most fields, and the arts are unfortunately following suit. I do believe that change is happening, that there is now a greater awareness of this lack of female representation and that it is unacceptable. But I think this change will be a slow process.

What advice would you give to emerging artists and arts administrators?
Don’t give up. Remember that your voice and your specific talent are substantial and valuable and are unique to this world. Learn from others as much as you can. Don’t be afraid to ask – you never know what the answer might be.

Tressa Glover’s first venture with No Name Players came when she appeared as Thyona in its 2004 production of Big Love. She became Producing Artistic Director of the company in 2005. Tressa has worked as an actor in New York and Chicago and has appeared locally with Pittsburgh Public Theater, Quantum Theatre, City Theatre, Bricolage, Pittsburgh Playwrights, Thank You Felix Productions, The Theatre Factory, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, Microscopic Opera Company, Off the Wall Productions, and The Summer Company, among others. Tressa is also an Acting Instructor at Act One Theatre School in the North Hills and a Teaching Artist for City Theatre’s Young Playwrights Festival.

Women in the Arts

This month, PEAL will be celebrating and honoring women artists in recognition of International Women’s History Month. Subscribe to our blog to read all about it!

In the style of Jane Eyre…

Dear Reader,

I am increasingly perplexed by a conundrum that I encounter daily in my work as a woman in the arts: where oh where are the women leaders? Well, scratch that. There are plenty of them. I need only look to our very own Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders Steering Committee to see that there are plenty of women leaders. But as noted, they are emerging. Look towards the lists of established leaders (and you may decide for yourself what that means–I deduce that it’s any person with significant–read: 15+ years–of experience) and that number becomes quite small. Why oh why??

I had the pleasure of facilitating a conversation around this very subject this past Saturday at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on the art form that I currently work in (classical dance) and am delighted to be sitting on a panel tomorrow, Thursday, March 7, at 6:30 pm the Alloy Studios about this topic. People are talking about this problem–and I frankly do see it as a problem in our field. For instance, Victoria Morgan from the Cincinnati Ballet noted while researching in preparation for creating a mixed repertory production comprised of exclusively female choreographers that of all the 290 ballets being produced by ballet companies with a budget greater than $5 million dollars, 25–read: twenty five or 11.6%–were choreographed by women. And that’s for an art form that has one of the highest percentages of women artists within its ranks. The SWAN Day website lists many more resources specific to different art forms that tell a similar story.

But if in fact there is no dearth of women leaders in the arts, particularly at the emerging level, how can we, dear reader, nurture women leaders in the arts–both artists and managers–to bring them to that next level, whatever that might be?

We’ll be exploring this question all month, but if you have any thoughts–please share!



Alyssa Herzog Melby is the Director of Education and Community Engagement at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Accessibility is an Asset–Part 2

Some of you may have read my first post on Accessibility from August. But even if you didn’t, I thought now is the perfect time to revisit the subject, especially since Pittsburgh had the pleasure of hosting Betty Siegel, Director of the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) from the Kennedy Center on February 13 for the first workshop in this spring’s “Adventures in Accessibility: A Journey toward Inclusion” series from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

Betty made her case for why accessibility is an asset to a group of over 60 people from various arts and cultural organizations in Pittsburgh. Her presentation started off with going over the various models of thinking about disability, and she posited that the United States is in the midst of transitioning from the medical to the rights model, a model encapsulated in its model “Nothing about us without us.” Then she presented a historical scope of the laws that govern the civil rights of people with disability and the implications of those laws for us non-profit organizations. Vanessa Braun, the Accessibility Consultant and Educational Liaison for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, also spoke about the Trust’s and other arts organizations’ strides in accessibility in the past year–and there were many many examples she cited.

Some of the attendees who heard her presentation were at the highest level of decision making power–board members, executive directors, and senior staff. Others were individuals who would be on the front line of making accessibility happen–marketing,ticketing, and community engagement personnel. Still others were simply just interested in the topic and wanted to learn more about it. And then there were some organizations who brought many–upwards of 10-15 people–to the event.

This wide make-up of attendees hits at the heart of her presentation and begins to help us define the crux of her argument: good accessibility is good for everyone. How? Accessibility within an organization cannot be achieved by just one person alone. It can be started that way, but it requires many hands to sustain and grow the services and accommodations you provide. Does this sound familiar? Like any change in organizational culture, it takes many and it takes time. To see such a wide variety of people there shows that this topic means something for not just those people who need or request the services, and not just those people who are passionate about inclusion, but everyone.

I personally was so excited and heartened to see such a large group in attendance, and I know I wasn’t the only one. Betty even pointed out how the community of Pittsburgh is primed and poised to become a national model for accessibility and inclusion in the arts. She remarked more than once on how we’re coming together in ways that she has never seen a community do before. So once again–accessibility isn’t only an asset to each of our organizations, but our community as a whole. It’s a great time to be living and working in the arts in Pittsburgh!!

I hope to see more of you at the upcoming workshops that GPAC is hosting this spring. 

Alyssa Herzog Melby is the Director of Education and Community Engagement at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. 

An Interview with Kyle Abraham

Choreographer Kyle Abraham brings his company, Abraham.In.Motion, to the Byham Theatre this Saturday, February 16th, to perform ‘Pavement’, a piece set in Pittsburgh that weaves together movement, music from sources ranging from Bach to Sam Cooke, the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, and clips from the 1991 film ‘Boyz In The Hood’, among other elements. The New York Times said of ‘Pavement’: ‘sourced in contemporary dance and the street, twisting together aggressive male posturing with the kind of hip-hop moves that summon comparisons to ballet, it expresses confusion with searching, eloquence.’

A native Pittsburgher, Kyle Abraham was recently awarded the USA Fellowship, having previously been awarded a residency at New York Live Arts and a Jacobs’ Pillow Dance Award. He formed his company in 2006 after having danced with (among others) Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, David Dorfman Dance, and Pittsburgh’s own Dance Alloy and Attack Theatre. Kyle began dancing in CLO classes, studied dance at SUNY Purchase, and received an MFA in Dance from Tisch University in New York City.

I spoke with Kyle on the phone in January as he and the company were preparing to perform in Birmingham, Alabama. What follows is a condensed version of that conversation.

Do you consider yourself an arts leader?
Well, I’m not a follower! I have my own vision of things – to try and be assertive, to push forward new ideas.

What are some lessons you learned along the way about being a leader in the arts? Can you tell us about some challenges that you’ve faced?
Ultimately, you want to find collaborators that really get your work. Working with these dancers that are younger and younger – its more than that. I just had auditions a month ago, and the thing that I found was that when I find a dancer who is not afraid to be ugly, I was more interested. I am more interested in [the dancer] being more fully invested. Bring yourself 150%, bring your face in there – I’m more interested in that than a younger dancer per se, or in someone clean. I am looking for someone uninhibited. Now that I am working with dancers on doing my roles, I have to find a dancer who is okay with movement and text and working that kind of way.

The company had a big turnover in 2010, and it did make me think of a lesson I had learned from [director] John Scott, he said to me, ‘as soon as things start going well, going well, that’s when people leave.’ That made it okay for me to not take it so personally when people started leaving. That was hard. That and the sad reality of being a choreographer – most of the company is ten years younger than me, and then they’ll be twenty years younger, and so on.

I remember being a guest artist on a show, I did a solo, and I remember watching the rapport [this choreographer] had with her company – they were friends and had a family vibe. I was touring a lot as a solo artist in 2008 and 2009. Now, if I am touring on the road [with my company], I want to be with people I have a strong rapport with – people that have a sense, a source of where my knowledge is coming from, where my movement is coming from. That changed the work for me, thinking of company members as collaborators. If I don’t think we have a good relationship, if I’m concerned with how you feel or how you might respond to what I do movement wise, that’s not good – that’s not healthy – that takes away from what I want to do.

So, Pavement, which you are bringing to the Byham on February 16th, is set in Pittsburgh, as is The Radio Show, one of your earlier works. Can you tell us a little more about growing up in Pittsburgh?
Everything I make is inspired by my life in Pittsburgh. A lot of my work comes from my high school years. That transition from 8th grade into high school – when I think about all of the changes that happen for people in that time, it’s a rich time to be thinking about. I went to Frick Middle School, which is not even called that anymore. At that point, I was in the International Studies program, which was a hotbed of students from all the different neighborhoods and communities coming together. My elementary school was in Shadyside … there weren’t too many black students, but there were people from all over coming together to be at my middle school – that brought more people and more tensions. Schenley [High School] as a school was separate in a bizarre way, the higher academic track was on the 3rd floor, the only other classes that weren’t academic were the art classes on that floor. I lived in the Lincoln neighborhood and went to high school in the Hill. So I was all over the city.

I always love seeing Pittsburgh people [outside of Pittsburgh] – today I saw a guy with a Steelers coat and a Pirates t-shirt and we started talking right away. People are very approachable. In Pittsburgh, we just say hi to each other. I keep doing that, no matter where I am.

What personal qualities would you suggest to our emerging arts leaders that they should cultivate? Any advice for emerging leaders and artists?

Meet with people and get their advice. Make sure that each work follows the next one – that you are not just entertaining yourself. From a business point of view, the next show I want to make must be different from the one I just made. Keep challenging yourself.

Come out – make sure the work is being done. I don’t want to rest on coming up to Pittsburgh and there being word about the show. You send press kit out so many months in advance in New York City, then you follow up a month before, and then two weeks before. New York City is so much about immediacy. I just have to have my stuff together more.

Not to be concerned with what everyone else is doing. It’s such a distraction – if someone gets a grant someone else didn’t get, decisions about touring vs. not touring – that is only taking time away from the work.

And come to shows! That drives me crazy when I see the dance community not going to performances, especially for troupes from out of town. You don’t know what you are missing not to go. See it and be inspired, or not – either way, be proactive.

So, PEALs and others, reading this over, I am struck with how many of these words can apply to all of us, particularly about supporting our work and the work of others, being realistic about one’s collaborators, and being proactive. What are your thoughts and takeaways?

Winter and Institutional Memory

The Maori of New Zealand celebrate a winter holiday called Matariki (which takes place in June usually, as New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere).  It’s a New Year celebration which is kicked off by the first few nights that a certain constellation (which the Maori call Matariki, also known as the Seven Sisters or the Pleiades) is visible in the sky.   I first learned about Matariki when I lived in New Zealand in 2011 – they had New Years calendars that ran from June to June, and since my birthday is in June (and I generally can’t handle resolutions in January so I tend to think of June as my ‘do-over’ month for resolutions – hey, at least I’ve got half the year left!) I was quite tickled by the holiday and I learned a bit more about it.


The main concept from Matariki I learned that has really stuck with me is the idea of the winter season as a time for learning (which makes complete sense from a agrarian cultural perspective), specifically the elders teaching the younger members of the family or group about their history, genealogy (tangent: Maori have an incredible spoken genealogy tradition, some people can recite their family history all the way back to naming the canoe their ancestors used to travel to New Zealand in the 1500’s!), when and how to plant crops, how to weave, etc.  As a person who usually has a tough time in the winter, I really got excited about treating the season as an active time of learning and passing on knowledge rather than an inactive time of sitting around, being sad & cold, and waiting for things to get better/warmer.


So here we are, and it’s cold and wet outside, and for many of us in the arts, there’s a lull in programming.  What if we thought about this as a time for learning about where we work, and for sharing what we have learned with others? What if we looked on this time of year as an opportunity to redress some of the lack of institutional knowledge that comes from moving at such a fast, reactive pace?


I’ve a track record of working at organizations run by the founders – but not necessarily knowing the history of the organization beyond what is mentioned in asides or in grant applications.  I am sure that some of you can relate.   At small organizations, the focus is so often on putting out fires or whatever the next big thing that needs done – we rarely if ever set aside time to hear the stories of how it all came to be.  Yet so much of the work we do rests on that foundation, on choices that people made years or decades ago, and I would wager that learning more about the whys and wherefores of those decisions could give us valuable insights into the organization in the here and now.  Even at larger institutions where the founders may no longer be with us or in the office daily, there are still elders at work who retain some of the institutional memory.   We also have a responsibility to share what we have learned with our colleagues; we’ve all had experiences where we’ve unknowingly reinvented the wheel and then discovered it was unnecessary – what if we put some winter-time resources towards identifying which institutional wheels roll smoothly and explaining why?


I’ve spent some time in the last couple of months writing a bookkeeping manual for my organization.  Ostensibly this evolved as a way to make sure I am doing the bookkeeping correctly and consistently every month (something that does not come naturally to me).  However, as I’ve worked more and more on it, I’ve come to appreciate it as something that will be eventually be useful to others – so they won’t have to reinvent this particular wheel.  It’s in my interest personally and institutionally for this manual to be comprehensive and clear.  As new leaders, it’s tempting to think that we don’t have a lot of institutional memory (or that someone else is the keeper of that memory) – but I think knowledge is both wide and diffuse enough that it’s time we recognize the institutional value of what we know (and what we don’t know!)


So – here are my twin Matariki challenges:

– invite an elder from your organization out to lunch or coffee, and ask to hear some stories from before your time at the organization; and

– take a little time out on a slow afternoon to write down a little of what you’ve learned since you started (it might be a top ten list of things that work and things that need to be improved, or it might be a step-by-step of how you run a mailing.  Either way, it will eventually make someone else’s work simpler).

I’ll report back next month on how my challenges went and I look forward to hearing from you all.






Just Say No

This is not a campaign against drugs…but then again, while I’m here, don’t do drugs 😉

The struggle with saying no is a really interesting and relevant topic to me.

As an individual, I enjoy being needed and appreciated so if someone asks something of me, I am inclined to say yes without considering if that’s really a smart choice.

As a burgeoning small business owner, it’s really tempting to take business that isn’t a good fit for our brand and how we do business, because “well, at least it is some money instead of no money.”

As a non-profit arts administrator in a small yet multi-faceted organization with limited resources, I want everyone to love my organization as much as I do and fear that saying no can engender ill will in the community.

In all three of these cases (though I plan to focus mostly on the non-profit arts organization for this blog), learning to say no is so important.  Why? Self/business/organizational preservation.  Just as we talk about work/life balance all the time among arts workers (perhaps it will be featured in an upcoming blog post,) we have to apply the same principle to businesses and organizations.  When it really comes down to it work/life balance is all about managing resources: time, energy, etc.  And as we all know, organizations have resources too.  There’s only so much time in a work day, there’s only so many employees, there’s only so much money, and so on.

So when a request for a favor, a potential collaboration, or donation inquiry comes across my desk, how do I go about deciding to say yes or no?  I want to ensure that every time we say yes to something that the result will be of some value to the organization.  That value doesn’t have to always be monetary.  Value can be found in new connections, community good will, and of course, strengthening the mission, among others.

What is valuable, how valuable it is and if it is valuable enough has to be determined by each organization.  In our case, we’re one year into a new five-year strategic plan, so much of our discussion on these items revolves around the question of whether or not “this” will help us achieve one of the major goals in the plan.  But for other organizations, that evaluative process might be very different–your organization might need cold hard cash to make something worthwhile, or butts in seats.  Again, every organization is different, assigns value differently and therefore has different reasons for saying yes or no to the opportunities it’s presented with.

The key is having some system in place to evaluate on your value criteria.  If you don’t have any process in place, every time a question presents itself, it’s just overwhelming and stressful and adds to the difficulties in saying no.

I’m a huge proponent of learning to say no, clearly and confidently. I’ll admit that I’m actually much better at it with my small business owner hat and non-profit administrator hat on that my personal life hat, but nobody’s perfect, right?  And it wasn’t always easy–it’s definitely a learned skill.

As with many things in life, practice is key.  I also find that having the evaluative system above as incredibly helpful in providing a reason for saying no.  I feel much more confident telling someone, “thank you so much for this opportunity, but the glass center is not in a position to pursue this at this time” rather than just “no,” because I’ve actually done the work to determine that we’re not in the place to pursue this right now, or it’s not a good fit, it doesn’t align with our mission, or whatever other relevant determinations I make.

And since working on saying no can be tough, let’s have a little humor to wrap up. Whenever I think about saying no, this scene from 27 Dresses, where James Marsden’s character tries to help the people pleasing Jane (Katherine Heigl) to practice saying no.

So, let’s all take our inner people pleaser on a vacation for a few weeks and just say no.

Do you have a hard time saying no?  Do you have particular strategies to deal with it at work?

Sam Laffey is the Marketing Associate at Pittsburgh Glass Center and a partner at Porter Loves Photography.  She is always looking for groovy patterns, cute puppy dogs and all things green.  She can be found on a myriad of social media platforms, including Twitter @samlaffey.

Of Resolutions and Budgets

When we were brainstorming ideas for blog posts, I thought of bringing together New Year’s Resolutions and operating budgets – thinking of ways they differ and ways they are similar.  I’ve never been one to really get into resolutions for myself, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the expectations, frustrations, confidence, doubt, and self-belief that many people put into their resolutions – because those words and ideas came up a lot for me while drafting an operating budget for the first time this year.


It is possible to think of the budget as a resolution: this is the way we’re going to try to do things for the next twelve months.  We will make x amount of earned income (or floss every day).  We will review the numbers after x weeks, and see how far we are from our goal (whether that’s ticket sales or daily exercise taken).   Our focus for this year is to grow this audience or that foundation relationship, to strengthen these institutional muscles, to get healthier as an organization.  Of course, the health of an organization has a much more intimate relationship with its operating budget than the faithful adherence to an individual’s new year’s resolutions can have on the well-being of the individual (depends on the resolution, I expect).  Being way off track in the budget world can lead to serious repercussions of which we are all more than aware.


For kicks, though, I wanted to see how far I could stretch this analogy.  A quick dalliance with the google-machine led me to this article which (through an admittedly dubious reference to ‘a study’) details the top ten personal resolutions for 2013 (for the UK, granted, but bear with me here).  Here they are (no surprise in the bunch) with my comments about how they’d translate over to Arts Budget Land in italics below:


1. Save more money – 31%

well, that goes without saying! If your office hasn’t switched to the cheap toilet paper and the cheaper printer paper, it’s time!  And put on a sweater, young man!

2. Get out of debt – 22%

ditto, #1.  Big priority.

3. Get fit/lose weight – 18%

if we think of this as ‘which programs need to be streamlined’ or ‘is that ad buy really worth it?’, then yes!  getting leaner and meaner is part of the game.

4. Change job/career – 16%

okay maybe this parallel doesn’t quite fit.   We’re here because we want to be here.

5. Quite smoking – 13%


6. Give up alcohol – 11%

double hrm.

7. Spend less time working – 9%

parallel losing steam here for sure.   I mean – we could certainly use a conversation about work/life balance in the arts, but that’s another blog post.

8. Spend more time with family/friends – 7%

and … parallel gone.   Is it stretching a bit to say that this could be ‘spend more time collaborating with other artists whose work we enjoy?’  Could be.

9. Give up chocolate – 6%


what, where was I?

10.  Move house – 2%

and – our parallel is back!  Who wants a bigger, shinier, more technologically up-to-date performance or exhibition space?  Get in line!


Okay, so maybe not quite as taut an analogy as I had hoped.  Still – food for thought.


One New Year’s tradition that I do enjoy partaking in has to do with choosing a theme word for the year – a word that helps one feel alive to possibility and positivity.  It does take me a few days each year to choose a word, but once I get it right, it’s really right.  This year, I decided to also think of a word for my organization – one that incorporated both the ways we want to grow, the tough stuff we know we need to learn, and the priorities we need to keep in mind.  I’m still searching though.  Any ideas?



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