The MMIAM Journey

A blog about the Master of Management
in International Arts Management program

A Tale of Two Cultures:

An Interview with Laura Adlers

After working as a professional arts manager for over 20 years, Laura Adlers joined the second cohort of the MMIAM program and graduated in 2015. She was recently named Interim Executive Director of both The Elora Festival and The Elora Singers in Canada. Laura was previously the Editor of the MMIAM Journey Blog.

What was your experience in arts management prior to applying to the program?

I had been working as a professional arts manager for over 20 years, working with Canadian and international performing artists and cultural organizations, and when I applied for the program I was the National Program and Community Relations Director for Business for the Arts’ flagship artsVest™ program, based in Toronto.

Why did you decide to pursue graduate studies in international arts management?

My role at Business for the Arts involved travelling across Canada to negotiate and launch the artsVest program in different provinces. I had the privilege of meeting with artists and managers of cultural organizations and learned a lot about the dynamics of the cultural sector in each region.

While I worked at Business for the Arts, I also managed a choir from Latvia, organizing nine tours for them, mostly in Europe. This gave me an opportunity to work with artists and international festival producers in several European countries, which taught me a lot about international business relations and cultural diplomacy. Both experiences sparked a great interest in leading an arts organization with an international scope, one that would produce dynamic international cultural projects and events.

When I learned about the MMIAM program, it was in its inaugural year, and it was unlike any arts management graduate program I had seen before. I was intrigued by the opportunity to study arts management practices and learn about arts organizations on a global scale – in four different countries (now six) – over the course of a year. The thought of pursuing graduate studies 25 years after completing my BA was the big bold move I was looking for at this point in my career, so I applied!

Where are you currently working?

Since graduating from the MMIAM program in 2015, I have been working as a consultant with the federal government in Ottawa and Gatineau, in addition to producing interesting projects with artists and cultural organizations in Canada and Latvia. For the last three and a half years, I have gained valuable insight into cultural policy and funding programs, working with the Department of Canadian Heritage and Global Affairs Canada.

At the beginning of March, I joined the Elora Festival and The Elora Singers as Interim Executive Director. This is an international choral festival, now in its 41st season, set in the idyllic village of Elora, Ontario, Canada. The festival’s resident choir is The Elora Singers, one of Canada’s finest professional chamber choirs, under the direction of Dr. Mark Vuorinen. I brought the State Choir Latvija to the festival last summer and have been working with the organization ever since, first as its Artistic Administrator and now managing the festival full time.

The Elora Singers and Artistic Director Dr. Mark Vuorinen (credit: Sophie Hogan)

As the former Editor of the MMIAM blog, are there any emerging trends in the arts and culture sector over the past couple of years that stood out in your interviews with alumni and leaders in the industry?

The most prevalent trend is the innovative and unconventional ways in which cultural organizations are trying to develop new audiences. All cultural organizations – whether they are museums, art galleries, dance companies, orchestras or theatres – have to find unique and interesting ways of attracting new patrons.

There is a big focus on making the arts for everyone and breaking down barriers for participation, whether they are economic, social or physical. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, for example, offers dance classes at all levels to anyone who is interested, in addition to its wonderful dance therapy program for children and adults with special needs. Although these programs offer great benefits to the students, they are also introducing many people to Les Grands Ballets, and hopefully these students will decide to attend some performances.

The Canadian Museum of Nature recently had a “Nature Sleepover for Adults”, with after-hours food, science and music and next-day shopping and admission to the museum. It’s very interesting to see what creative teams are coming up with!

You are very involved in both the Latvian and Canadian cultural communities. How has this shaped your experience as an arts manager?

Since they were newcomers to Canada in the early 1950s, Latvians across Canada founded churches, heritage schools, and cultural organizations and continue to operate their communities entirely as volunteers. Volunteerism was a big part of my life growing up, as was a keen sense of giving back to my community.

I have always been active in the cultural life of the Latvian community, performing in choirs, folk dancing, and organizing concerts and festivals, so I had very early exposure to working with artists and managing events. I produced my first choral and chamber music concert at age 18 in Toronto as part of a Latvian youth arts symposium. The artists and attendees came from all over North America. This early experience in arts management led to my first professional position in the Canadian cultural community as the General Manager of the Amadeus Choir of Toronto.

I have grown up living two very distinct cultural lives – one as a proud Canadian and the other as an equally proud Latvian. In Canada, we celebrate diversity and multiculturalism. I have learned so much about other cultures from my classmates, co-workers and neighbours, many of whom have come to Canada from other parts of the world as refugees, as did my parents and their families. I think learning about other cultures makes us more empathetic, teaches cultural sensitivity and helps build stronger communities.

All of these qualities inform my role as an arts manager, as I think it is almost impossible to be successful in this role without a global vision and approach to your work, and empathy coupled with a strong business acumen is at the foundation of good working relationships with artists, agents, producers and boards of directors. To manage the business of an arts organization well, there has to be mutual respect and professional synergy between the artist, the manager, and the members of the board. The director of an arts organization is in a unique position of managing both the artistic vision of the organization, while ensuring the business is being run efficiently and responsibly, so it can often feel like a dance – or a game of chess!

I have been working with Canadian cultural organizations for many years, but I am also a passionate promoter of Latvian artists. I would love to play a bigger role in promoting Canadian artists abroad in the coming years. There is so much talent in this country!

Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds with the Orpheus Choir of Toronto (Artistic Director Robert Cooper) at the Canadian premiere of his Nordic Light multimedia symphony (credit: Jennifer Rowsom)

You are one of several graduates of the MMIAM program who was well established as an arts manager when you chose to pursue this program. Do you have any advice for similar potential candidates who are not sure if this program is for them?

I have spoken with several people who are considering applying to the program and they all asked me if I would recommend it. The answer is yes! It was challenging for me to leave a full-time executive position and return to the academic world after such a long absence, but I loved the academic environment and the site visits with cultural and heritage organizations throughout the year were very interesting.

The program also gave me an opportunity to learn more about arts disciplines outside the performing arts, like the inner workings and management of art galleries and museums, which have become new passions next to the performing arts.

There were three courses which resonated very deeply for me and helped me on a very personal level. The first was the course on leadership in the context of cultural management, and the other two were courses on consulting management and entrepreneurship. These courses have helped me tremendously post-graduation, as most of my work since then has been in consulting and running my own business.

An important advantage I had as an experienced arts manager was that I was not there to learn how to be an arts manager, but rather was enhancing my experience by stepping away from my environment for a year to research, explore and learn about global approaches to arts management in other parts of the world. All of my individual assignments and my thesis research were relevant to my experience or interests in arts management in Canada and Latvia. Spending a year with students from different parts of the world, many of them much younger than me, was also a great experience, since I gained valuable insight from my colleagues into what resonates with this generation and what unique skills they bring to the field of arts management.

My advice to potential candidates is that if you are clear on what you want to get out of the program, the resources are there and you will get as much out of the program as you put into it. Since I graduated from the program, it has expanded to include visits to India and China, and the coursework has been fine-tuned based on feedback from faculty and students. It is a robust program which will offer you a challenging and very exciting year abroad!