Elevator Chat with Urban Arts Leadership Program Manager, David Mitchell
David Mitchell is the founding program manager for The Urban Arts Leadership Program at the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, a lead facilitator for Artists U Baltimore, and a full-time lecturer at Morgan State University. He is also a board member at EMP Collective, a fellow at The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation and serves as a board member and associate artistic director for Arena Players Inc., the oldest continuously operating African American community theater in the country. Mitchell graduated from Morgan State University with a B.A. in Theatre and holds an M.F.A. from the New School for Social Research (Actors Studio Drama School). In 2009, American Theatre Magazine recognized him as one of 25 artists from across the country to have a significant impact on theater over the next 25 years. He was recognized by Style Magazine as being on the cutting edge of Baltimore’s small theater movement and Bmore Media dubbed him one of Baltimore’s Theater Masterminds.
MSAC: You’re the founding program manager of the Urban Arts Leadership Program. How did the program come about? How has it evolved?
David Mitchell: The idea for the Urban Arts Leadership Program actually came to me as I was working with another professional development program called Artist U, a program that works on strengthening individual artists, helping them get over whatever obstacles might be in their way—whether its creatively or financially or just helping them to strategize in some way that gets them to the next step in their life career. As facilitator for that program I recognized that there weren’t enough people of color benefitting from it. In discussing that issue with [Artist U founder] Andrew Simonet, I came up with the idea of the Urban Arts Leadership Program and realized if we’re really going to tackle the problem of inclusion and access to resources for artists of color, we need to look at it from all angles.
I didn’t want to duplicate Artist U, so I initiated conversations with community practitioners and administrators about what kind of program would best serve Baltimore City and its five surrounding counties in such a way that it equips people of color and expands their networks and puts them in contact with resources that would normally not be accessible with them. What came out of those conversations was the idea to tackle the problem of inclusion in the administrative arts. This is a nationwide issue. For a very long time there have been very few people of color in the administrative arm of arts and cultural institutions. We need institutions who will cultivate good candidates. And on the other side, the candidates have to be ready for opportunity as well.
Out my conversations, we identified a need for a program that would equip emerging arts leaders of color. We eventually came up with structure for the Urban Arts Leadership Program, which is 4-6 months of professional opportunities and encapsulated weekend intensives, after which we take a select number of individuals and place them at area arts and cultural organizations in Baltimore City and the five surrounding counties. We’ve had a really good, overwhelming response from the arts community here in Baltimore.
It’s been an exciting opportunity to address the really serious issues and concerns about inclusion and diversity in the administrative arm of institutions, not only here in Baltimore City, but nationwide. We’re excited to develop a program that’s action-oriented--less about the conversation and more about what is the solution, you know?
MSAC: Who are your fellows?
DM: There are tons and tons of individuals matriculating from universities with arts degrees and unable to use them. So we’ve identified emerging leaders who have the hunger and thirst for leadership—particularly administrative leadership—in arts and cultural organizations.
There’s a pretty extensive application that involves a lot of narrative because we really want applicants to clearly define what they want and are looking for with a program like this and in their future—how they see themselves and how art applies to what it is that they’re doing.
This year [the first for the Urban Arts Leadership Program] we identified 10 fellows, all soon-to-be or recent graduates from area colleges and universities who have a proclivity towards arts administration and community-based programming, which is not necessarily something we were actually shooting for, but is really a welcome addition.
MSAC: What sorts of activities do you offer in the intensives?
DM: The intensives cover a lot of ground. We start off with basic soft skills like CV preparation and interviewing. We’ve also partnered with Public Allies, which is part of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, to bring their leadership training to the program because as the GBCA grows we realize that we don’t have to do everything or create everything from scratch if it already exists. We’ve also partnered with Baltimore Racial Justice Action to address issues of inclusion and diversity within institutions. We go further by investigating institutional racism and how to navigate it as an individual or as an employee of color. We have had intensives on entrepreneurism. We’ve taken a trip to the Foundation Center in Washington, D.C. They led workshops for us on nonprofit structure and how the arts and cultural sector fits into that nonprofit structure. We have intensives on how to apply statistics. We also have had drop-ins by area professionals like the executive director of the Bromo Seltzer Arts District who also led an intensive session on interviewing. We’ve also had the executive officer of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation have a conversation with the fellows over their lunch break. We’ll continue to reach out to folks like that. These folks are volunteering their time because they realize the impact of a program like this and how much of a leg up this is for someone going through the program. It’s important that they develop a network of folks that can help them realize their vision.
MSAC: Where are fellows placed?
DM: Right now we have 10 organizations on board including Baltimore Clayworks, Maryland Citizens for the Arts, of course the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. It’s a pretty robust program. As we moved through the pilot we found out how impactful we can be and how layered the experience is, not only for the fellows but for the facilitators, the partner organizations, everyone involved has got an opportunity to grow and benefit.
MSAC: What drew you to a career in the arts?
DM: I started off as an actor. I went to school for acting, and I graduated with an M.F.A. from the New School for Social Research. I was out there. I was doing the actor grind. And I was like, “Whoa, I could be at this for a good 20 years and not move much on the spectrum. So let me go ahead and re-assess how I can keep myself active and productive in moving forward as far as my career was concerned.”
So I decided to be the person who creates the space for everybody, the producer-type. I’ve worn a lot of different hats over the years—actor, teacher, administrator—and as the person that provides space for other people to do what it is that they want to do, you run into a lot of folks with a real desire or want or need to be producers that don’t necessarily have the skills to be successful producers. And so that became my acting. My passion for acting actually transferred to the guy who creates space for people to do what they want to do, and I’m a-ok with that. Everyone once in a while I pick up a script. But I get more satisfaction right now from providing opportunity.