Artists at the Center: An Interview with Ann Marie Lonsdale

AnnMarieLonsdale_PicAnn Marie Lonsdale is a 2009 graduate of the Arts Administration program. She is currently the Director of Programs at A.R.T./New York, an organization that has supported New York’s nonprofit theatre community since it was founded in 1972. As an experienced performer, stage manager, and producer in theater and dance, Ann Marie has spent a lot of time in the theatre, both behind the scenes and in the spotlight. 

Hannah Fenlon, ArAd ’15, asked Ann Marie five questions about her past experiences and her future endeavors, and her answers did not disappoint!

Hannah Fenlon: Early in your career, you were a stage manager in Chicago. It should be known that stage managers are among my favorite humans ever, but putting that aside: can you tell me a little about the transition from stage management to arts administration? 

Ann Marie Lonsdale: Aw! Me too! I love stage managers, and not just because I was one for several years.I love working with designers and being their voice in performance, and I love actors, even though they invariably drive me crazy. Interestingly, stage management allowed me to advance and take on huge amounts of responsibility very early in my theatre career, both in my native San Francisco Bay Area and in the Storefront scene in Chicago. I was 16 when I stage managed professional actors for the first time. I performed and directed in college, but I knew that once I graduated, I wanted to be in rehearsal, learning and making a contribution right away. I literally could not be bothered to get head shots, let alone audition for plays. Returning to stage management afforded me opportunities that I would have had to wait years for otherwise, and resulted in my amazing working relationship with The Hypocrites and their Artistic Director Sean Graney. It was Sean who hired me to work for The Hypocrites as Business Manager after I stage managed a show for the company. It was that experience that allowed me, for better or for worse, to learn by doing, by getting my hands dirty, and by having a really intimate relationship with both the office and production sides of the company. The Hypocrites are a totally different and much bigger company now, but I got to be part of an important process of professionalization with them. By the time I applied for graduate school, I was ready to leave the rehearsal room and work a more traditional schedule. I also found the administrative and finance work more intellectually challenging.

Hannah: What were some of the most critical learnings you took away from the ArAd program, and how have they supported your career trajectory thus far? Was there a class you took (outside of our required curriculum) that surprised you with its relevance, or changed your perspective as an arts administrator?

Ann Marie: The most important part of the ArAd experience for me was to be able to work with students, teachers and administrators in disciplines outside the theatre. I was worried about the insular nature of theatre, and wanted perspective. I took a number of classes in Arts and Arts Education that affected me profoundly, including a class on Aesthetics with the incomparable Dr. Maxine Greene. Class met in her living room. One afternoon, she took us to the Guggenheim Museum, across from her apartment, and taught us her ‘active looking’ techniques that radically transformed the museum education field. Teaching is something that has become really central to my practice as an arts administrator in the past few years, and learning from Maxine, who had a voracious mind and wide ranging interests, was very important for me. I really recommend her writing, especially Variations on a Blue Guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute Lectures on Aesthetic Education.

Hannah: You’ve had a series of exciting experiences in the New York arts community since receiving your Master’s degree: from General Management, to Professional Development for Artists, to your current role as Director of Programs at A.R.T/New York. What parts of this path did you anticipate, and which were surprising to you?

Ann Marie: I applied to school with the intention of returning to Chicago immediately to be a managing director at a small to mid-sized nonprofit theatre. Once I got to TC, my view of the field really changed, in a lot of really good ways. I realized that I was curious about how the arts are funded in this country, a topic that every arts administrator loves to complain about and very few of us really deeply understand. The history and practices of philanthropy, and those who seek to disrupt these systems, were really interesting to me, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. I also realized quickly that I was not that interested in big institutions, but rather the artists working within them. Arts institutions are employers, buyers, sellers, spaces within which artists work, and these organizations are comprised of people. But as a field, we often try to replicate capitalistic models that “buy low/sell high” and that attempt to pay artists and arts workers as little as possible for their labor. I was interested in looking at organizations that confront and alter that model.

Certainly this is what led me to work in professional development with Creative Capital, and to my current work at A.R.T./New York, where I oversee a variety of programs for small companies. Artist service organizations, as I learned from one of my mentors in the field, Ruby Lerner, do their best work when they combine services and support with ongoing learning for artists and those who work with artists. Even when I was the General Manager at CPR (Center for Performance Research) in Brooklyn, I saw every interaction I had with our artists and renters as an opportunity for learning and growth. Supportive, responsive arts organizations put artists at the center and say “yes” as often as possible, while balancing the needs of the community at large against those of the individual. But it all has to emanate from the artists, because otherwise we will just be a bunch of empty buildings crumbling into a boring, post-Apocalyptic sea.

But the short answer to your question is, “Wow, none of this was part of my plan.” I didn’t expect to be in New York, or working for an arts service organization, but I couldn’t be happier. I am so inspired by my work, and I am always surprised by how much artists have in common with one another, no matter age, level of professionalization, or discipline. And I’m always delighted by how much I love them.

Hannah: A.R.T./New York is an incredible resource for the New York City’s theatre community, and you have a new project on the horizon! On top of providing resources, space, and guidance to its member theatres across the city, the organization is currently building two new, shared performance spaces in Midtown. Can you talk a little about the impact you’d like this to have on the community at large? 

Ann Marie: The A.R.T./New York Theatres are a dream a long time in the making, and I am so lucky to be a part of this project. The purchase and design of these two state-of-the-art performances spaces is exciting because New York has lost so many rental houses in the last ten years, and this project is a direct address to the conversation about sustainability for the arts in New York City. My hope is that in addition to being beautiful, clean, affordable places to work, the theatres will also be flexible and allow for new models for co-production, artistic experimentation, and efficiency, so that New York’s smallest and mightiest companies will continue to create amazing work. These spaces are about long-term sustainability, pure and simple.

My dream is to develop a technical residency program at the A.R.T./New York Theatres, where companies could come in for a week at a time (or more, if needed) and experiment with design before tech week, or even before performances are even scheduled. So often design is overly cumbersome or expensive to include in the rehearsal process, but is critical to the artists’ experience, especially for a new work. If we could find a way to make the theatres and equipment available during the day, we could address this need. Technical residency models exist in dance, and certainly there are models for the theatre too! I would be so excited to create this opportunity for our members.

Hannah: I know from conversation with you that you’re a researcher. If you could pick a current arts-related topic or issue to devote time to (assuming you had endless free time), what would you select, and why? 

Ann Marie: I think the question of racial and ethnic diversity among artists and administrators is critical, and creating the conversation around this issue has proven too difficult. There are two aspects that I would focus on, the first is the “pipeline” of young artists and administrators of color coming into the field and doing the work to expand their opportunities for careers in the arts. The second is around questions of equity in the arts on an institutional level, and trying to understand how and why participation in the arts (as audiences, artists, and arts workers) is inherently biased towards privileged white people. These issues speak directly to the future sustainability of our field, across all disciplines.

I am also always willing to go down the rabbit hole of economic sustainability for artists and arts workers, and what we need to build is a healthy labor system for artists. I think this area for inquiry actually dovetails into the above in a number of important ways. Some of this has to do with the cost of education, depressed wages across the field, prize culture, and a glut in the labor market, as well as artists and administrators self-subsidizing their practice. I do it! I’m always interested in figuring out how I can get paid as much as a lawyer without being a lawyer.

Ann Marie Lonsdale is an arts manager with extensive experience as a producer and administrator working with innovative and experimental live performance. She has worked as a performer, stage manager, and producer in theater and dance in Chicago and New York, with such companies as The Hypocrites, the Vittum Theater (now Adventure Stage Chicago), the side project, and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Sitelines dance and performance festival. As an administrator, she worked as Program Manager for the Creative Capital Professional Development Program and as General Manager at CPR – Center for Performance Research, a space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that supports artist working in dance and experimental performance. She is currently the Director of Programs at A.R.T./New York, a service organization for New York’s nonprofit theatre community, overseeing a suite of services including grants, loans, professional development, and convenings. Ann Marie is a proud graduate of the University of Chicago and holds a master’s degree in Arts Administration from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Hannah Fenlon
graduated from Kenyon College with a BA in Drama, and is finishing her second year in the Arts Administration program. She has worked as a freelance producer and casting director in Chicago (where she co-founded Two Birds Casting, a casting facilitation service for theatre) and spent two years as an Assistant Director of Admissions at the University of Chicago. Hannah has worked with Goodman Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Indiana Repertory Theatre, the Ojai Playwrights Conference, A Red Orchid Theatre and Theatre Communications Group, with whom she planned the 2014 National Theatre Conference in San Diego, CA and Tijuana, Mexico and the 2015 Audience (R)Evolution Convening. She also recently completed a year as Marketing Assistant for Creative Capital in NYC.
Ann Marie is the second subject in our “Alumni Conversations” series, short-form interviews between current students and alumni. Keep tuned for more to come!

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