For this chapter of our Alumni Spotlight series, ARAD spoke with Blaire Townshend (ARAD’ 17). Currently, Blaire is the Senior Manager of Membership Services & Professional Development at the Broadway League.
Could you share a little bit about your background? And what led you to join the ARAD program?
I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. I was a specialist in literature, music, and drama. While I loved those studies and enjoyed my time up there, I found that my passions definitely lay in the extracurricular work that I was doing, which had a more pragmatic focus. I had begun work as Executive Producer of our student drama society and absolutely fell in love with it. I loved the holistic viewpoint that arts leadership afforded and the opportunity to interact with people from a number of different constituencies. It really struck a chord with me. So, when I was looking for the next steps, I began researching arts administration masters programs because I was looking for more practical applications and further study on those extracurricular activities that had spoken to me – and that’s how I came across the Arts Administration program at Teachers College. I was drawn to the idea that I might be one of a cohort of individuals working through that part of their journey together.
In addition, while I was quite confident that I wanted to focus on the performing arts at that time, I was interested in both theater and opera, given my experience doing an internship at the Canadian Opera Company, so I wanted to take this opportunity to narrow down my focus. I liked the idea of seeing what I could learn from people throughout the field and being surrounded by people who might be interested in everything from visual arts to dance. So that was something that drew me to the program as well.
Finally, the exposure to New York City itself as our backyard was a huge draw – as someone who had spent 5 years in Toronto and loved that city, I still knew that New York was where I needed to end up based on my professional interests, and thought that the program would be a great entree to the area.
Were there any specific courses you opted for while in the ARAD program?
I enjoyed the breadth of courses that were available to us. I particularly enjoyed starting the degree with the more practical courses, such as Principles and Practice in Arts Administration, that we took with Dr. Lena. It gave us a foundation in the field by creating a resume of professional work, and it made me more intentional and thoughtful about how I put myself out there in the world. It allowed me to take practical steps toward future internships and the jobs I would be interested in. From just going over our resumes in a new light to being aware of our presence online, writing critiques of mission and value statements from various organizations, and preparing news articles, it was a great way to begin the program.
In addition, I greatly appreciated the opportunity to go out on our own and decide on the additional courses we could take. My advice to those entering the program is to be very thoughtful about this and to make the most of your time at Columbia and the resources afforded to you because there are plenty of options that you can pursue if you just do your research. For example, when I became more aware that I wanted to focus on the commercial theater sector, I approached the Theater Management Master’s program at the School of the Arts. I took some extra courses there – one that gave me a great primer in general management and the inner workings of putting on a show, and a Creative Producing course with a professor I now regularly interact with in my day-to-day work.
I also enjoyed taking business and law courses because those were so practically focused. One other program that I took advantage of was the Executive MBA program through Columbia Business School. I very much liked the idea that these courses were offered outside the normal school schedule and that I could pack more learning in and make the most of my time. I loved the practical nature of the courses I took, as we were often assigned projects for which we would present our recommendations to a real-world company or firm, which was great practice for being out in the professional world. I think the Executive MBA is a wonderful resource, and I highly recommend that students pursue it.
What was your IP or Capstone Project about?
My thesis was focused on opera, and even though I no longer work in that field, it was something I was and remain very passionate about – my research centered around targeting millennials as the future audience for opera. Hence, my interviews featured professionals in the opera space, often those creating programs that attempted to bring millennials in and keep them engaged.
In general, I think that sufficiently preparing the next generation to be the future leaders of the arts sector is one of the most important things we can do. It all comes back to professional development – my particular passion – but simply providing young people with the information they need to know what’s out there helps ensure we engage audiences.
What did your journey after graduate school look like? How did you get your current role?
I would say my professional path has been relatively unique. I began my work as an intern at The Broadway League while still in grad school – it was, in fact, the internship I took as a program requirement. A week into the internship, I knew this was the perfect environment for me. It was a very exciting time to be working on Broadway. There was a huge renaissance within the field, and a lot of great new work taking place – the industry, in general, was very active and engaged. I was thrown right into the middle of it all during a major industry conference, and I absolutely fell in love with it!
I loved the perspective you’re afforded at a trade association, from which you can see a bird’s eye view of an industry – where the industry’s priorities lie, what makes it tick, and where it would like to move in the future. Coming in knowing precious little about the different professions available within the commercial theater space, I realized I had stumbled upon the perfect position for me, which let me use my administrative brain to assist the producers, the general managers, and the theater owners whom I so love to work with. I remained part-time with The Broadway League while I finished my degree and became full-time upon graduation. I’ve been in the same department since taking on different roles in membership and professional development.
What challenges do you face(d) in your current role? How do you work around them?
The most obvious challenge we’ve faced as an industry has been the unprecedented shutdown of our business over the last few years. A shutdown of this magnitude has never happened in the history of Broadway – even in other times of crisis, the scope of the shutdown was not nearly this severe. I was lucky to retain my job through all of this during a time when so many arts professionals did not. For those of us who remained, it was a particularly busy time, with all of us working double time to try to keep things afloat, keep communication channels open, and be forward-thinking about how we might reopen, when it would be appropriate to do so, and what it would mean when we did – what would change, and what would stay the same?
Additionally, people in the theater industry were extremely dedicated to supporting one another through the shutdown and really came together in a remarkable way. The collaboration involved, amongst those who in other industries might be considered competitors, was absolutely inspiring. It made for an invaluable education, and I feel very fortunate that I was privy to these discussions and that I was able to help in some small way. The recent reopening of our industry was such a full-circle moment, and very emotional for everyone. I will never forget that first experience back in the theater, and how powerful it was to be back in that space after such a long time.
Lastly, do you have any advice for our current students?
I may be reiterating something I said previously, but I’m doing so purposefully because I believe it’s important: my primary advice is to take advantage of the resources you have available to you while you’re in the program. Not only is Teachers College an institution with significant resources, but you also have the backing of all of Columbia University. Use the programmatic resources they provide! By entering the program, you have made a commitment to yourself and your education, and there’s much you can gain if you put in the effort to explore your options.
One aspect of this is participating in extracurricular activities at Teachers College or even Columbia, which I highly recommend if you have the time and capacity to do so. This only builds upon your degree and may open some doors for you that you wouldn’t have thought were viable. That’s how I found my career path! During my time at Teachers College, for example, I served as Co-President of Student Advocates for the Arts (SAA), which was a wonderful organization that gave me the opportunity to go down to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the benefits of arts programming in direct conversation with government representatives. This was an invaluable experience because it gave me practice in public speaking and networking. Most importantly, however, it forced me to articulate the value of the arts sector I was trying to pursue.
And finally, I would advise that significant human resources are also available to you. Your professors are professionals with a wealth of experience to tap into – make the most of your time with them! You never know who you will continue to stay in touch with as you enter the field. In addition, you are part of a cohort of extraordinary people who will be your peers and compatriots throughout your professional life, even if you are not working in the same institutions or even the same arts fields. Human connection and collaboration are of the utmost importance in the collaborative fields in which we work.