Arts Management Alumni Profile: Steve Smith '86

Contributed by Karen Kannenberg '86, Arts Management Alumni Network

 

Steven F. Smith is a 1986 graduate of Baldwin Wallace. He was a participant in the Sports/Dance/Arts Management program that has since evolved into the Arts Management program, currently housed in BW's Conservatory of Music.  His education and experiences at BW provided a solid foundation for a career that is not only meaningful for Steve, but one that allows him to combine his business skills and passion for the arts with a way to make a significant impact on the community in which he lives. 

Steve is currently the Executive Director of Revels, Inc. in Boston. He began working with Revels in March 2011, and is leading a turnaround of this unique performing organization that combines music and dance with storytelling based on traditional cultures. Previously Steve served as Executive Director of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, leading the organization through an unprecedented period of growth in which he tripled its annual audience and grew its budget four-fold. As a consultant, he has worked with many small non profits and his expertise includes strategic planning and issues of branding, audience development, fundraising, and external relations. He focuses on understanding and building upon an organization’s core values and on finding and sharpening sustainable competitive advantages, grounded by a grassroots knowledge of the limitations of capacity and energy in small nonprofits.

Throughout his career Steve has worked with presenters, agents and universities. He was selected by the Massachusetts Cultural Council to participate in the Achieving Excellence Executive Leadership Program for nonprofit cultural organizations at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He is currently a board member of ArtsBoston and GALA Choruses and past chair of the Greater Boston Choral Consortium.

Steve welcomes the opportunity to assist students in the arts management program through informational interviews and finding internships in the Boston area.  Recently, he shared the following on his career, experiences with BW’s arts management program and outlook on life: 

1. What inspired you to pursue a career in arts management?

Early on, I knew I didn't have the raw talent or drive to be a great performer (and my first quarter studying trombone with Al Kofsky conclusively confirmed that), but my passion for music demanded that I work in the field. I've always been a person who gets things done, since the sixth grade when I ran a record-breaking trip fundraiser. Arts management was the inevitable outcome. With two awesome internships while at BW, I never looked back.

2. How did you discover Baldwin Wallace?

I grew up in Maine, but my band director and mentor was a BW grad. BW was my first and only choice. It immediately felt like home and I loved every day on campus. I still regularly have dreams that I live in Kohler Hall, by the way.

3. How have you combined your passion for social justice with the arts? 

For me, they are inextricable. As an out-of-place high school kid in the late 70s and early 80s, band and chorus were the only place I felt safe and at home and this is why I built a life in the arts. I intended to be a great orchestra manager for the love of music - not to change the world. But an "art for arts sake" world no longer exists. I quickly learned that it's the impact art can have on people that really matters. When I fell into the opportunity to grow and run the Boston Gay Men's Chorus, this became the unexpected love of my life -- making quality music that also built a more tolerant society. My current work at Revels isn't directly political, but our vision is to explore cultures in a way that expands our understanding of each other and brings tradition alive for today's audiences. The arts are part of the glue that holds society together and makes progress possible.

4. How do you put life back in perspective when you start to feel burned out? 

I'm not the poster child for this, as I tend to over-commit, but I relax by cooking, going to a BSO concert or a show, reading about American history, and watching TV shows that involve Gordon Ramsay swearing at people. And, oddly, consulting for other organizations always refreshes my own commitment to my work.

5. As you look back on the first few years of your career, is there anything you wish you had learned more about in class or through internships?

There's only so much you can cram in an undergraduate brain, but with hindsight I wish I'd learned how to really read a nonprofit balance sheet and to be trained and repeatedly forced to ask people for money. If you want to be successful in this field, you have to be able to ask for money and, just like music, you have to practice.

6. How have you expanded your skills throughout your career?

Most nonprofit organizations can't afford professional development, so I've always read widely and attended conferences even at my own expense.  I've had two career-changing opportunities. National Arts Strategies gave a regional three-day training on mission-driven strategy that completely reshaped my understanding of how to manage an organization. And my state arts council sponsored me in an Executive Education program at Harvard's Kennedy School that gave me the tools and courage to become a much more positive leader.

7. Insight for others in the field?

  • Be a generous colleague to the people you work with and in peer organizations
  • Read the book Good to Great by Jim Collins and "find your hedgehog"
  • Wisdom I learned from a BW classmate: "Good musicians can hear what's wrong with a performance. Only great ones can hear what's right." In our judgmental world, I always try to listen and watch for what's right.

8.  Your career has put you into some interesting settings and situations. Please share what it was like to do media interviews in front of a SWAT team in Poland.

In 2005, I was leading a European tour with 130 members of the Boston Gay Men's Chorus. We were the first openly gay group to go into Poland and our concert in Wroclaw became a flashpoint for antigay protests. We were particularly targeted by right wing groups that threatened violence. The Chorus was put under 24/7 police guard but I had to do a press conference in front of the concert hall.

I've done tons of interviews and am pretty good on the fly, but nothing prepares you for the stress of facing a scrum of reporters with a SWAT team aimed in your direction - and not being 100% sure whether you are the one they are protecting. In the moment I wasn't fearful, I was very focused on getting our message across and dealing with translators. Two days later, in the safety of more liberal Prague, was the day I couldn't get out of bed. But knowing that we played a role in opening up the conversation about gay rights in Poland is one of my proudest accomplishments.

 

 

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