I’m writing this last blogpost during my very last week at the Academy. After 11 years of employment at Mason, it feels quite surreal. I’m so thankful and appreciative of my time here, and I wanted to take a moment to look back and reflect on the great changes that both I and the Academy itself have experienced during that decade.
When our Director Libby Curtis hired my co-worker Candy Neukam and I in the Fall of 2008, at the very threshold of what was then called the Potomac Arts Academy (freshly re-envisioned and expanded from the Potomac Music Academy), we all shared a little shoebox-sized office tucked away in Mason’s School of Music. Candy and I each worked 12 hours a week. To say it was humble beginnings is perhaps an understatement! After a couple of years, and under the tenacious vision and guidance of our Director, the Academy began to catch hold and grow in its programming and impact. Candy and I were able to increase to 20 hours a week, and we moved into our new office and classroom location just off campus on Chain Bridge Road. Finally, in the Spring of 2011, our fates were sealed and we went full-time. The addition of Mary Lechter and her Acting For Young People team soon thereafter propelled the Academy to “next level”.
The success of the Academy from where it began to where it stands today is a tribute to many leaders and visionaries, many faithful supporters (including the university), and above all many normal, every-day families who shared our mission and message that the arts have transformative power, the arts are a vital part of a well-rounded and rich life, and the arts belong to everyone. I can honestly say that, as we grew and evolved, we didn’t always get it right 100%. However, we got it right MOST of the time, and when we didn’t, we did our very best to make amends as best we could and to make the necessary changes going forward. From the get-go, we had the understanding that if we were not serving the people, we were not doing our job.
Over the years, my official job title took on many forms: Assistant Manager, Coordinator of Promotions & Website, Assistant Director – Marketing & Communications… My job duties, I may say, took on many, many forms! From top-level organizational strategic planning, to intense budget meetings, to writing blogposts, to writing grants, to planning summer camps, to doing stagehand work at music recitals, to squeezing into an orange skin-suit for “streetside promotion” (see photo below – yep, that’s me!), to watering plants – and the list goes on! In the community arts field, one has to be ready (and willing) for all sorts of tasks that aren’t necessarily covered in academic Arts Management texts (in which I received my Graduate Certificate from George Mason University a few years back). I loved/ endured/ celebrated/ persevered through every minute of it.
It would be a huge disservice to my amazing colleagues to not make mention of the incredible collaborative, inclusive, and people-centric team that manages the Academy. Not only was it a one-of-a-kind place to work and thrive, it also provided a significant sense of honor to contribute to something that affected the community so positively in so many ways, whether through our weekly educational classes and lessons, our exciting and transformative summer camps, and/or our mission-driven outreach programs. The Academy is very much living up to one of the university’s goals to be a “cultural engine” to the region. And it only works because of the strong leadership, dedicated staff, and highly-skilled teaching artists that call the Academy home. I respect and admire all of you so very much!
Apart from the personal and professional growth I have gone through during my time here, it’s hard for me to pin-point specific experiences or incidents that have meant the most to me after so many years. Perhaps the best way to give a snapshot is to say this – here are a few examples where I have witnessed the life-changing power of the arts at the Academy, much as I experienced it in my own life:
- I observed a young girl, maybe in 9 or 10 years old, who came to one of our summer art camps. At the beginning of the week, she talked very little, very quietly, and mostly stared at the floor when spoken to. By the end of the week, when they were presenting their student art exhibit for family and friends, she was talking excitedly to all passers-by about her selected artworks on display.
- Over the course of several years, I watched a young boy who took piano lessons grow into a young teenager. Living with some level of autism, he had a very difficult time each recital performance to get up front and say his name before playing. I was so proud to watch him battle through that challenge each time, overcoming internal obstacles I can’t imagine, to then sit at the piano and play a sonatina beautifully.
- I’ve seen timid children, lacking in any kind of self-confidence, go through the magic of an acting camp and come out the other side bursting with exuberance, laughing with new-found friends, and ready to “take the stage”.
- I’ve talked with adults who always wished they had taken up an instrument, but are only just getting to it now, and overcoming that hurdle of self-consciousness to fulfill that desire and find new joy and reward later in life.
- I’ve seen senior citizens gather each week for a specialized Piano Class, which seemed 50% educational and 50% social (judging from the cacophony of laughter emanating through the door), and a profound sense of inspiration and invigoration.
I do believe that examples like these (and there are so many more) have had a part in giving me the courage to begin my own next adventure. As difficult as it is to leave the Academy, I am going on a journey “out West” (Portland, Oregon, to be exact) for a life-change and new beginnings. Much like the Bilbo Baggins character from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I do wish everyone a very fond farewell, and my heart is at ease knowing the Academy remains in excellent hands. Plus, I’m so happy to see our Academy building get a bit of a facelift these past few weeks (with more improvements pending), as it takes a significant step into it’s next phase of growth. May you all experience the joy of the arts, here and beyond!
With the warmest of regards,