Alumni Spotlight: Beryl Briane Ford (ARAD’19), viBE Theater Experience

In continuation of our Alumni Spotlight series, we spoke with Beryl Briane Ford (ARAD’19), who is currently the Co-Executive Director of viBe Theater Experience– a Brooklyn-based, nationally serving, youth performing arts nonprofit.

Could you share a bit about your previous experiences and your time at ARAD?

During my time at ARAD I was really interested in how the public uses space, and particularly how that correlates with the arts. So my internship was at the Studio Museum in Harlem (SMH). That was the same year that I was working on my thesis, which looked at Black spaces and how communities organize in those spaces. My thesis looked at the Studio Museum in Harlem, in particular, because of their capital campaign and how people would engage with both the physical space and the activities that happen. From that, I was inspired to join BlackSpace, which is the board that I served on for three years. It’s an interdisciplinary organization, newly established as a nonprofit last year, that’s now national and brings together architects, artists, organizers, and academics.

I graduated from ARAD in 2019 and the first job that I had out of the program was at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). I worked in the development department for two years. When I first started there, it was closed to the public for its own capital campaign. I grew up in New York my whole life and I remember being young and going there for field trips. Having studied Art History at Smith College too, I felt like it was a great opportunity to work for a leading institution in the arts. I learnt very quickly how development functions at such a large institution. At MoMA, you have the Director of External Affairs and then all the department heads across individual and institutional giving, and membership under that director. Then, there are teams working under them. I worked on the Foundation Relations team, writing grants and assisting with the stewardship of different foundations. We would all meet once a week as a whole department to talk about what functions and activities were happening and what’s coming down the pipeline.

Interestingly, development happens to be a skillset that I had, and is also one that is really needed in the arts. I think of fundraising and grant writing as storytelling. Your job seems more fun in that way. Crafting a narrative about the mission and the values about whatever project you are working on or whatever organization you are working with to an audience can be more fun if you put it in that perspective. I really like this performative aspect of it. During my time at ARAD, I was also doing work-study in the institutional giving department, helping in the capacity of an assistant. My internship at Aperture was also development-related. All these skills prepared me for working at The Museum of Modern Art first, and then viBe after. Before grad school, I studied Art History and Museum Studies at Smith College. During that time, I did a lot of work with photographers and the Smith College Museum of Art , that’s also when I first learnt that I wanted to do arts administration. I didn’t necessarily want to be siloed within museum education. I feel like arts administration was the perfect bridge between my interests. Also, it really is a marriage between the artists and their work. I really take my roles in arts administration very seriously and I think about how I could leverage my own skill sets to really advance the careers of artists and bring visibility and create platforms for them.

What is your current role and what are your responsibilities?

Currently, in my capacity as Co-Executive Director of viBe, I am still doing grant writing and fundraising. I am working more closely with funders and potential investors in the organization. This role is very fitting given that my experiences in ARAD focused on development, community organizations, and building relationships. At viBe, I oversee both institutional and individual giving, while also working closely with the Board. I’m really fortunate that our Board of Directors recently decided to bifurcate our organization’s leadership model. So it’s me, and then my Co-Director, Michelan Le’Monier and we are both responsible for the executive leadership of viBe.

What are some of the exciting opportunities you are looking forward to in your current role and what are some of the challenges?

We are celebrating our 20th year as an organization, so I think it just came at a wonderful time to really think about what youth leadership looks like. Everyone on our team is under the age of 33 and we work very closely to and listen to our participants, ages 13 to 26. It is a model of being youth-led. For this 20th anniversary campaign, it will run during our fiscal year, which is from September to August. We will be carrying out this campaign throughout the year. There will be a small fundraiser in the summer, which will act as a launching pad for our larger gala that’s gonna happen in the fall of fiscal year 2024. 

With that being said, ageism is one challenge we face in the larger context of the nonprofit sector. We as a team don’t ever think about that because we don’t think of our ages as a deficit. We value the innovation that comes from having such close relationships with the young people that we serve. We really do see how the work we do is directly benefiting them.

The main strategy that we implement here, especially for me as a grant writer and someone’s who is fundraising on behalf of the programs and our constituents, is being intentional about creating feedback loops between our program participants, teaching artists, staff, our board, and making sure that communication is transparent, and that their involvement is participatory. When we are creating new cultures, we are constantly thinking about whether we are including the right stakeholders. That has benefited not only me in my current role here, but also in the organization that I co-lead.

Are there any courses you took during your time in ARAD that you feel were particularly helpful for your career journey?

I really enjoyed the fundraising class and an elective about curatorial practice. I identify as a curator, but I don’t necessarily get to practice that as often because I am now doing resource generation. But it’s definitely a passion of mine. I also loved all the classes taught by Dr. Mangione. She was my thesis advisor and I remember spending a lot of time in her office hours outside of class, learning about her experiences working at the Whitney Museum and her experiences with getting her own PhD. I would like to go back to school to get a doctorate in Art History, but that’s no time soon. Maybe in the next five years. Working closely with her on my research was really wonderful. She really helped me strengthen the types of questions I was asking and how I thought about community engagement.

What was your capstone project about?

My thesis was called “Beyond Brick and Mortar: The Studio Museum inHarlem.” Basically, it was a case study about the program called “In Harlem,” a series of partnerships with other local Harlem cultural and community institutions that SMH’s Public Programs and Community Engagement Department is collaborating with on an ongoing basis until the Museum is actually back up and open. It was definitely a positive experience and I was really grateful for the opportunity to have worked directly with the Public Programming team at the time. They were really generous with the resources that they offered and in helping me cultivate my thesis. They were receptive to sitting down with me and doing interviews. I also had an opportunity to join the Community Advisory Network that is part of the Studio Museum in Harlem, so hearing directly from people who live in Harlem, who love the Studio Museum, and hearing their firsthand experiences about what the building project means was really wonderful. It definitely helped me strengthen my research skills because I feel like sometimes I leaned more towards quantitative data versus qualitative data. Taking the qualitative approach was important because I think it is oftentimes undervalued in research practice, especially in academia.

What advice would you give aspiring arts administrators?

First, I would say try something new. If you see an elective that you might be interested in, I would just say take it. I would also say take time to rest. Don’t put too much pressure on finding a job right after. Also, ask questions. Especially at your internship sites, I would encourage you to make sure that you are fostering connections and keeping people in the loop about what you are doing. Not necessarily in a disingenuous way, but more so an organic way. If you see an article that you think your supervisor might like, say hey and send this along. You can do this with check-ins via coffee or zoom. Just letting people know what you are doing and also showing that you are invested in what they’re doing and how they’re doing is important. I think these are two of the biggest pieces of advice I’d offer, especially thinking about how these strategies are transferable and support relationship cultivation when fundraising. 

What do you do outside of work?

When I am not doing my current job full-time, I have an arts and grant writing consultancy called Knollwood Arts & Creative. I launched this consultancy in July 2021 and I am the principal consultant. I work closely with artists, small businesses, primarily ones of color, to generate resources. In other words, doing fundraising campaigns and grants writing. I saw a particular need, where there’s not really funding necessarily that’s advertised for individuals, only ever for non-profits or larger organizations. So I wanted to leverage my own skills and work closely to get funds for my community, so that they can finance their own artistic practices and pursuits. When I am not writing extra grants on the side, I am seeing art or spending time with loved ones. Cooking is also something that I really enjoy.