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Executive Director Blog Series No. 4: Academy Center of the Arts

September 8, 2022    in

Part One: My sabbatical journey and the importance of perspective

Before my three-month sabbatical from the Academy which ran from mid-May to mid-August, I wrote three blog posts for Share Greater Lynchburg that covered the reason, aims, and logistics of my sabbatical. You can reference the original three-part series here: No. 1, No. 2, No. 3.

There were two aims of my sabbatical. The first was to strengthen the Academy through changes to the organizational chart and leadership structure. The second was to give me time to refresh and gain perspective as well as inspiration for running the organization moving forward. It is early in my time back and there is still much to digest, but I believe the sabbatical was a success on both counts. 

In this first post, I will share what I personally experienced. In Part 2, I will discuss what the Academy as an institution experienced. I don’t plan to make this post a retelling of the specifics of my travels or the details of my day-to-day experience. I am going to try and share what is most important for other leaders in the sector to hear about. This will include positive outcomes of the sabbatical, but also some of the difficulties that I faced. 

The difficulties were actually at the beginning of my leave. What I found as a leader of my organization was that I was addicted to the work. The work provided me with meaning, identity, and community. Now, all of that can be positive, but this addiction was not positive. My addiction to work meant that I had come to depend on my job for more than was healthy. I needed to find meaning, identity, and community outside of my job to become a healthier person with more balance. As I discussed in my initial series, when things went wrong at work, that meant that something was wrong with me. I need and want to take the challenges my organization faces seriously, but I don’t want to take them personally. 

In the first month, I struggled as I “detoxed” from work. I felt a little lost. I had this pressure to both do something and do nothing all at the same time. I did some initial travel, got COVID out of the way (glad it happened early so I could enjoy my later travel more), took local hikes, spent time with my family, met up with friends, served on a grant panel, and wrote a grant for Second Stage in Amherst. I felt listless, but over time, that feeling subsided. I began to travel more, and as I traveled, I was able to spend more time focused on the experiences I was having as opposed to the work I was not attending to. 

In the final two months of the sabbatical, two important things happened. The first was that I gained perspective. The second was that I found a project. 

The Perspective: 

The focus of my travels was to reconnect with friends and family. These were friends and family I had not seen or spent enough time with because of both my deep dedication to work but also limited travel during the pandemic. I traveled to Philadelphia, Boulder, Denver, New York, Amsterdam, and London. What I found there was important. The first was what I kept hearing from my friends on my travels, there was a deep hunger for community. Many of my friends in larger markets felt disconnected from their community. Some of this was due to the residue of the pandemic whereas some of this was also due to the dramatic shifts happening due to living in major metropolitan areas (some of which have also been caused by the pandemic). Many people are working from home and also got removed from civic activities they used to engage with regularly. I realized how lucky I am to live in a smaller community where the level of connectivity is higher. I also understood the utility of the Academy more clearly and the role it plays in increasing community connectivity through its programs. I carry this appreciation forward with me and I hope to never take it for granted again. 

The Project: 

This theme of small-town community became a major reflection of my sabbatical. Seeing and intersecting with so many other communities made me think a lot about my own. I have found as an arts professional that sometimes there is a stigma and a sense of insecurity when living in a smaller city or town. Big metropolitan areas build their reputations on cultural offerings through major institutions, museums, firms, and festivals. Smaller communities never reach the scale of cultural output that these larger communities do, but the scale doesn’t mean that the impact of the output is any less important. What it does mean, though, is that the disproportionate amount of output leads to a scenario that most resources for arts professionals are geared towards those in major markets. 

As I mentioned, at the start of my sabbatical I both served on a grant panel for the Rhode Island Council of the Arts and was helping Second Stage in Amherst with grant writing and strategic planning. Serving on the panel, I could see there was a wide array of fantastic organizations doing great work in smaller communities in a small state like Rhode Island, as well as many states across the country. At the same time, while working with Second Stage, there were no consolidated online resources to point to strong examples of how to be successful with arts delivery in smaller communities (which is filled with roadblocks to funding, audience building, and board/staff recruitment + retention). 

I realized my time in a smaller community was not something to feel insecure about, but something to embrace. I had knowledge, experience, and resources to share. First, I grew up in a small town and now live in a small city, this is balanced with having lived in major markets during much of my younger adulthood. I also remain connected to national organizations like National Arts Strategies and Americans for the Arts. I have access to resources while understanding the unique circumstances of small community culture and life vs the circumstances of a major market city. 

So, I founded Small Town/Big Arts. This is an online resource for arts delivery in smaller communities across America. The resource is delivered through a website at www.smalltownbigarts.com and a podcast being released monthly where I interview leaders across the country serving small communities through the arts. This is going to be a venture useful to other communities, but also useful to my work in leading the Academy. To begin, every month I get to bond with peers in dialogue, providing personal perspective and inspiration. It will also be a fantastic opportunity to generate new ideas for programs and mission delivery here in Lynchburg. At the very least, it will aid in connecting to others and will help us here in Lynchburg. I also don’t know where this venture could go, if it picks up enough listenership and visits, it could raise the profile of the work we do here in Lynchburg. 

In conclusion: 

I am so deeply grateful for this experience. I know I am very lucky and a lot of specific circumstances led to my sabbatical. My hope though is that by sharing my experience with you, you may be able to set up circumstances where you, too, get to take a leave of absence. So much of making a path for such an experience is for your stakeholders (board, staff, donors, constituents) to understand its purpose and value. There are benefits to you as a leader, but there are also major benefits to your institution, which I will cover in my next post. 

Until next time… 

Geoffrey Kershner
Chief Executive Officer
Academy Center of the Arts