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From Large to Small: Three Lessons

by Aili McGill, Nickel Plate Arts on

Eighteen months ago, I left my position at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park to become Director of Nickel Plate Arts, a new community arts organization in Noblesville, Indiana.

Since making this career shift from a large, established institution to a newer, smaller one, I’ve learned three significant lessons:

Enthusiasm is the multi-tool of leadership

I’m naturally optimistic. Until I came here, I never realized how effective and widespread my enthusiasm could be.  Not only is enthusiasm contagious, it inspires confidence in funders, and it encourages partners and advocates to join your team. My whole-hearted enthusiasm overcomes any negativity and  focuses on getting things done.

When a plumbing leak destroyed the ceiling in my new office, my enthusiasm convinced the plumbers to come fix it after-hours.  When a downpour threatened our first fundraiser, enthusiasm inspired me to hand out umbrellas with a smile.  And when I come home exhausted on a Saturday evening after a 65-hour week marked by meltdowns, misunderstandings, minor disasters and what I see as mediocre progress, my enthusiasm keeps me looking forward to the promise of Monday morning.

Keep it social

While at Conner Prairie, I quickly learned that many of our potential audience had little love for history. To draw guests in, we had to make sure that the experience was fun. People want to spend their leisure time and money socializing and having a good time.

My experience so far has taught me that art is even tougher to sell than history. While many guests may regard history as boring, even more seem afraid of art. If guests feel that art has historically been reserved for the rich, powerful, and highly-educated, many fear that stepping into an art gallery will make them feel foolish and uncultured. Only a small percentage of tourists regularly seek out arts events when they travel, and even fewer purchase art from local artists.

Given this climate, what can a director of a tiny arts organization do?  Since tourists and locals tend to gravitate toward highly social, enjoyable events, we incorporate art into existing events in order to convert participants into arts advocates. We create comfortable, inviting environments where art is the vector for conversation, connection, and fun. This approach brings its own challenges, but we see how dropping barriers lets people become part of what’s cool, fun and artsy.

It can be lonely at the topWoman sitting in artistic throne in art gallery

The last, perhaps most complex, lesson I’ve learned here at Nickel Plate is what it’s like to be all alone. My position as director is a heavy responsibility, but it also gives me a unique advantage.

Things are moving and growing so quickly that at any given moment, even our closest constituents have only a vague idea of our goals and mission. I’m the only one who sees the big picture, how daily performance data defines our obstacles and shows how close we are to achieving our goals. Despite my reports to our governing groups and partner artists, they don’t have the tools to envision our organization’s scope and potential.

Sometimes it’s frustrating to shepherd “the vision” single-handedly, but it’s also very liberating.  I have all the tools I need to whip up a program, tweak a marketing strategy, or strike up a chance conversation on the street with a potential sponsor. And I don’t have to wait for someone to fill out forms or approve each step.

Of course, there’s a lot of pressure to get it right.  I try to be objective, questioning my assumptions and pushing the envelope when thinking about Nickel Plate’s goals and needs.  If a program flops or a sponsorship falls through, it’s all on me. But when I get it right, it sure feels good and reminds me of why I struck out on this grand adventure in the first place.

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