29th July 2021

What I’ve Learned From Leaving the Arts Industry

Leaving the arts

Back when the Coronavirus pandemic began to shut down live performances and we saw an increasing number of industry professionals getting laid off, I started exploring other options. I went back to my resume and LinkedIn page after several years, thought about interests outside of the performing arts, and reached out to former theatre professionals who had successfully transitioned into other fields. Here’s what you should know about leaving the arts industry.

A journey that started with networking and writing this article led to a job offer in an industry completely and totally different from the performing arts. Now, two months into this new job, I have noticed some blatant and inescapable differences between my previous industry and my current one. Differences that I can’t help but think contribute to the high rates of burnout, turnover, dissatisfaction, stress, and resentment that permeate the arts industry.

1. Living Core Values

Few performing arts organizations I’ve worked for even have core values – or, at least, in my experience – not ones they felt needed to be shared with their freelance stage managers. A few companies I worked for did have core values written into their mission statement, but they mostly felt… cosmetic. Like it was something the Board or Human Resources told them they needed to do, so they did it for the sake of saying they did it. For the sake of saying they had core values. For show. But they didn’t practice them in day-to-day operations or in how they treated their employees.

In my new job, I see leadership living the organizations’ core values all the time. That commitment trickles down from senior leadership through middle management all the way down to me – who, by the way, is once again in a consultant/contract position. I have been hired for a specific, short-term project and am paid hourly. But even in that role, I have been made a part of this new family. I am treated in accordance with their core values and am expected to also espouse them – which is easy to do when that behavior is modeled all the way up the chain of command. The example is set from the top. These values are at the forefront of decision-making processes and are lived and incorporated throughout the organization. It is difficult to overstate the difference this makes in ones’ experience, overall job satisfaction and trust in senior leadership.

2. Investing in Human Capital

Living these core values shows up in many ways and has many positive effects. One of the most prominent and mind-blowing effects for me is seeing a company understand the importance of investing in human capital. Employees are assets. Not ones that get listed on balance sheets, but still assets – and ones that have a great effect on that balance sheet. In my new role, I feel valued as such. I feel valued in a way I rarely did as a stage manager. I am constantly being set up for success. This is because the company understands that my success = their success. They understand that a positive work environment leads to higher productivity, engagement and ultimately a better bottom line. They recognize their employees have lives, stressors, and responsibilities outside of work. There is no “the show must go on” mentality. The mentality is “take care of yourself and how can we help?”

If you’re thinking this all comes down to money and the arts industry can’t compete with other industries in terms of resources – yes and no. It is true that the performing arts just make less money than bigger, for-profit industries. And it is true that compensation is a great way to show appreciation. However, the value and respect I feel at my current job has nothing to do with money. When I add it all up and include benefits, etc., I am making the same – if not less – than I did at my last stage management job. But I feel more respected, valued, supported, and appreciated than I ever did in the arts – and I felt that way from the moment I was hired, before I even received my first paycheck.

3. The Trade Off

We pursue careers in the arts out of love, a calling, and a feeling that we couldn’t be happy doing anything else. There is a stigma within the industry around leaving and ‘selling out’. Jobs are scarce and the environment is competitive, so if you leave – it can be difficult to get back in.

Pre-pandemic, I thought about leaving the industry quite often, but was always hesitant to pull the trigger. I loved it and wasn’t sure I was ready to commit to leaving. But now that I’m on the other side looking back – I can see more clearly all that I was sacrificing. I no longer experience work-related anxiety attacks, stress that negatively affects my physical health, sleep deprivation, and a workplace that highlights my one mistake for every one hundred things done correctly. I am in the process of learning how to no longer live in fear of making a mistake. I no longer have to decline almost every invitation to a wedding, family gathering, bachelorette party, or funeral.

Instead, I work a sustainable number of hours each week.

I have time to work out regularly and sleep adequately and am far less stressed. I can go to events! (Whenever events happen again.) As far as the passion for my work that I was so afraid to walk away from – that passion now has room to expand and explore. Because I’m not so emotionally wrapped up in a job that takes up most of my time, I find it easier to turn it off for the weekend, which is a huge help in reducing stress. I am moving away from the mentality that “I am what I do”. And actually – this frees up time and emotional/mental capacity for other passions. I now want to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and take martial arts classes. Who knew?! I am growing, expanding, and learning about the world and myself in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

For me, this process of leaving the industry has provided some much-needed perspective. I believe the ways things have been operating in the arts industry are not sustainable, and arts workers are waking up to this. The performing arts will continue to lose valuable, smart, talented, passionate, hard-working employees to other industries if things do not change. If we want this industry to thrive, we have to make that change happen. If people were hoping change would come from the top, I think we now know that is not going to happen. We have to create the change we want to see from the bottom up in order for the arts industry to be sustainable and healthy in the long term.


Also by Vanessa Chumbley:

How to Navigate the Emotional Landscape of a Career Change

Stage Managers: Use This Time to Become Emotion Scientists

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After graduating with a BFA in Violin Performance, Vanessa transitioned into stage management. She worked as a freelance stage manager for six years for opera and ballet companies all over the country before accepting a full time position with Houston Ballet. After only three years with Houston Ballet, the Coronavirus pandemic shut down all live performances, ultimately resulting in a layoff for Vanessa in mid-2020. She has since accepted a contract gig in a totally different industry for the time being, but continues to be involved in efforts to improve the working conditions in the performing arts industry, and therefore the lives of all who work in the arts.

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