Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders Network

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

Category Archives: Discussion

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.


Creative Conversation: Cultivating Diversity

Does anyone else think we’re a little crazy for broaching this topic?

Cause it’s tough–real tough. One, you have to define what diversity means. Two, you have to have an honest conversation about it in order to reach any conclusions, but do so without being insensitive. Three, you have to create a safe space to allow this conversation to happen. Four, you have to be willing to look at what you and your organization are (and are not) doing to cultivate diversity. And five, it’s a real hot button issue, especially in Pittsburgh.

Tall order, isn’t it? But with our lineup of panelists and facilitator, we know we’re gonna make this creative conversation successfully happen. And we hope that you’re going to be there to share in the experience with us!

So join us on Monday, October 22 from 7-9 pm at the Union Project (801 N. Negley Avenue) for drinks, light food, and stimulating conversation.

Facilitating the evening will be K. Chase Patterson, President and CEO of Corporate Diversity Associates LLC a consulting firm that specializes in corporate training and talent acquisition services.

He’ll be leading the audience and our panelists–Joseph Hall, Alyssa Herzog Melby, Alecia Shipman, and Bee Schindler (read the full bios here)–through the following questions and more:

  • How do we define diversity as arts professionals?
  • How can arts organizations cultivate diverse audiences?
  • How do we break down traditional barriers and stereotypes found in the arts?
  • How do the challenges of fostering diversity change based on the art form, the size, and the history of organizations?
  • What role can arts education and audience engagement play in fostering diversity in the arts?

Intrigued yet? But maybe you’re worried about how the event will be handled and whether or not you’ll feel comfortable asking questions? Don’t worry. Here’s the agenda for the night–and there’s plenty of opportunities to let down your guard and help us ask and talk about these tough questions:

7:00-7:30 Drinks, light refreshments, networking
*Everything always gets easier to talk about after a drink*
7:30-8:15 Panel discussion
8:15-8:30 Break for reflection (audience members will be invited to submit questions via note cards)
8:30-9:00 Audience and panel conversation
So what are you waiting for? This whole event is FREE, but we do ask that you take one minute to register today. Because we need to know how many drinks to buy, and you surely wouldn’t want us running out, would you? Thought not.
In all seriousness, though, this is one conversation that you’re not going to want to miss!  And to get us started, feel free to leave a comment on the blog or facebook about how you define and/or cultivate diversity.

Why you should care about the state of arts education

Arts education is my passion. So forgive me for what follows, but you know what? If you’re in the arts, it should be your passion, too.

Whether you are an arts maker, arts decision maker, arts advocate, arts consumer, or an arts educator, what happens in arts education–and by this, I mean the whole gamut, from itty bitty babes to the young-at-heart sect–determines the vibrancy of the community we work and live within and the realistic scope of what we in the arts world can successfully accomplish.

“Blah blah blah,” you say. “Your previous sentence is loaded and vague and like everything else I’ve ever read about arts education. I’ve heard this all before. Why care now?”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that within the last month, an enormous amount of literature has been released involving arts education because there’s a lot of value in arts education that many are only now beginning to recognize. But here are two facts from recent reports to that have been sticking in my mind, and although they speak specifically to K-12 education I feel they are reflective of arts education as whole:

1. If, as EPLC and the Arts and Education Initiative’s report, Creating Pennsylvania’s Future Through the Arts in Education puts forward, over 80% of Americans believe the arts are an integral part to a well-rounded education and the arts are seen as a vital component for addressing 21st century workforce skills by key business leaders, why are fewer than 50% of children studying the arts? (I should note that these stats are being re-reported from other literature. To actually read their recs for what we should do in PA, go here).

2. From the gist of the just released Arts Education in Public  Elementary and Secondary Schools 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 from the National Center for Educational Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education (how’s that for having some clout behind it?), it appears that fewer students across the board are studying an art area (but this is substantial when you take into account that visual arts and music are still more widely offered, while dance and theatre is offered in less than 4% of elementary schools, for instance), and that the decline is even larger for lower-income students.

Why should you care? Wait wait, before you answer, let me ask you this: did you take art in school? Did it shape you on your path to where you are today? My answer, at least, is a resounding, “yes!”

So I’ll ask again: why should you care? Oh, before you answer again, think about this: How did you learn to be creative?

Why should you care? Does artistic genius only come to those who can afford to pay for after-school training?

Why should you care? Do you want an appreciative consumer of your art in 20 years, or were you planning on retiring before then? Oh, you haven’t started an IRA yet? Well, I guess you’ll still be working right along with me!

Why should you care? Is the rest of the world investing in arts education? (the answer: yes).

Why should you care? Are you in dance or theatre? Do you see the lack of representation we have in the schools? Breaks my heart.

Why should you care? Why should you care? Pick a reason, any reason. Add a reason below.

Because the reasons are all here. How we handle arts education today will affect how we create art (and hopefully, we have artists who have been taught techniques for how to create art), consume art, criticize art, market art, etc. with the next generation of emerging arts leaders. THAT is why you should care about the state of arts education.

[whew…stepping off soapbox and heading towards the kitchen for a beer, thinking about the inevitable follow-up blog post, “Now what to DO about the state of arts education…”]

Alyssa Herzog Melby is the Director of Education and Community Engagement at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. All opinions expressed herein are hers alone and not those of PBT.

The Art of Small Talk, or How to Begin Networking

It never fails. After almost any public event that I attend with my spouse, he always says, “You’re so good at talking with strangers. I wish I could do that, but I can’t.” And every time I tell him a secret that I’m about to share with you all: I wasn’t born with a special talent to talk with strangers. I have worked—and worked extremely hard—at acquiring this skill, the “art of small talk.”

It’s hard for me to recall at what point in my life it became clear that the art of small talk was a skill I thought worthy of possessing. Perhaps it started as early as age 10 when I read a book (are you ready for a really shameful confession?) entitled How to be Popular with Boys that I found at a garage sale. This book—clearly from the non-women’s lib side of the 1970s—makes me now cringe. It did not help me to be as popular as the title proclaimed, but I do remember taking away a few key points that emphasized making eye contact and asking people questions about themselves. Or perhaps my investment in learning small talk occurred in college when I was a theatre major, and it was hammered into our brains that theatre is largely “who you know.” And the only way you get to know someone was by talking with them (and yes, this was before the rise of online messaging where people were still required to talk face to face.) Or perhaps it came from somewhere else entirely.

Wherever it stemmed from, it has been something that I have worked tirelessly on because I firmly believe that small talk is the beginning of networking. It doesn’t always work the greatest. I can recall plenty of times I have left a function going, “Why did I ask that? Why didn’t I ask them about this?” and replaying the scene over and over in my mind. But when it does work right, small talk leads to big ideas.

So while I am not the expert, I would like to humbly offer up what I have learned about the art of small talk and how you, too, can practice it.

  1. Know your audience: If you have the time, do a little research on the function you are attending, who is hosting it, and the people who will likely be there. But even if you don’t, get to know your audience from the moment you enter the room. In this case, judge a book by its cover.
  2. Make a good first impression: as you are judging other books’ covers, so others are judging yours. Walk tall, look people in the eye, and a firm (but not death-grip) handshake exudes confidence, even when you feel as nervous as a clam (and oh, how many times I have faked confidence!).
  3. Ask questions and find points of connection: People like to talk about themselves. 99% of the time, this is true. So ask questions and start simple. My favorites include: Where do you work? What do you do in your job? Are you from the area? How did you get into your current position? Have you been here before? Etc. etc. etc.
  4. Break down assumptions: Remember when I said “judge a book by its cover?”  Once the ice has been broken through conversation, then try to actively break down the assumptions you have made and others have made of you because everyone is so much more than their surface appearance. For instance, because I work for a classical dance company and therefore dress more conservatively on a day to day basis, people may assume that I like to shop at the Banana Republic (hate both things—shopping and the Banana Republic) or that I am uptight and straight-laced.  I like to try and bring up in conversation at some point that I have 2 tattoos and used to play the tuba. People never seem to expect either of those things.
  5. Read body language: perhaps I have an advantage here being a theatre major, but it’s really important to learn how to read people’s body language. I’m not talking as in-depth as Lie to Me tactics, but watch and observe. How does the person react when you are talking? Is the person nervously fidgeting and possibly more afraid of this situation than you are? Is the person actively engaged with listening to you, or are there eyes darting elsewhere? How does the person act when they are talking? Do they respond better to some questions than to others? What are they telling you about their comfort level in space (are they constantly shifting away from you if you inadvertently step closer to hear them better?) and with the content of the conversation? I am much more willing than others to talk about things other than work, but some people are very much focused at networking events on “talking shop.” So based on the feedback you are getting from their body language, re-adjust how you are interacting to help put the other person at ease and hope the conversation grows.
  6. And of course, to help facilitate this all even further, go to events that serve alcohol. Everyone has an easier time talking with a wine glass/pint of beer/cocktail in their hand!

What other advice can you give about how to begin and facilitate small talk at networking events?

Alyssa Herzog Melby is the Director of Education and Community Engagement at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre among many other things, including mom, wife, friend, gardener, cook, artist, cloth-diaper enthusiast, sewer, drinker of homemade brews, reader of great books, and, as aforementioned, a proud former tuba player. All opinions expressed herein are hers alone and not those of PBT.

NextGen Report Released

If you haven’t already, definitely check out this new report by the Center for Cultural Innovation, titled Nurturing California’s Next Generation Arts and Cultural Leaders, about (you guessed it) the attitudes and attributes of the next generation of arts leaders.  You can download either the full report or just the executive summary, and there’s some really interesting stuff in there about job satisfaction, salaries, and what the new generation wants out of their jobs.  Well worth the read!

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