How do we create the next generation of arts leaders in Austin?

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With a sharper focus on diversity, Austin Emerging Arts Leaders launched its second year of a mentoring program designed to guide young arts professionals toward leadership positions. The new focus comes after the small nonprofit took steps to increase the diversity of its board and extended that efforts to its programming. “It takes all kinds of leaders from all kinds of backgrounds to lead in Austin,” said Heather Arnos, vice president of the board, “And in the arts, it’s important to see things from different perspectives.” 

Across the country, reports have shown that while minorities have similar education, training, and experience working in nonprofits, few of them advance to leadership positions. The 2017 “Race to Lead” report by the Building Movement Project, a nonprofit think tank, found that the percentage of minorities in the executive director or CEO role at a nonprofit has remained at less than 20 percent, despite the increasing diversity in the population. Not only that, “people of color are more likely to aspire to be leaders,” according to the report. 

Knowing this, Austin EAL had planned to launch the mentoring program when the chapter was founded in 2013, says Arnos, but because of the resources needed to run the program, it didn’t get off the ground until 2018. That year it had a strong but small pool of applicants to choose from, and five emerging arts leaders were paired with five mentors. Participants in 2018 included visual artist, Rachel Elizabeth Dennis, who became a board member of Austin EAL after going through the mentoring program.

“In order for an arts professional to overcome the challenges of establishing leadership, it is necessary to accommodate a broad set of disciplines, perspectives, institutions, and individuals in the community,” said Dennis. “My experience with Austin EAL was unique in that I not only received a mentor, but a community of support.” Before starting the program, an Austin EAL board member met to discuss her goals and served as a guide and support system throughout the mentoring program. 

Now as a board member herself, Dennis said, “We are working on creating both tangible and digital spaces that allow previous, current, and future mentors and mentees to collaborate and connect. Long-term relationships are the keys to sustainability in Austin’s creative community.”

The 2019 mentoring program launched this past week, with six applicants being selected from a much larger pool, says Arnos. “We are looking for people that have a strong passion for art administration or an artistic career, and that can be in any field,” said Arnos, “but we also wanted them to have taken some steps to get involved in the community.” The program goals extend beyond just having leaders who are excelling in their artistic field, said Arnos. “We want them to have a larger impact in the community, not just within their art form.”

PHOTO: Austin artist Rachel Elizabeth Dennis was one of the first participants in the Austin Emerging Arts Leaders mentoring program. 

NOTE: A version of this article also appeared in the October 6 Austin American-Statesman.

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