The MMIAM Journey

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

“If it feels messy now, just hang in there a little bit longer. It’s going to make sense!”

A MMIAM Journey Interview with Megan Heber

Megan Heber is a former full-time musician, an arts management professor at SMU, and a nonprofit leader. In March, she was awarded SMU’s HOPE Professor of the Year for graduate students. In May, she will officially begin her role as co-director of the MMIAM program. Get to know Megan through her conversation with MMIAM Journey editor, Brittany Johnson below.

Are you an artist? How did you become interested in the arts?

I began my career as an artist first and then accidentally fell into arts management, as many of us do.

During my undergraduate studies, I didn’t even know that arts management was a career possibility. I originally thought I would teach high school band. I was a Music Education major in college and I’m a clarinetist. In 2008, when I graduated, the economic crisis was happening and I was living in New Jersey. I was born there, raised there, and went to college there. All I really knew at that point was New Jersey, and I knew I wanted an adventure before I settled down.

I was really lucky that one of my mentors was the retired conductor of the Navy Band in Washington DC. And, in talking with him, he said ‘You know, I think you’re good enough to get a spot in the Navy. Why don’t you audition?’ It was a five-year commitment, allowing me the time to wait for the economy to straighten out, to become a professional musician, and to travel across the world. So, I auditioned and won a spot. I shipped out to boot camp about four months after graduating from college.

So, you got your adventure!

I got my adventure. I was stationed in both Virginia and New Orleans for one year each and in Hawaii for three years. The units are what we called “self-sufficient.” This means that in addition to playing and performing, you have collateral duties—you have to work on marketing and operations and finance…the things that make the music possible. I realized that I enjoyed doing the things that everyone else hated. I loved collateral duties. I loved making Excel charts and figuring out budgets. Pretty quickly I realized I liked doing these things more than performing Sousa marches (although I do love a Sousa march!). That was my first inkling that I might be more of an arts manager than a professional musician. 

From playing the clarinet to arts management
Megan, stationed in New Orleans. Credit: personal archive.

Can we backtrack for just a second? Can you explain the ecosystem of the Navy?

Each branch of the military, the Marines, the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force, has its own set of musicians. The military is actually the biggest employer of musicians in the entire nation. Things vary based on which branch of the military you audition for and get accepted into, each is a little bit different, but the Navy—when I joined in 2008—had 13 fleet bands. These are bands that are stationed around the world whose main job is to support esprit de corps and military morale. So for example, we supported retirements and changes of command, performed at parades, and even tours on hospital ships for humanitarian missions. As part of my duties, I played on so many military ships!

Each of the bands is designed to be very flexible and meet the needs of the various gigs that might come up. You could have a wind symphony, a jazz band, a big band, a small ensemble…I could go on. You also have premier bands. These are the bands permanently based in Washington DC. They perform for the President and Vice President and at events like balls and inaugurations.

So, you’re playing as a full-time musician with the collateral ‘arts management’ duties added on.

But you still had to attend basic training?!

Yes! You still have to do the regular boot camp with every other recruit. Those are some stories for another interview!

So, what came next?

After my five-year enlistment ended, I realized I wanted to work in arts management instead. Luckily, the University of North Texas (UNT) hired me to manage the Murchison Performing Arts Center. It was such a trial by fire! UNT has the second largest college of music in the nation. The performing arts venue I was managing had three or four rehearsals per day and another two or three performances per day. My job was to coordinate and project manage them all! It was a great first experience. I was able to experience so much, musically. Our programming ran the gamut from pop to classical to opera to jazz and beyond.

From there, I decided to go back to school and did this part-time so I could continue building my experience as an arts manager. I also went to SMU but did the MA/MBA degree. After graduating, I became the executive director of the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas and I was there for five years.

My love of teaching and my passion for being in a classroom never left me during this time. When I was asked to start stepping in and teaching classes during COVID, I said yes! I fell in love with it and wanted to figure out a way to make that my full-time role. I assumed it would not be possible since I don’t have my doctorate, but SMU restructured its arts management program, opening a full-time faculty position in arts management. This position was primarily responsible for teaching the MA/MBA and MMIAM programs, I applied, was chosen, and well…here we are two years later!

What a journey!

I always like to tell the students that their life journey tends to make more sense when we look back. In every moment and every decision, there was fear, there was trepidation, and sometimes tears were cried. But with hindsight, I think we’re really good at finding meaning when we look back. It’s like ‘Oh! That’s why that happened and how it led me here!’ So, if it feels messy now, when you look back in five or 10 years, it’s going to make sense. Just hang in there a little bit longer! 

Learning arts management in Colombia
Megan in Colombia with the 11th MMIAM cohort. Credit: personal archive.

So, what I didn’t hear you mention is that you’re set to become co-director of the MMIAM program.

Yes! My initial responsibilities when I joined SMU were to teach arts management and nonprofit leadership courses, mostly to graduate students. I started teaching fundraising to the MMIAMs my first semester at SMU. That year, I was nicknamed the “cruise director” as I put together site visits, trips, and workshops for them to interact with arts leaders and institutions in Dallas. We now go on about 12 site visits while they’re in Dallas.

Sandy Duhé, who is the Chair of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs and who has been co-director with François [Colbert], announced that she’ll be stepping down as Chair in May. When this happened, I was asked to step up in her place. I officially begin in May, but I’ve been able to start using the title and most of the duties have already begun.

Congratulations! How exciting! Can you share what your day-to-day activities will be like?

Most of it will be overall program administration. For example, François and I will work together to review all the applications, interview the applicants, and build the cohort every year. We also work together to market and publicize the program. I’ll meet with members of the advisory committee, as well as with current and former MMIAMs. I’ll also support Anne-Marie [Panneton] and François with troubleshooting issues when they arise and also strategizing for the future—what courses should we be teaching? Do we need to tweak anything? What do our future leaders need now and what will they need in 5 years? 10 years?

This calendar year, we’re adding two new locations to the MMIAM journey. In July, we’re heading to Tuscany for one week. We’ll be staying at a castle right next to an Etruscan archeological site. This is possible thanks to Greg Warden, an SMU professor who is the coordinator and archeologist behind that site. He has put together an incredible itinerary for the MMIAMs to learn about archeology, preservation, tourism, and sustainability. After, we will head to Milan to celebrate the end of the program and the new journey each student now gets to embark on.

The second new trip—to Washington, DC—will be during fall break for MMIAM 12. We’re excited for the students to expand out of Texas while they’re here in the US. Part of my job is “cruise directing” that—who are the partners we have there? What are the cultural institutions we should visit? How can we fit in everything I want us to see and do? And then doing all the budgeting and project management behind that.

This makes me want to do the MMIAM again.

I know right? There are some other really cool partnerships on the horizon. This is probably my favorite part of working with François, the team, and this program—we’re constantly innovating. It’s not enough to say ‘This is the itinerary’ and we repeat it every year. We’re constantly forming new partnerships and ideating on how to make the program better.

One of my goals is to attend as many of the MMIAM trips as possible. I’m looking forward to meeting all of our contacts there and learning more about this huge world.

Was that your first trip to Bogotá? It’s been the favorite part of the experience for many of the students. 

I’ve been to South America before but never Colombia. I can see why it’s so popular. The [Universidad de los] Andes was incredible. Monica and her team really took care of us. They were such passionate diplomats for Colombia. It felt instantly warm and as if we’d known all of them forever. It was an incredible trip!

Megan Heber recieving the campus-wide award, SMU’s “HOPE Professor of the Year” for graduate students, along with the winner for undergraduates, Willie Baronet.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that I should have?

When I started teaching the MMIAMs, I made a big change to the fundraising class. I’ve integrated a hands-on consulting component, allowing MMIAM students to actively engage with leaders of various arts organizations. This approach not only enriches the students’ learning experience but also positively impacts the Dallas community.

A key feature of this revamped course is a practical fundraising project. Students collaborate in groups, partnering with local organizations to devise and execute a fundraising event. This year, for instance, we divided the class into two teams. The first group chose to work with the Dallas Chamber Music Society, organizing a salon series in a board member’s home. This initiative successfully raised a few thousand dollars for the society. The second group collaborated with the Cedars Union to plan an open house event. Attracting around 500 visitors, this event resulted in a large increase in visibility for the organization.

I believe it’s crucial for students to witness the tangible results of their efforts. Seeing these projects come to fruition in the real world and knowing they’ve left a lasting positive impact is immensely gratifying for both the students and the organizations involved.


*Megan Heber’s headshot credit: Christina Freeman.