Elahe Marjovi was a freelance theatre designer for five years before joining the fourth cohort of the MMIAM program. She graduated in 2017 and is now the Fundraising and Donations Officer for Tirgan, an Iranian-Canadian cultural organization based in Toronto. As someone with a background in theatre, what motivated her to move towards a career in arts administration? Laura Adlers interviewed Elahe recently to find out and to also learn more about her new career in arts management.
What was your experience in arts management prior to applying to the program?
I didn’t have any direct experience in arts management. Of course, as an artist I had some experience on a smaller scale, but nothing at the administrative level.
Why did you decide to pursue graduate studies in international arts management?
I had been freelancing as a theatre designer for five years before joining the MMIAM program. Over the years, I felt more and more the need to have knowledge about arts management. Working with different theatre companies had enabled me to see the differences between well-managed companies and mismanaged ones. I started researching arts management programs and found MMIAM was the best choice. A one-year graduate program in four different countries (U.S, Canada, Italy and Colombia)? What more could I ask for!
Tell us more about where you are working now and what you are doing there?
I am working for Tirgan, an Iranian-Canadian charitable organization based in Toronto which is dedicated to promoting a cross-cultural dialogue between Iranian-Canadians and the public through the organization of cultural events, primarily festivals. Our most famous festival is called “Tirgan Festival”, which is a biennial multidisciplinary cultural festival at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. It features performances in music, dance, theatre, literature, visual arts and a myriad of programs for kids. More than 80% of the festival activities are presented free of charge, which makes securing the core funding very challenging. Another challenge is that we are a volunteer-based organization with more than 400 volunteers from the community. It’s so impressive and inspiring how they dedicate their time to Tirgan’s cause! We only have two full-time staff, including myself, and five seasonal part-time staff, so besides my primary responsibilities, I have many additional jobs to cover as well!
I am the Fundraising and Donations Officer and am mainly responsible for securing our public and private revenue. That is to say, I apply for all available grants (more than 20 last year), solicit donations, and manage our relationships with donors and sponsors.
Which courses of the MMIAM program were the most valuable to you for your career and why?
The most valuable course for my current position was Fundraising for the Arts, which was taught at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I have been applying the best practices we learned in that course and adapting them to Tirgan. I also use a lot of my knowledge from the Research Methodology and Accounting courses, especially for grant applications and reporting. All of the grant applications need a detailed budget and most of them ask for evidence-based research to support the applications’ arguments. I just recently used my experience from the Arts Marketing courses when we applied for a big marketing grant from the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund and they asked for a comprehensive marketing plan. At Tirgan, we have very limited resources and very little professional expertise, so most of the time I am working at multiple tasks which are not directly related to fundraising. Truthfully, I use knowledge gained from the MMIAM program every day at work.
What did you gain personally and professionally from living and studying in four different countries with students from around the world?
The first personal gain was that I got to be a student again four years after finishing my Master in Fine Arts and that was truly joyful! I made very good and close friends with whom I am still in touch now and we have a strong network. I believe everyone makes their best friendships at school. One of the best things was that each of us was from a different country and I had the chance to learn about all the different cultures we represented. I myself am Iranian and have been living in Canada since 2014. My colleagues were Canadian, American, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Mexican and Japanese. I can’t put into words what a wonderful time we had!
From a professional viewpoint, during MMIAM we got to meet lots of successful leaders and arts managers and had the chance to network with other students and professionals while studying in four different countries. All of those encounters have enhanced my professional network. Additionally, observing some of the best in the field of arts management and hearing their stories and their advice was a very valuable experience.
Which campus abroad was the most memorable for you and why?
This is a very difficult question, since I have good memories from all of them, but I would choose Colombia for the one with the most memories. Considering we were only there for two weeks, we had such a wonderful time. We escaped from the cold Montreal winter and we were almost done with our final term projects and exams. Although that trip was packed wih activities that would sometimes become frustrating, I had a great time. This impression was also related to the hospitality of our Colombian hosts and the friendliness of the Colombians in general.
How did your studies in international arts management change your perspective of arts management practices in your home country?
In my home country of Iran, we deal with mismanagement in different fields and at all levels. Through my MMIAM studies, I was able to understand better where the deficiencies lie in arts management in Iran. Although I am not living there right now, I have a list of proposals in my mind for improving the overall arts and culture situation over there. I hope one day I will be able to implement them.
What is one of the greatest challenges facing arts managers in your home country today? How do you think these challenges need to be addressed and by whom?
Funding is the main issue for the arts sector in Iran. Unlike many other countries, in Iran we don’t have any issues around the relevance of the arts or audience development. There is a great demand for cultural activities, mostly for younger generations, something rare for countries such as the U.S. or Canada. Moreover, subject material is very current and fresh. I personally believe artists work better under pressure, since they find more to talk about and reflect on in their work.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a solid funding structure for the arts in Iran. There is no system in place. There is also a notable lack of solid cultural policy. There is also no such thing as a professional arts manager in Iran. The “managers” are either artists themselves or managers from irrelevant fields who have been appointed to head cultural organizations through their connections. To more precisely answer this question, maybe the biggest challenge is a lack of knowledge and lack of professionals in the right places. All of these issues have to be addressed by the government in Iran.
What are the current trends in the cultural sector in your home country and what new opportunities are emerging for arts managers as a result?
Because of the lack of funding for the arts, there has been more of a trend towards private investment over the past couple of years in Iran. Since there is no funding system in place, some very rich people have established their own galleries and theatres and they are presenting works independently from the government. This trend has created unique opportunities for artists.
On the other hand, commercial art has grown out of this private funding system. This can be seen mainly in theatre, where celebrity artists are dominating the scene. There is less and less support available for emerging artists. As I mentioned previously, there is a shortage of capable arts managers to lead this situation towards growth. Some of these privately-owned organizations have very short lives due to mismanagement and lack of expertise in arts management, and this is a shame when you see that there has been good private funding support, but the organization has failed to survive.