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Sarah Bluvas

Into the Wild: Why a Summer with the National Park Service Makes Sense for this Arts Administrator

by Sarah Bluvas Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Few moments in my life parallel the experience of rounding the bend and coming across the mesmerizing calm of Crater Lake for the first time. My first visit to one of the country’s most iconic national parks inspired in me a sense of adventure and purpose that has guided much of my personal and professional path over the past 5 years and ignited my deep love for the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). So when Gabe Benghiat (Bolz MBA ’17) forwarded the link to apply for the NPS Business Plan Internship (BPI) to the first-year Bolzies last November, I knew that the program was right for me.   

Founded in 1998, the BPI brings together graduate students in business, public policy and environmental studies to work on strategic business issues facing our national parks. Students serve as consultants to park staff and work on projects involving workforce planning, commercialization & partnership opportunities, financial forecasting and more, all while living at park sites around the country.

Reading through the BPI job description, my eyes grew increasingly wider with every sentence. Consult with a federal agency?! Solve real-world business issues for a mission-driven organization?! LIVE AT A NATIONAL PARK?! Yet, while this program checks all of the boxes for me personally, I can see how a summer spent with the NPS may seem a little out-of-the-ordinary for someone pursuing a career in arts and culture. Here are a few reasons why interning with the NPS makes total sense for this future arts administrator.

Our national parks are as much a part of our nation’s cultural fabric as our arts organizations.
John Muir said of Yosemite Valley, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” Countless travelers, artists, authors, politicians and more have followed in his footsteps and regaled us with stories of feeling inspired and transformed by our national parks, powerful experiences that mirror those you might have when viewing a painting or watching a play.  

Our wild lands are more than just examples of natural artistry, though. In addition to its abundant natural resources, the NPS is also home to a plethora of cultural and historical resources. From art collections to artifacts and architecture, historical landmarks to oral histories, the 417 units managed by the NPS have diverse stories to tell. Preserving, protecting and sharing those stories is as much a priority of the NPS as conserving the woods we walk through and the mountains we climb.

As a consultant for the Resource Education Division at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, much of my summer work will focus on how the park cultivates visitor understanding of both its natural and cultural resources. I’m partnering with my co-consultant and park staff to evaluate current public and school program offerings; identify areas for improvement and opportunity for increased engagement; and design metrics for measuring and tracking program outcomes.

Our national parks and our arts organizations face similar challenges.
Whether talking about funding decreases or retaining audiences, many of the issues plaguing today’s arts organizations are equally relevant to the NPS. For instance, the bulk of the annual NPS budget comes from a single revenue source (the American taxpayer, as doled out by Congress) and is subject to fairly strict rules and regulations for spending. This “business model” would be both familiar and cringe-worthy to most arts professionals. National park sites also grapple with preserving the “wildness” of our public lands while increasing access for the visitor. In today’s digital world, the debate about whether to place cell towers in national parks, for example, is very much alive and has major implications for the future of our parks.  

Add to the mix climate change, shifts in public policy and the oftentimes-stifling bureaucracy that comes with being a federal agency, and you’re left with a slate of challenges that could benefit from a little business acumen and creative problem solving. For my part this summer, I’ll turn the findings from our analysis into a business plan that will aid the Chief of Resource Education and the Great Smoky Mountains Association in attracting outside funders for the park’s education and interpretation programming.

The BPI allows me to put my business skills to the test.
I decided to join the Bolz Center and pursue an MBA specifically to develop a new skillset that would enable me to more effectively partner with and lead mission-driven organizations. The BPI presents the prime opportunity to put those skills to use on behalf of the NPS. Crafting a business plan for the Resource Education Division will involve needs such as financial modeling and data analysis, newfound skills I have acquired thanks to my time in business school. Moreover, I’ll have the opportunity to inform my work by drawing on tools and experiences gained in the Bolz Center specifically, like using logic models in my program evaluation. The BPI also provides new analytical frameworks that will not only guide my summer work for the NPS but also equip me with other approaches to problem solving that will help my future work for nonprofit arts organizations.

I chose a non-traditional path by interning with the U.S. National Park Service this summer, but the projects I’m tackling and the learnings I’m putting into practice completely align with my future career in the arts sector. Interestingly enough, all of the Class of 2018 Bolzies chose somewhat atypical summer internship experiences. None of us is interning with a traditional arts organization like a museum or dance company, demonstrating that the experiences and skillsets we have gained at the Wisconsin School of Business and the Bolz Center allow us to rethink what it means to be an impactful arts administrator.