From Artist to Executive Director: Not a Straight Line

Few young people answer "Nonprofit Executive Director" when asked what they want to be when they grow up. And most executive directors will admit to not having thought much about such a career, until just the right job happened to land in their path. Here's how the story unfolded for a young artist from Chicago who one day found himself unexpectedly working as an ED in Montana:

As an artist, the thought of becoming a nonprofit executive director just never occurred to me. My aspirations were always clear: to make my artwork in a stimulating, creative environment. After college I spent a summer as an artist-in-residence at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts (The Bray) in Helena, Montana, doing sculpture alongside other ceramic artists. After that 1998 summer residency I moved to Chicago and worked as a studio potter for three and a half years while also managing a local ceramic supply company. As much as I wanted to be alone in the studio making pots, much of my time was spent contacting galleries, preparing for craft shows, interacting with the public, and managing my finances.

While still on the artist's career path, I moved to another big city -- New York -- for another artist residency and to be honest, to be closer to my girlfriend at the time. When the residency (and the relationship) ended, I attended graduate school and then spent a year living/working in China, teaching and creating a new body of artwork in the city of Jingdezhen.

Along the way, I kept in touch with the previous Bray director, Josh DeWeese. I was teaching ceramics as a visiting professor in Vancouver when I heard that the ED position was opening at the Bray. I knew the candidate field would be competitive given the organization's stature, and I doubted that they would actually take a risk on someone with my background.

When I received the call from the Board President offering me the position as the Director of the Archie Bray Foundation, I surprised myself by not accepting the job that instant. Needing to clear my thoughts, I took a trip to a small seaside town to think about the responsibility and the journey ahead of me. Once I'd sorted things out, I called to accept the position.

Past skills relevant

Although I came into the job without any ED experience, my past work as an artist, teacher, and manager have helped me tremendously with the wide range of responsibilities before me. Don't get me wrong -- there has been a huge learning curve: working with a board, fundraising, pulling weeds, etc. Luckily I had ample overlap with my predecessor to learn the ropes, and an amazingly dedicated and helpful staff. Looking back over the last three years, it hasn't always been easy to maintain my hours in the ceramics studio, but it has been so rewarding to work in such a stimulating and creative environment. While some skills have come more naturally than others, there are a lot of people I can look to for support and counsel.

Although I was born and raised outside of Chicago, I fell in love with Montana and particularly Helena, where I spent a lot of time fly-fishing, hiking and enjoying the slower pace of life. As someone whose skin crawls at the sight of urban traffic, I particularly enjoyed swapping out Chicago's rush hour with Helena's "rush minute." It may not be the most ethnically diverse community (I help make up the 0.78% Asian population in Helena, which slips to 0.5% when I leave on a trip), but it is culturally diverse, and full of interesting and educated people who are passionate about the arts. I do wish there were a Korean restaurant in town.

After becoming more comfortable with the day-to-day operations of the organization, I could pursue new directions, some of which were not anticipated until I spent time here. Recently we've taken a closer look at the environmental impact of our facilities and artistic processes and have instituted a number of sustainable initiatives to serve as an example in our community. The Bray is a special place that changes lives in a way that I am passionate about. I'm thankful that my past experiences provided the right mix of skills to launch me on the path of my current job, and am committed to supporting the Bray through the next stages of its growth.

Steven Young Lee is the Resident Artist Director of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, founded in 1951 as a gathering place for emerging and established ceramic artists. He has exhibited in museums and galleries around the country. His scuplture "challenges pre-conceptions of style, form, symbolism, superstition and identity" (University of Montana). His work "As Her Bad Dream" and "Year of the Rabbit" illustrate this piece.

Comments (4)

  • Steven, thanks for the reassurance. I am a 25 year old currently working for a nonprofit and moving toward a career in healthcare. Your story is a helpful reminder that a straight shot isn't necessary to be successful and happy. I appreciate the ceramics shown too! keep up the good work and asian representation in the mid-west.

    Nov 02, 2009
  • Wow! I am so glad I came across your story. I am a 28 yr. old graphic artist who is trying to get a non-profit started after seeing my husband suffer a stroke and realized too many people don't get enough therapy covered by insurance to make their best recovery. This is not the life I had imagined and although I don't know the first thing about managing and running a non-profit, I do have passion. Thanks for showing that it's okay to tread unknown waters.

    Nov 03, 2009
  • As a relatively new executive director in Missoula, Montana, I appreciate your honesty and enthusiasm. You're right--most of us don't dream of the ed's life, yet it's surprisingly rewarding. I like to say we're serving the better angels of our nature as nonprofit managers. And who can get enough of the idealism, the passion, the commitment?

    Nov 03, 2009
  • As a relatively new ED myself, though in the arts administration world for some time, I read this article with interest. I have always found a distinction between 'arts administrators' and 'artists' as healthy. In other words, I usually dissuade artists who apply for administrative positions with me... as what I've found is that in the end, they really want to pursue their art, and their commitment to the work in non-profit, that can often be a drain as we are under-payed and overworked, is limited. Of course, this is a generalization and every individual is different. And afterall, it does take a fair amount of creativity to run a non-profit! Thanks for the read.

    Nov 04, 2009

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