The MMIAM Journey

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

Advocating for the arts

An interview with Virginie Lacombe

Virginie Lacombe has worked for the City of Montréal, for RIDEAU, an international showcase event, and for Mouvement d’implication francophone d’Orleans (MIFO), a cultural venue, as an artistic coordinator. She now works for Loisir Sport Outaouais as a development agent for the recreational cultural sector. She completed the MMIAM program in 2019 and additionally holds an M.Sc. in Public Administration.

Hi Virginie, let’s start with how you became interested in the arts.

The arts and I go way back! Both of my parents work in culture; my mom was a dancer and my dad was a stage technician. From a very young age, you could always find me in a theater. When I began my undergraduate studies, I chose to study politics, but I worked part-time in a concert hall. I quickly realized that my job was the more interesting of the two, so, I switched focus and decided to continue working in this field, to pursue a career in the arts.

Tell me about your career at this moment.

Currently, I am a development agent for Loisir sport Outaouais. Part of my role is similar to that of a consultant, I work with various clients to develop programming and events, and find funding. It’s still a relatively new role, I’ve been here for six months. Before joining this team, I spent three years as an artistic coordinator for Mouvement d’implication francophone d’Orleans (MIFO), a community and cultural center in Orleans, Ontario.

Even though it’s still new, let’s dive into your new job. Tell me a bit more about what you do.

My company has a service contract with the provincial government to offer (mostly) free assistance to nonprofits, municipalities, schools, and associations. We will work with anyone who needs help, but we typically spend most of our time with smaller organizations—they have fewer resources and smaller teams—and smaller towns, villages really, some of them may have 1,000 residents or less. In many municipalities in Quebec, the city is in charge of planning some cultural activities, so that’s what we work on together.

Wow! So can you tell me about your day-to-day work responsibilities?

I have five or six main tasks. I need to stay up to date on the sector, in particular in cultural leisure and recreational activities. I’m constantly on the lookout for what people are doing, what new trends are emerging, what funding opportunities have become available that our clients can apply to, and so on.

As I mentioned, consulting is another aspect of my job. I help our clients bring their projects to fruition. Let’s say you’re applying to receive funding for a project, I might review your application with you and offer suggestions for improvement.

My colleagues and I also provide training opportunities for our network of clients. Finally, I’m also working on a committee that brings people together to talk about the issues facing the cultural sector in our region.

Can you give me an example of a project you’ve done recently?

There is a public library in a small town that is putting together a summer project of recreational cultural activities for teenagers for 2023. They knew they wanted to engage the teenagers in their town, but didn’t really know where to start. The person in charge of the library is a volunteer, so as you can see, it’s a very small organization. We’re working on their programming, their budget, and all of the small details that someone might not be aware of if they don’t have the specific background and training for the role they find themselves in.

Virginie and another judge at the Rendez-vous Québec Cinéma's award ceremony
Virginie was invited as a judge for the 2020 edition of the Rendez-vous Québec Cinéma. This is her with another judge on the blue carpet for the award ceremony. Photo: Caroline Piché

What prepared you for this role?

I would say, both my previous experience and the [MMIAM] program.

In moving to different cities and having to handle business and be resilient, I learned to take things day by day, not allowing myself to become too stressed. As far as the courses, many of them filled in the holes I had in my own knowledge, from past experience. For example, accounting was one of these courses. It was a subject I had a limited background in, but it became very apparent how essential a basic understanding of accounting is and how many people in cultural fields may not have even this basic knowledge. One of our professors teaching statistics really drove this point home. He would tell us that because we have these skills we ‘were like unicorns. We have an edge on our resume.’

Everything we learned about entrepreneurship has also been incredibly helpful. Going through the program, I knew, in the end, that this was not my path. I’m more comfortable with a traditional employee setting. However, in my current role, this knowledge has been so helpful as I sometimes am working with entrepreneurs. A lot of small festivals or non-profits start with one person and their idea. It’s good for me to have insight into their work.

You mentioned earlier that part of your job requires you to stay on top of what’s going on in culture. How do you do this?

Well, when it comes to what’s going on in my region, I read the newspaper, online, daily and follow our partners and other cultural sites on social media. I like to know and analyze for myself what they’re doing, what’s going well, and what’s maybe not going so well. But I also try to take advantage, as often as possible, of professional development opportunities, and virtual events. LinkedIn has been helpful for this. As an example, one thing that has become very important is accessibility. Especially as it pertains to leisure and sports, which is something I have to be aware of.

Have you seen really outstanding examples of accessibility in our field?

In the sports and outdoor sector there are many inspiring examples. For example, I’ve seen an uptick in the use of accessible beach accommodations; wheelchair access mats to help people navigate the sand, paddleboards designed to accommodate wheelchairs, and water-safe wheelchairs. People using this special equipment are able to actually go in the water and enjoy themselves. In the cultural field, I’ve seen dance and visual art classes adapted for people with special needs. Accessibility is definitely something that’s talked about more and more.

In your work, do you find that many people see a difference between culture and sports/leisure?

A lot of people see them as the same and there is definitely some overlap. For example, you can have an event or community outreach organized by a professional dance company that might be working with the equivalent of a Parks and Recreation department. The main difference between a cultural event and a recreational cultural activity is the “performance.” Are you watching a dance or are you dancing? I’m advocating the need for more performing the art.

This summer, I analyzed all the festivities in my region that were organized for the 24th of June and the 1st of July, our national holidays for Quebec and Canada. Roughly 40 percent of the activities planned were cultural activities—music shows, mostly—less than ten percent were recreational activities—painting a mural, dancing in a workshop, etc—it would be great to have more of those in city-organized festivities, though some cities are already doing amazing work!

What we see more and more is that people are promoting cultural activities as just as important for your health as sports; that it’s good for your mental health to participate in cultural activities. There was this attitude that sports are more important for you because they get you in shape, while culture is something you might do sitting at a desk, but there has been a shift. For example, the Collège des médecins du Québec did a campaign recently promoting the arts as a good way to improve your mental health. The Ministère de la culture et des communications du Québec also has a call for projects open now, funding cultural initiatives to help with teenagers’ mental health. That’s all good news for the cultural sector.

Switching gears, can you tell me one thing you’ve done in the past year that you’re really proud of?

Well, I’ve been at Loisir sport Outaouais for only a couple of months, so I’m going to talk about something that has nothing to do with the job I have now.

As I mentioned, for the past three years, I was coordinating a film festival for MIFO. However, we also did other things outside of the festival; more along the lines of outreach. We frequently worked with schools and we would often take the children to the movie theater. I was invited to attend another festival in Montreal that screened documentaries. One of the ones I saw was called Seuls. It followed three teenagers coming to Canada as refugees, on their own. It was amazing.

Unfortunately, documentaries are never the most popular option at a film festival. But I went to my artistic director and said ‘We have to find a way to screen this film, even though it’s going to be hard to sell. I’m sure it’s going to be a hit.’ And she trusted me.

Because we weren’t going to schools as frequently—Covid-19 created many unique complications for movie theaters—we decided to offer it online to the schools we had been working with. We paid for the rights. Initially, we didn’t think a lot of the schools would be interested in “renting” the film. So we negotiated the screening rights for 10 schools, but in the end we had more than 1000 students watching the film in class. It was great to see the positive reception. We had schools reaching out to us to let us know the impact the movie had on the students, and kids doing special projects and tagging us on Facebook.

It was such an amazing project and I’m so proud that I pitched it “even though” it’s a documentary. It was also the first time we’d shown a movie that was that serious, usually we pitch animated movies to schools.

*Headshot credit: personal archives