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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Cup of Ambition: Writers Center Director

We've all heard it before, at dinner parties, from relatives, from our therapists: "Oh, you write. Does that mean you'll be a teacher?" Fine, fine. We can't make enough money to "eat" or "live" from our poetry. Every MFA graduate knows the horrible feeling that settles into her stomach as graduation approaches. You finished a whole book!, you keep telling people. And still, no prospective employers come a-calling. Here at HFR, we know how you feel. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some jobs we writers and lovers of books might enjoy. Or do enjoy. Or have tried, and regret. This regular post, A Cup of Ambition, will talk to those in-the-know about what the working world is really like.

Meet our eighth guest...
Charles Jensen, Director, The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The Writer’s Center hosts over 300 writing workshops and 50 public events each year, runs a small bookstore, houses a small theatre space, publishes Poet Lore (the oldest continually published literary magazine in the United States) and works to develop a literary community in the metro DC area. I oversee all the operations, artistically and functionally, and make sure it all works.

How did you come to have this job?
It was actually a very cosmic experience. Although I fell into the arts administration field itself much by accident, I was unintentionally preparing for it for many years. It started in college when I ran the campus movie theatre; over the years, I worked in architecture marketing, as a residence hall director at two enormous colleges, and I taught English. During my MFA program, I started working with the Piper Center for Creative Writing, which turned into a full time gig. The rest of the story follows the plot of Showgirls: as the people above me started to clear up, I moved up the totem pole there, gaining tons of experience along the way. But I always felt strongly that the work I did represented a culmination of all my previous work experience. I was lucky enough to find The Writer’s Center, whose programs matched my experience and who, frankly, was looking for the kind of experience I had: an eye for branding, a commitment to developing and sustaining community, and a strong educational background in literature and writing.

The Good Stuff
The most gratifying thing is working in the community on behalf of the art I love. I get to be a part of opening people’s eyes to the joy and challenges of writing, of encouraging them to attend readings, read books, form groups, and dedicate themselves to writing. DC is a city built by and for the arts (because, after all, isn’t politics an art?), so being in this place and working in this field feels even more unique.

And, although it’s geeky and weird, I get a real kick out of working toward creating a cohesive brand identity, cultivating clear and concise mission and vision statements, and determining if/how specific programs fulfill the mission. Organizational design and development, to me, is like brain candy. I could talk about it all day. Which is why I’m often left standing alone at cocktail parties.

The Bad Stuff
Ensuring the business aspects will survive, or hopefully even thrive. From the outside, organizations like this one seem to run very smoothly and appear to be self-sufficient, but like all arts organizations, it’s just not the case. We are absolutely dependent on the investments of donors and foundations to keep doing what we’re doing at the level at which we do it. In my biased opinion, I feel like performing and visual arts organizations have less difficulty raising funds from donors because there’s a greater sense of cache for being involved with them. The literary arts are often overlooked—even by the arts community itself—and so I feel in my work just as I did in my childhood—the youngest, smallest child clamoring for the attention of the rest of the household. Luckily, the techniques to get attention in childhood are easily translatable to arts administration.

Surprise Me
Well, it might surprise you to know that behind my chipper, happy-go-lucky demeanor exists a risk-obsessed, suspicious inner voice, and this is absolutely critical to my job. I’ve discovered I have a particular knack for discerning the many ways in which someone (or several people in collusion) could commit fraud or embezzle money from the places where I work, but I do use this power for the forces of good by creating policies and safeguards to protect employees from accusations of impropriety. In taking over my new role here, I spent several weeks sounding like an overprotective mother who won’t let her child play on the monkey bars. “You’ll fall! You’ll split your head open! You’ll sprain a wrist!” I didn’t say those things, of course, but you get the idea. Although I frequently sounded like I could only see the worst in people, it’s not true. I want to ensure that all the good people in our community get the best experience possible from us. Frequently, that means battening down the hatches before setting sail. To mix some metaphors.

Spin a Yarn
Arts administration can be a circus. Just this week I had to go looking for a grant check we were due. The state granting agency confirmed they had sent a check request out already, but that a second state agency who had assessed a fee of us might have been holding it. We called the second state agency who said, No, we’re not holding it. The following morning, we got a letter in the mail from a third state agency that read, We are holding your check from state agency 1 on behalf of state agency 2, to whom you owe money. I called the third state agency to remind them we had appealed the ruling of state agency 2, and the person there said, Oh, you can disregard that letter. It’s automatically generated. We cut your check today and it’ll be mailed tomorrow.

I could tell you some other stories, like the time I failed to arrange a formal introduction for A. S. Byatt, but didn’t realize it until A. S. Byatt was sitting in the front row of the event waiting to be welcomed to the podium, but I’m saving that one for my tell-all.

Who makes a good administrator?
I think the most important thing for someone in my position is to remember you aren’t doing it alone. Wherever I have worked, I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants, the staff members in the organization who keep things going. My job is really just to motivate them, recognize their accomplishments, and perhaps gently guide them when they need it.

It also helps if you can maintain a cool demeanor. When I met my staff here, I showed them my “panicked” face, which was expressionless. And remembering that it’s unlikely any failures we commit in our day-to-day work rarely result in death or injury for others; most mistakes we can correct quickly, so there’s no need to worry too much.

I often dream that I will wake up with stunning attention to detail, but so far it hasn’t happened. But allowing yourself a few obsessive-compulsive traits wouldn’t hurt you in working in arts administration.

How do I become you?
I think so many people, students even, are doing work right now that would translate into arts administration experience, but they don’t realize it. Planning a reading series, running a student group—even pulling together a workshop of friends and colleagues are all examples of the kind of work we do in arts administration. The scale is just larger, but the skills, the passion, and the motivations are really the same.

If you’re not getting that kind of experience now, it’s easy to go out and find it. State Arts Commissions and other nonprofit agencies are always looking for volunteers or interns, and the service provided to the organizations is absolutely invaluable. The experience gained, priceless.

It’s also never too late to start. There’s actually an odd rift in many arts agencies between people just starting out and people ready to retire. In the next decade or so, a lot of Executive Director and top-tier management seats are going to empty out—and we will desperately need smart, committed artists taking the helms of organizations in every discipline.

Thoughts on this job for writers...
It can be a risk. I don’t write as much as I could, but I think I write more than the poet working for State Farm Auto Insurance, for example (no offense to Wallace Stevens). The benefit for me is that I get to exist in a world where literature is valued, where people take art seriously, and where engaging in conversations about books, writers, and individual works is part of my job. It might be harder to find that kind of support in other professions. In that way, my work does inspire me to write, or at least stay engaged with my own work. I exist permanently within a community of writers. That alone is gift enough for me.

Charles Jensen is the author of three chapbooks, including Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award (read a review at The Blood Orange Review), and The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon (New Michigan Press, 2007). A past recipient of an Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, his poetry has appeared in Bloom, Columbia Poetry Review, Copper Nickel, The Journal, New England Review, spork, and West Branch. He holds an MFA in poetry from Arizona State University and is currently pursuing an MA in Nonprofit Leadership and Management. He is the founding editor of the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT, which explores creative work on a city-by-city basis.

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