Mentorship: An Investment in the Future of the Arts

June is the season of graduation; a conclusion of one phase of learning and the beginning of the next. But I believe that artists and arts administrators should continuously take advantage of opportunities to learn. That seeking spirit enables us to refine our craft; expand or cultivate our skills, and lead others to do the same.  It’s one of the reasons I enjoy lecturing at conferences. Not only am I sharing my expertise, but these events also are an opportunity for me to gain deeper insights into our industry’s pulses and trends. Whether it’s during question and answer sessions,side-bar conversations, or informal group dialogues, listening and exchanging ideas provides an opportunity for learning and professional growth.

There is another aspect to learning that’s just as important, if not more so.  And that is mentorship. As a matter of fact, I believe mentorship is the key to ensuring that our industry not only continues to survive, but also thrives!

A mentor is more than just a wise and trusted counselor. A mentor is committed to ensuring that the mentee has the knowledge, skills and wisdom necessary to succeed, soar and surpass the teacher. In other words, the mentor is an investor in the future of his/her craft or profession.

About mentoring, author and scholar Daisaku Ikeda writes:“The relationship between mentor and mentee can be likened to that between needle and thread.  The mentor is the needle and the mentee is the thread.  When sewing, the needle leads the way through the cloth, but in the end, it is unnecessary and it is the thread that remains and holds everything together.”

Not only do I believe that mentors should be passionate, highly-skilled and successful, it’s also essential that they be patient, tolerant, flexible, insightful, vigilant and undaunted by the amount of time or work required to assist their successors. At the same time, mentors must also be open to learning from their mentees; to seeing the world through their eyes, and translating that vision into new opportunities for mutual growth.

Being a mentor is a critical part of my mission—this commitment is the foundation of my business and the graduate courses I have been teaching at New York University and other colleges and universities for nearly 25 years. As a mentor, I am determined to foster the development and professional growth, as well as contribute to the education of the next generation of arts administrators, especially those from communities of color. This is the only way that I can ensure they are prepared to take on leadership positions in large and small cultural organizations, which in turn is a tremendous benefit to society.

Now, more than ever, cultural diversity must become a cornerstone of all facets of the arts industry. That’s why it’s so important that those of us in the business take responsibility for cultivating a generation of leaders who not only love the arts, but who also are committed to multiculturalism and community collaboration. These are both salient and essential ingredients of success for all cultural institutions. The dedicated efforts of such people as John Haworth of the Museum of the American Indian, who was featured in a previous blog, is a phenomenal example.

Of critical importance, is the mentorship of mid-level professionals to guide them in the development of the necessary leadership skills for senior- and executive-level positions. There is no greater joy than having a mentee call and report their career advancement. As a matter of fact, I received such a call last week from a woman I taught at Brooklyn College graduate school. She is now the marketing director for a national arts organization. I was so happy and I told her she must excel and shine by doing magnificent work!

I believe each of us has a responsibility to foster the next generation of professionals in our respective fields; to ensure that they recognize, understand and promote the diverse cultural legacies woven into the fabric of America. More than technical skills, i.e. how to raise money or build a marketing campaign, we must ensure they also receive training in the nuances of leadership and the nimbleness necessary for navigating a competitive landscape.The Rutgers University Institute for Ethical Leadership is one program on the frontlines of this effort, providing education, training and critical-thinking tools needed to make principled decisions in nonprofit and for-profit business.

I am extremely appreciative of the mentors in my life, who continue to guide, advise, support and love what I am doing and who I am. They encourage and inspire me to self-reflect, challenge my weaknesses and persevere. I especially want to thank the mentors who helped me develop as an arts administrator and audience development specialist: Daisaku Ikeda, the late Larry Phillips, George C. Wolfe and Arthur Mitchell, who each guided, advised and supported my work.

Given the state of the world, we need more mentors willing to guide the next generation of leaders tasked with protecting the arts and making them accessible to all and infusing a culture of humanism in their organizations. I urge you to extend your hand today to at least one younger person with whom you will continue to work with until they are ready to reach out and take the baton; I urge you to put a stake in the ground, and make an investment in the future of the arts. If you are already mentoring, great, do it again!