A Tale of Reinvention: The Historian, the Dancer, and the Arts Administrator
As the Queens College Women’s Choir sang traditional South African songs, legendary trumpet player and freedom fighter Hugh Masekela sat in the front row of the classroom. The array of ethnic and racial backgrounds in the room reflected the incredibly diverse demographics of the borough of Queens in New York City. I noticed myself tearing up. After the performance, Masekela hosted a panel discussion in which he talked about music as a conduit for social change, the violence he faced every day fighting apartheid, and marching with Nelson Mandela. Later that evening, he performed one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever attended. There was quite a bit of tearing up for me through it all because, as part of my job, I’d had something to do with everything that happened that day.
I work for the Kupferberg Center for the Arts at Queens College, doing “strategic partnerships.” This has entailed booking a Latin artist to perform at one of the college’s venues, writing grant proposals for a dance project involving 12 different City University of New York partners, liaising between arts students and the Queens Library system for an off-site art exhibit, organizing a benefit involving the college’s alumni and a famous Broadway actor, planning the family activities for a large outdoor festival, and yes, facilitating encounters between musical icons and our college community.
All in all, I help choose and implement projects and collaborations that advance the mission of our organization: to offer Queens audiences quality entertainment and bring art to the neighborhoods where our students’ families live and work. We present commercial shows in our large indoor venues, which help us subsidize free public programming all over the borough. In addition, some of our off-site performances and art exhibits are works by our student artists, allowing them to build their portfolios and helping us to showcase the quality of our academic programs.
My academic background has been instrumental in cementing the relationships between the arts center and the college’s departments. Additionally, my background as a dancer has influenced the center’s interactions with the artists with whom we work, helping them to better understand some of the challenges they face when trying to make a living in New York.
So, how did I get here?
I moved to New York from Mexico City to do an MA and then a PhD in history. I’d had my BA thesis published by a university press, and my professors all believed I had a bright future in academia. I started my doctorate full of hope and thrilled to live in New York City, where I had a good network of friends, some family members, and a group of people with whom I formed a collective project of Mexican traditional music and dance.
While getting my doctorate, I heard from countless friends about their fruitless searches for decent teaching jobs, their interview throes and misfortunes at AHA annual meetings, and their need to become postdoctoral fellows and adjuncts. Some friends left academia altogether, and some who stayed constantly questioned their career choices. By the time I finished in 2015, I had lost my interest in the professoriate.
Don’t get me wrong. I love academia. Both my parents are academics, and I have an intrinsic love for learning. However, the constant feeling of unworthiness that came with my work being relentlessly critiqued; the knowledge that there was always something else to read, something else to write, something else to grade; and the sense that any free time is only well spent when it’s spent writing—all took a toll on me. I also wanted to stay on the East Coast, which is where my music and dance community is located.
Through music and dance, I met a number of arts administrators over the years. Their jobs consisted of doing everything it takes to put together a performance or an art show: raise funds, choose the artists, arrange press announcements, coordinate production and marketing teams, deal with members of boards of trustees and advisory councils, and generally work at expanding audiences for the arts. I was intrigued by those tasks, and it seemed to me that spending one’s professional life around artists wouldn’t be a bad deal. So, when I was about to finish my PhD and my job prospects in academia didn’t look all that bright, I started looking for positions in arts organizations.
It took a while, but finally news came that the new director of the Kupferberg Center was interested in interviewing me. He thought my academic background could be an asset in running some strategic aspects of the organization, mainly fundraising and student involvement.
It seemed to me that spending one’s professional life around artists wouldn’t be a bad deal. So, when I was about to finish my PhD, I started looking for positions in arts organizations.
The job offer came as a relief, but I was still concerned about my immigration status. As an international student, I was only allowed to take positions directly related to the discipline I studied. I therefore wasn’t at all sure that working outside academia would be an option. But in drafting the petition letter for my work visa, my boss—who has also become a mentor and friend—explained that someone with my profile could help the organization understand the college community better, including the role that students and faculty should play regarding the arts on campus.
Despite my fancy PhD from an Ivy League university, I was offered an entry-level position because I had never worked in an office before. But from the start, I was intent on showing two things. First, no assignment was beneath me—I saw seemingly mindless tasks such as making copies (or coffee), creating payment requests, and filling in an order for printer toner as opportunities to learn the nuts and bolts of how a nonprofit organization functions. Second, I was serious about the job and willing to learn. I attended meetings well prepared, read all the materials, did my research, and was never hesitant to voice my opinion through well-constructed arguments supported by relevant information. In other words, I treated the job like I treated grad school, and it worked. After six months, I was integrated into the development team and put in charge of strategizing initiatives involving our art students.
Development departments are usually in charge of writing grant proposals, researching potential funding opportunities, and making sure the expectations of both funder and grantee are fulfilled. Surprisingly, this is something I enjoy, after years of dread during fellowship-application time in grad school. The wonderful thing about writing a grant proposal for an organization instead of to support my scholarly work is that I’m much less emotionally invested in the process. Rejections don’t feel personal or make me doubt all my life choices. I’m also able to see the value of what my organization can offer (or lacks) with a critical eye.
Additionally, I’m charged with coordinating events with artists (like Masekela) who perform on campus and interact with students, faculty, and staff in an academic capacity. Such interactions can take the form of panel discussions, master classes, open rehearsals, or one-on-one meetings. Strategically, projects like these enhance the visibility of our center among students and their families; they make us a more attractive choice for prospective students; and they create an intellectually rich campus environment. I guess the years I spent organizing student conferences, seminars, and conferences did actually teach me a thing or two.
In the end, I have been able to remain in academia but in a different capacity. There are days when I miss the intellectual challenges of a life of historical research and writing. Do I still think about applying to teaching jobs? Sometimes. Do I have time to write the required scholarly articles and book manuscripts to be considered? Not really. But I have made time to write an article about the need for rehearsal and performance spaces for dancers in New York, another related to my dissertation for an interdisciplinary journal, and an essay about my experience as a dancer who performs to traditional music from Mexico in the United States. Do I wish these pieces could add to my “value” as a historian? You bet. Do they? I’m not sure, but I think they reflect the reality that so many of us in academia are experiencing: you have to diversify your interests in case you find yourself not getting an academic job, not wanting to be a university professor, or not being willing to move for personal, family, religious, or health reasons. I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience in graduate school, but I do value the new knowledge and resources that my job is giving me today. And the concerts, art shows, theater plays, and music festivals I get to attend are the icing on the cake.
Julia del Palacio holds a PhD in Latin American history from Columbia University and is now manager of strategic partnerships at the Kupferberg Center for the Arts. She is also a professional dancer who performs to traditional music from Mexico.
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