Zach Larson, like many students, initially was drawn to the arts management program at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point because he enjoyed theater and performing in high school.
What he and others have learned is that arts management is much more about people and connections to art, rather than about art itself.
“I never knew art could be such a powerful learning tool,” Larson said.
Arts management combines business and communication skills with creative arts. Arts managers are responsible for financing and marketing, developing programs, managing facilities, writing grants and managing personnel to support artists and arts agencies.
“I think the breadth of the field surprises many students,” said Jim O’Connell, assistant professor of arts management. O’Connell brings plenty of real-world experience to the role he assumed at UW-Stevens Point in 2014. He served as executive director of the Performing Arts Foundation, Inc., Wausau, managing the historic Grand Theater, for 22 prior years.
“Art is not a thing,” O’Connell said. “It’s what happens when a work of art and an audience meet. It can be as fleeting as a chuckle or sigh. Or it can be as long-lasting as a life transformed.”
Arts management students learn the business constraints that apply to financing, producing and promoting the arts. Often these are nonprofit organizations, so marketing and fund-raising skills are valuable.
Jobs in art management may include working with an orchestra, opera company, music ensemble, museum, art center, theater, dance company or arts facilities. “A number of students recognize they are not artists but have a real affinity for the arts,” O’Connell said.
Larson was involved in the production of Willy Wonka with the Playhouse Theatre Group in Stevens Point last spring, and this summer he will work as a teaching assistant at the Children’s Theatre Co., in Minneapolis. It is the largest children’s theater in North America.
“I found I liked working with kids. I loved writing and collaborating with groups,” said Larson, of Stillwater, Minn. “I feel I really make a difference in children’s lives.”
Arts management is a deeper side of public relations, Larson said. Part of the art is knowing how to motivate people to get involved, to connect with what they care about most. He finds this enormously satisfying.
“I thought it was about art. It’s all about people,” Larson said.
UW-Stevens Point had the first arts management undergraduate program in the state, and is considered the best in Wisconsin, according to Best-Art-Colleges.com.
About 100 students major in arts management, with 20 to 25 graduates annually, O’Connell said. About half have a dual major in the performing arts, a communication emphasis or business.
Each student has three field experiences. They begin interning with a local organization, such as the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra, Children’s Museum or an arts group at UW-Stevens Point. Then, they explore other organizations of interest, which have included an opera house in Oshkosh, a dance festival in Australia and an art center in the Smithsonian.
Externships are the final project. About one-third of arts management students choose to complete one in London, where UW-Stevens Point works with an educational services firm to place students based on their interests. They gain valuable experience with performance theaters, museums or art galleries, to name a few.
“Arts opportunities are coming back,” O’Connell said. People are recognizing arts as “the other basic need. They are using arts to engage in social issues. They’re using arts as a medium to improve lives and expand opportunities.”
Larson’s dream is to own a nonprofit children’s center for the arts, a childcare facility with activities focused on creativity. “There are so many things I can do with an arts management degree.
“UW-Stevens Point makes me want to be a better leader,” he said. “Arts management makes me want to be the one on the board making those tough decisions. It makes me want to be a leader in my community.”