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Ally Duffey

Let's Talk About Challenges and Change....

by Alexandra Duffey Monday, November 14, 2016

In the last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about change - from the personal and professional to the political and cultural. I had lived in New York City for ten years. After studying dance and art history at Barnard College, I stayed and worked in development and marketing for several mid-size dance companies, including the Cunningham Dance Foundation, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, and Pilobolus. I had become increasingly interested in how managers affect bold change within organizations and how those organizations can themselves be agents for innovation. I thought that I might as well start by boldly changing myself: I decided to uproot my life and return to school for an MBA at University of Wisconsin’s Bolz Center for Arts Administration.

Making the move to leave the city where I had spent my entire adult and professional life was a challenge. It is difficult to move against inertia, break away, and do something new, whether that is picking up and moving halfway across the country for graduate school or a more professional dilemma, such as implementing a new institutional marketing plan, adjusting a budgeting process, or reevaluating a program. I have experienced how momentum can carry an organization swiftly and forcefully in a particular direction.

In our core classes this semester, I’m learning some new skills and practical tools to address these business questions; but I also knew before I chose this program that there would be no textbook for the larger questions affecting the arts field. The challenges we must respond to in the arts are amorphous, with vast implications: What is the role of art in society today? How do arts organizations respond to changing demographics, new media, and the ways we interact with one another in an increasingly digital world?

I chose to return to business school at the Bolz Center precisely because it offers more than just a textbook. Through a mix of experiences that include weekly round-tables with industry professionals, site visits, and applied learning internships at local arts organizations, the Bolz Center creates a forum for questioning and considering the cultural environment both in theory and practice.

I believe that stimulating discussions and honest conversations are an essential first step to tackling the challenges we face and changes we must make. The opportunities for this have been plentiful over the last ten weeks. We travelled to Milwaukee, where we explored how a large, beloved, century-old institution or a scrappy start-up can maneuver through shifting economic, civic, and cultural realities. We visited Chicago, where we met with staff from the for-profit comedy theater The Second City and discussed the challenges of growth and scale. We have considered trends in fundraising and marketing with professionals from across the country, including Michael Mael of the Washington National Opera and Chad Bauman of Milwaukee Repertory Theater. These conversations have been simultaneously overwhelming, exhilarating, and incredibly motivating. Inevitably, the discussion continues beyond the classroom, where the real work and real learning begins.

The events of this last week have put the question of how we manage change and confront challenges into harsh, razor-sharp relief. It’s is not easy. However, I’m excited to continue learning from and with my fellow Bolzies, co-workers, and peers over the coming months as we tackle how we must change: together. To echo the Wisconsin School of Business’ moto and to end on a particularly “cheesy” note in honor of Wisconsin: together, forward!