James is the Director of Development at the Nasher Sculpture Center and an Adjunct Lecturer of Arts Management and Arts Entrepreneurship at SMU in Dallas, Texas. He works with the MMIAM students during their semester in Dallas to develop fundraising plans and lectures on various aspects of fundraising in the arts.
Could you describe your job as the Director of Development at the Nasher and your career trajectory like that led you to this role?
Originally, I played the viola and went to school to study music. I actually dropped out of college, and I spent several years working as a freelance musician and in production and artistic operations for several classical music organizations. I eventually went back to school to finish my music degree, and then I continued on and earned an MBA and an MA in Arts Management from SMU. I wanted to use that experience to stay in the arts but to pivot to working in organizational strategy, audience development, and fundraising.
After finishing graduate school, I worked for TACA, an arts service organization here in Dallas, where I managed their marketing and institutional giving. Then, four years ago, I wanted to go on a completely new adventure and went to work at the Nasher Sculpture Center, a modern and contemporary art museum. I originally oversaw the museum’s membership and individual giving programs, then I became the Interim Director of Development. Then, in 2020, I was officially promoted to my current role.
Personally, I think of the Director of Development role as having three key functions. First, you’re leading a team of fundraising professionals. We have a team of six at the Nasher, each focused on various aspects of fundraising. Second, you are supporting the museum director, volunteer leadership, and other members of the senior team, getting them all engaged in various aspects of fundraising. They each have their own job, of course, but they also all play an incredibly important part in our overall fundraising efforts. Third, you are a major gift fundraiser with a portfolio of individual and institutional supporters. I sometimes see people focus too much on one aspect of the job. I think the most challenging thing about this role is balancing these three functions, especially since each requires a different skillset.
How has fundraising at the Nasher been affected by the pandemic?
The Nasher closed to visitors in March. We reopened in late August with new safety protocols like attendance caps, timed entry, and social distancing. While we were closed, though, we tried a lot of new things. We launched a series of exhibitions by locally based artists in our vestibule, meant to be viewed safely from outside the glass doors. We also started producing different virtual programs like artist conversations, studio tours, and art-making workshops. If there has been any silver lining in this year, not only for the Nasher but for much of the museum field, it is that we’ve entered into this period of experimentation of how we engage with and serve our audiences. So many of the traditional tactics are just no longer possible.
I wouldn’t say that fundraising has been uniformly bad or good, it’s just been volatile, and that seems to have been the experience for many arts organizations this year. At the Nasher, we’ve had some major successes, but there have also been areas of fundraising that have clearly been impacted by the pandemic. For us, this hasn’t been a time when we’ve been significantly expanding our base of support, but rather, we’ve been connecting with our current supporters and partners and have been trying to keep those relationships strong. That has meant a lot of reaching out, checking in, and letting our donors know how much we appreciate them.
All that said, fundraising very much continues. We’ve continued to fundraise for our education programs, and many of our long-term funders have been incredible in their flexibility as we’ve pivoted some of our existing programming to virtual formats. We’ve also continued to fundraise for future exhibitions, for when the pandemic is hopefully behind us.
How have you been involved in the MMIAM program?
I’ve always been a fan of the MMIAM program. I’ve guest lectured several times on different fundraising topics like membership, operations, and analytics. I also host the MMIAM students every year for a site visit of the Nasher. I was sad that I didn’t get to host this cohort of MMIAMs in person this fall, but I did get to connect with them virtually.
This year, I worked with the MMIAMs on a special fundraising project. I presented several areas where I thought the Nasher could expand fundraising, and MMIAM groups each took points on one specific area. I met with each group individually to discuss their topic further. Then, at the end of the semester, each group presented their final analysis and fundraising plan. It was really fun to interact with the MMIAMs this year in this different capacity, and it was insightful for me on behalf of the Nasher because we’re always looking for new ideas and opportunities. There are definitely at least a few aspects of each plan that I’ll take and put into action at the Nasher.
One of the things about the MMIAM program that always seemed especially great to me was that, in addition to all the traveling, you get to see so many sides of different cultural organizations. You have to jump into these projects with different organizations in different countries, and hopefully that helps you as a future arts professional navigate what’s most interesting for you personally.
Do you think it’s important to have an international outlook in arts management?
Absolutely. Every arts organization has to find that local-international balance that is right for them. Many arts organizations are embedded in and serve their surrounding communities, but at the same time we are all increasingly connected to the rest of the world in a variety of ways. The Nasher, for example, is a Dallas-based institution, but our mission is “to be an international focal point and catalyst for modern and contemporary sculpture.” We are always thinking about how we can serve our North Texas community. But “international” is in our mission, so we’re also always thinking about how we can serve international audiences, too.
Our exhibition program has always been international in terms of the artists represented. Then, in 2015, we established the Nasher Prize, an annual award for a living artist who is making significant contributions to the field sculpture. Through the Nasher Prize, we have further expanded our international outlook. As an example, we’ve launched a discussion series with artists and curators that takes place all over the world, in places recently like Reykjavík, Mexico City, Glasgow, and elsewhere. The Nasher Prize has very much helped to expand our relationships abroad and has gotten more audiences around the world interested in our organization.
Many arts organizations work to serve their local community, but communities are becoming so much more connected internationally. So much of the virtual programming that has arisen during the pandemic, for example, is just as accessible to your community as it is abroad. As we continue through this period of experimentation, I think it’s more important than ever to look beyond our own markets and see what is and isn’t working for other organizations, so that we can all learn and adapt. Being able to adapt is so critical in our field, especially today. I know I’ve personally been inspired by things I’ve seen at museums and other arts organizations abroad. I think we’re all taking ideas and inspiration from each other, learning, iterating, and figuring out what works during this challenging time.
What is some advice for people looking to start a career in arts management?
First, I’m very biased here, but I would just say that arts management is a really exciting field to be working in, and I love to hear it when someone says that this is what they want to do with their career. I personally think people should just jump in. When you’re in school, you don’t completely know what aspects of this field you will and won’t like, so there’s a lot to be said for just getting involved in organizations, volunteering and interning, trying different roles, and figuring out what you want to do.
We’re facing enormous challenges in the arts right now, and the rules, so to speak, are all changing. So, I think those who are looking to start a career in arts management should really embrace an entrepreneurial mindset, and they should get comfortable with the idea of working in a field in which you’ll constantly need to be trying new things, not all of which are going to work. It’s a humbling time to be working in the arts, but personally, I think it’s also a very exciting time.
One of the things I enjoy most about working in arts management is that our work is at the intersection of creativity and business, and you have to always be thinking about that balance. If we lean too much on the side of business, we might lose sight of our mission, and then what’s the point? At the same time, if we lean too far away from the business fundamentals, we might not be financially viable. It’s a challenge, but personally, I think it’s what makes our work really exciting!
*James Ryan Jillson’s headshot by Kevin Todora.