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Investing in Arts Education

An Educator’s Passion for Lifetime Learning

Ximena Varela, president of the Association of Arts Administrator Educators, shares her hopes for future educators and the arts administration industry.

Did you always have a passion for the arts? When did you consider the arts as a career path, and what inspired you to pursue arts management?

I grew up in exile from the military regime in my home country of Uruguay. Our family traveled quite a bit, and I grew up between Uruguay, Brazil, Canada, the United States, Belgium, and France. Our one constant was visiting museums and going to concerts. They felt like home to me, no matter where we went. I am also the sixth of seven siblings, all of whom are artists (two textile artists, one dancer/choreographer, and two musicians).

Early on, I found a talent for getting everyone organized and being an enthusiastic cheerleader. In the arts, I trained in clarinet, piano, and dance until I was 20. I was terrible at all three.

What schooling did you pursue? Why did you choose to pursue those programs?

I went to college in Uruguay, where, at the time, training in arts management did not exist. I went to business school, but I wrote my thesis on museums and earned income. I was then hired by the government of Uruguay to convert three of the four national museums from fully state-funded museums to revenue-generating institutions. I then was hired to do the same for seven regional museums, and then was hired in Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Brazil to teach about Latin American museums and strategic planning and revenue generation.

After a few years of doing this, I came to the United States on a Fulbright fellowship to get my MA in Arts Management. I continued to work with museums in Latin America, but I began to work with U.S. arts organizations as well. I began to become very interested in policy, education, and development, and I moved on to doctoral studies in Comparative Politics.

Did you always picture yourself becoming an educator?

I come from a long line of educators, and my great-grandfather, José Pedro Varela, was the educational reformer who took elementary schools in Uruguay from elitist, religious institutions to laic, compulsory, and free of charge. I’d say that the importance of education — and a certain drive to be of service through education — is in my blood.

A common misconception about education is that the teacher conveys concepts to students, who may or may not absorb them, and that this is a one-way street. This could not be further from the truth, and it’s the opposite of what I understand education to be. I teach because I am curious, and for every class I teach to students, I am being challenged by the questions that are being asked. I need to read and learn and listen and be prepared in order to be able to teach the class in the first place. The best thing about teaching adults, as I do at the university level, is that the students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, life experiences, passions, and interests. I only have my own backgrounds, experiences, passions, and interests, but I am curious about everything. Thus, each student is an opportunity to walk into whole new worlds. There’s nothing more exciting.

What advice do you have for professionals who are considering becoming an educator in the arts?

Pay attention to how people around you learn. Listen, watch, observe. Think of the teachers you have had who were excellent, and try to parse what it is that made them so. Be kind, to yourself and to your students. High standards and kindness can absolutely coexist. Think about what you love more: your ego or your discipline. Be prepared to love your discipline more; be prepared to be humble. Don’t go into teaching if you aren’t interested in learning. Be kind, and have fun.

It’s been a difficult year for the arts community with the pandemic, but things are looking brighter as schools, live performances, and museums are opening back up. Many people have used this year to explore their passions in the arts. Have you seen interest in arts administration increase?

Yes, because arts administration, in part, is about finding resources to support the arts and to use them efficiently. Additionally, the racial reckoning that has coincided with the pandemic has provided an opportunity to make real, lasting change in the inequities we have all seen in the field. Arts managers are excellent at connection — that’s the key competence of arts managers, in fact. They have never been more needed.

How has the arts administration industry changed since you started? What changes or opportunities do you hope to see in the future?

It’s changed enormously. In the United States, it’s gone from a focus on major organizations, dominated by white supremacy, into a recognition of the enormous variety of artistic expression and arts management practices. There’s been an increased awareness that knowledge — powerful knowledge — exists within communities. Academic programs in arts management have diversified to serve students who want to work in different parts of this far more complex (and thus far more interesting) world. I see enormous opportunities in the future. Arts managers are trained to connect artists, business, communities, and policymakers. They are in a unique position to bring people together and to create opportunities.

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