Ask an Arts Professional
Shane Prada / Baltimore Jewelry Center
Where do you work? How long have you been there?
I work at Baltimore Jewelry Center which is a nonprofit in Station North that offers a variety of programs and services to people who have an interest in contemporary jewelry and metal smithing. We teach classes and workshops, and offer studio access for artists. We also offer exhibition space for artists, a residency program, and a kids and teens program.
I’ve worked here since our inception. We opened the BJC when the MICA Jewelry Program came to a close in spring of 2014. Then we immediately opened in the summer of 2014, so we’ve been around for almost six years.
What is your position?
What is your job description in your own words?
We have a very small staff; it’s just myself and two studio managers. We have a dedicated team of instructors who teach with us as well. As a staff, we each wear a lot of hats, but primarily my role as Director means having oversight of all the programs. I manage our fundraising which involves grant writing, hosting fundraisers, and forging and maintaining relationships with donors. And I manage our budget and all the financial aspects of the program. I keep everything in line and manage a lot of spreadsheets! I quite like managing multiple things at the same time so the job suits me in many ways. I always have my eyes on everything. I like to be in that position because I’m a control freak. Ultimately, the position involves many moving parts and keeping all those parts in motion and proceeding forward. Every workday looks a bit different from the day before; it keeps me on my toes!
What were you doing prior to this position?
In my former career, I was an educator, but what I do now I still very much consider a job in education. I moved to Baltimore right after undergrad to join Teach for America. Teach for America was a two year program, and then I got my Masters degree in teaching from Hopkins. I then helped start one of the first charter schools in the city, and I taught there for ten years. The charter school I worked at had a hybrid leadership model. Our staff was small and all the teachers had a role in the administration of the school. We wrote our own curriculum, and every teacher was part of the growth and development of all the programs at the school. In my ten years there, I taught everything from first grade math to a cooking class. And in my final two years, I taught a craft class for K – 5 students. In addition to teaching, I always had a second job in education, working as a consultant for both Teach for America and Baltimore City Teaching Residency providing support and training for new teachers. I came to art later in life, when I was 30, through taking classes at the MICA Jewelry Program.
A career in education can be pretty all-consuming, but there was something always missing for me that I think my current position fills. I’m just a busy body, and I like to have a lot of autonomy and authority. I really like managing projects and systems. Teaching is a creative career in many ways, especially teaching young students, but there’s also a lot of monotony and constant mundane decision-making as there are twenty-six tiny people asking you a question every two minutes. It’s also a job where you sort of repeat and rebuild every year as you get a new group of students. A thing I love about my work currently is the process of growing a program over time.
What is the most interesting part of your work?
I’m really excited about and proud of our residency program which we started two and a half years ago, in the summer of 2017. There are a lot of residency programs around the country, but there aren’t a lot that are jewelry-specific. There was definitely a need in the field for a new residency program, and there really aren’t many in urban areas. We knew it was something we could offer artists in the field and something that could really lend itself to what we were doing as an organization so there could be a give and take. We studied several different program models to decide what we wanted to create. We have a one-month residency for emerging artists and a three-month residency for emerging or transitional artists. We now also have a one-month mid-career professional residency that allows an artist in the more established stage of their career to step away and immerse themselves in a maker community for a month. The residency has been really wonderful because eight to nine months out of the year we have an artist from outside of our community working with us. It’s really nice to have new perspectives and new ideas in the studio. While we’ve had a foothold in the field since we started, as our instructors had a strong presence and our story was compelling, our residency program has really added increased awareness about what we are doing. Our first mid-career professional artist will be with us in May.
Another thing I’m excited about is our teaching fellowship that we will launch in the fall. In the past year, we’ve had some changes in our teaching team as two of our instructors made their way across the country to new homes. As we hire instructors on a contract basis, it can be hard to bring in new instructors in. Our instructors are essentially doing a version of the adjunct hustle. However, there is a need in the field for more understanding and education around pedagogy, which I understand is true across arts education in general. Coming from an education background, it’s something I’ve always been really intrigued by. Our commitment to educating our instructors on best practices for the classroom is a real strength of our program. There’s a special kind of teaching and learning that’s happening in our space. With the teaching fellowship, we asked “what can we give back to the metals and jewelry community that will also fill a need for us?” We released the teaching fellowship application in mid-December and the deadline is the end of March. We’ll see how it turns out, but I’m excited (and a little nervous).
The third thing I’m excited about is that we’ve really grown our kids and teens program recently. Last summer, we launched a workforce development program in partnership with YouthWorks. We provided summer jobs for four teens. We’ll do that again this year, but we will also have an academic year component. So we’ll have five teens with us this summer for five weeks and two teens with us one day per week for the academic year. In the program, they’ll learn the basics of making jewelry and create work to sell.
In this field, as with many other craft and art practices, placement is always challenging. We in no way can promise there will be a job at the end, but the kinds of skills you can learn in a metals and jewelry studio can apply to many kinds of disciplines. It’s also just a craft practice that’s not necessarily found in many high schools or even many colleges. It’s not something that many people are exposed to any more. So the program is an answer to several different issues. Our teen employees will shadow artists and makers working in the jewelry field in Baltimore, and they’ll do site visits with artists and fabricators. If that evolves into some artists taking on teen interns, that would be fabulous.
In everything we’ve done, it’s always been my goal to grow our programs slowly and organically, to make sure they are manageable for everybody, and that everyone involved gets something really good out of the process.
What are the biggest hurdles associated with your position?
That’s two-fold. One is fundraising, which is always an issue with non-profits–especially in the arts. It’s hard to always be finding your funding. When you’re an Arts non-profit, you’re not considered a primary service provider because we’re not providing healthcare, food, or housing. So in leaner times, it can be really hard to find funding and sometimes foundations will refocus their funding such that the arts are not a priority. As an individual, I can completely understand that, but it’s hard when it’s your job to find funding to keep your doors open. A thing you’ve probably heard people talk about is “mission drift.” You have to be careful running a non-profit, that you aren’t making programmatic decisions that are just based on what will get you more money. But at the same time, if what you’re offering to the broader community isn’t necessarily something that’s needed, then why are you doing it? The fundraising aspect is hard, but in some ways it helps to keep you humble. It makes you question if what you’re doing is really what you should be doing. Also, how do you make that case to funders? When you have a more recognizable global mission, it can be easier to get money. It’s a little harder to convince people to fund something like this, what’s essentially a niche field, but there are some funders who are really passionate about this area of work.
It’s also hard to continue to build relationships with donors and potential donors. On one hand, I’m an extroverted person who loves making connections and getting to know people, so I have some natural skills in that department. But, I have a hard time making direct asks for funding. It involves so much rejection.
Another hurdle is just trying to hold everything together, especially as an organization grows. You don’t want to get too comfortable. How do you maintain a strong critical eye and good oversight and keep growing, learning, and changing? A willingness to be flexible and to change is also needed. Launching a capital campaign and starting an organization was a challenge, so starting out with a lot of hurdles made us a little fitter. Knowing that you always have to be ready to pivot and flex when needed is a motivator. What we do here is so niche, so we need to be really aware of how we fit into the broader Art scene. Are we relevant to all these different communities we’re serving? The important thing is to always be questioning and refining your work.
Do you have any advice for those interested in working in the arts?
What I would say to anyone thinking about any new career, not just in the Arts, is to put yourself out there and learn from other people. Volunteer, offer to be an intern, try to be part of some kind of internship program, just get yourself out into a few different spaces to really experience what’s going on and how places are functioning and try to learn as much as you can. While there are a lot of academic programs that can teach you a lot, you can also learn just as much on the ground. It’s also a really great way to make connections.
The other point to consider, which can be more general, is that we have this cultural view that we think a lot about the idea of certain workplaces or industries, but we don’t really consider the actuality. The question I have for people applying to a job who might ask my advice or the advice I give to anyone I mentor is, do you want to get this job or do you want to do this job? And what is it that you really want to do in that job? You have to make sure that what you want is what the job is not just the prestige or the pathway. Trying to figure out where your skillset aligns in the workforce is challenging. We don’t really have cultural templates for that. And that’s unfortunate. There’s a dichotomy between the content of something and the process of something, and figuring out what’s a good fit for you isn’t easy. In general, going out to see what a job is really like is important but that is hard because a lot of workplaces don’t want to open their doors or be transparent–which is also a cultural thing.
A question I often get is how to start an organization. My first piece of advice is always is the thing you want to do needed? Is it necessary? Because you’re going to have to fight for it and keep making a case for it. You might think it is necessary and it’s not.
Do you have any independent or upcoming projects you’d like to promote?
Our current exhibition is by an artist named Demi Thomloudis who is a really talented jeweler based in Athens, Georgia. She also happens to be a mentor to me in my artwork (when I have time for it!) and we’ve collaborated on a few exhibitions. The current show she has in our gallery features jewelry inspired by architectural sites in progress. The work in the show is really compelling as is the design for the show. Our spring show, opening April 10th, is called “Object Permanence,” and it’s a cross-disciplinary show that plays with the concept of object permanence, the idea that objects continue to exist independent of us, the viewers/beholders/ owners. The exhibition will feature work from a variety of mediums including jewelry, small sculpture, and ceramics.
* As an artist that grew up very much outside of the opaque systems I now find myself navigating, it has become important to do my best to share knowledge and democratize information for other artists and those interested in involvement in other capacities. What does it mean to be a curator, how do we find employment, and what does it really take to contribute in a productive and meaningful way? A consistent mission of INERTIA is to attempt to demystify the art world. These are issues and questions I hope to address with the series Ask an Arts Professional.