burning bridges: wayfinding

I wrote about how I got my start in the glamorous world of offices, as part of this "burning bridges" blog series, back in 2014. My first administrative gig was in a suite of law offices in uptown Oakland between 1997 and 2003. After several jobs in food service during my late teens, the switch to office work was welcome. Writing about it in 2014, after several subsequent office jobs but before my most recent, which ended this past August, I still reflected on that experience positively (this was also before I experienced the increased need to move constantly and monitor every calorie taken in as one ages that Heather Havrilesky details in this hilarious post about her treadmill desk). With this post, I'd like to focus in on the world of arts administration specifically, across the social, museum, and educational aspects of that broad field. "Artists in offices" that support the arts.

I've been mulling over this post for awhile, knowing I wanted to combine talking about the couple of jobs I had between college and grad school (after my summer in France and last year of college working for an artist and professor at UC Berkeley) but feeling like it made sense to lump those positions together with the one I was currently experiencing. Until this past summer. It's been about a month and a half since I became unemployed-by-choice. Lots has happened in that time: my sciatica flared up, I got bangs (again), I've lost anywhere from 2 to 7 pounds, depending on the time of day I weigh myself, I've spent time getting up to speed as a volunteer at both Cat Town and Oakland Animal Services, while fostering a cat from the latter for the former, and I turned 40.

'Heavenly', very early stages sneak peek

Aside from making very little money (from the occasional Etsy order) I have no regrets. I spend about half of the traditional work week with the kids (dragging them to as many art shows as possible), and the other half, now that I'm feeling mostly caught up on miscellaneous projects around the house, in the studio. I have fairly specific goals for the academic year: complete as many of the dozen additions to my portfolio as possible (we can call them paintings for now; collectively I'm referring to this new work as 'Heavenly') by about April 2018, and finish the screenplay I started a couple of years ago. Truth be told I have a much longer list of projects I'd like to complete, but I'm trying really hard to focus on those two for now.

Backing up to 2002, however, with college graduation looming, despite already having a job, I remember desperately looking for a different job that even remotely utilized my degrees in Art Practice and French; I was ready to move on from the world of law office management. I think the search only lasted about three or four weeks, but it felt like much longer at the time. Eventually I got a part-time job as an administrative assistant for the support group (museum members who pay a little more each year to further support a specific department) of the works on paper department at the Legion of Honor, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. For the first year I worked there, I hated it. I didn't have a car so I took two buses followed by a 15 minute walk to get there from my apartment in Oakland. I remember it being consistently foggy for the first several months I worked there (a typical summer in San Francisco is foggy but from what I recall this was a particularly gloomy summer). 'Eternal Egypt' was the traveling exhibition on view when I started and I remember people joking daily about the 'Eternal Fog'. On top of that, during my walk through the golf course that surrounds the museum, I was routinely attacked by birds I can only guess were nesting in the hedges that lined the trail. Eventually I started taking a third bus for that last leg of the roughly 90-minute, one-way commute, then resumed walking after a couple of months when, I'm guessing, the baby birds got kicked out of their nests.

I was still working occasional hours at the law offices to make ends meet, managing the law library and putting in a few hours here and there for the immigration firm. Right before my one-year anniversary at the museum, I turned down a full-time job offer from that firm. It's a decision I've once or twice regretted, but at the time, I wanted to stick out this whole arts administration thing, setting my sights, eventually, on getting my MFA. Shortly after, I had the opportunity to interview for a very similar position at a non-profit arts organization focused on networking opportunities for women in the arts (not artists, I might add; curators, writers, art historians, etc.). I got the job and officially quit, once and for all, my on-again, off-again gig at the law offices. Most weeks I worked just four days a week - two in SF, two at home - reserving Fridays and weekends for studio time. It was around then (summer 2003) that I began working on the portfolio I would submit to graduate schools. I was waitlisted that first round so I spent a third year at both part-time gigs, and tried again (with success!).

Getting ready to take meeting minutes as a "fly on the wall" in a Pacific Heights home in 2003 or so.

I eventually grew to really enjoy the museum gig. After the one-year learning curve, it was pretty easy. I hated the commute (even after getting a car), even just twice a week, but I loved the location, once I got there, and enjoyed most of the folks I worked with. Since I worked with the support group's board of directors, all volunteers, of course, I had a lot of autonomy and decent flexibility, both of which I now know I really enjoy and require in order to thrive in a position. My other gig, though great in part because I worked mostly from home, was a bit more manic - I had some really fantastic experiences and some pretty awful days, too. I blame it somewhat on the nature of the organization I worked for (versus museum work or work in higher education). But do I really want to burn this bridge to the ground? Ultimately, my main complaint was that I felt I was living a double life. Case in point, when I announced in the spring of 2005 that I was leaving at the end of summer for grad school, even after correcting people, they were convinced I was going to pursue my PhD in art history (wrong!).

Fast-forward ten years, one master's degree, two cross-country moves, and two kids later. I've written at length about my full-circle experience enabling my side-hustle habit via Etsy, so I won't get into that again here. I'll just add that throughout the process of building my itty-bitty business and hanging out with my toddler, I applied several times to "real" jobs. Initially out of grad school, of course, I wanted to teach. Art. At the college level. In the stank economy that was 2008-2009. LOL. After two years of that I focused my attention on jobs very much like the two I had before going to grad school (this is where the possible regret around turning down that full-time law office gig comes into play). When I found myself considering applying to the very same job I'd had several years earlier, before a cross-country move and expensive degree, I refocused my Etsy efforts. But after baby #2, I struggled to drum up enough business to justify even part-time childcare or preschool. I looked again to arts administration and eventually applied to a job that was far from my first choice but one I was perfectly qualified to do based on previous experience. And I did it. For 2 1/2 years.

There's no real juicy drama to share here (that I'll save for the memoir I'll write after a successful career as a painter and screenwriter). I just wasn't happy. Late 2016 into 2017 was tough, on so many levels. And, as I mentioned before, I was approaching midlife crisis status. My cat died, a mini vacation was canceled, my husband lost his job, and Trump was elected President. And then I saw Moana. Now, I've talked with many women who identify with Moana at various stages of her narrative arc. Some have already overcome some major challenge and identify with Moana at the end of the movie, after she learns to sail and (spoiler alert) returns the heart to Te Fiti. I'm not there yet, and certainly one year ago I very much identified with Moana at the beginning of the movie, when she doesn't know exactly what she's after but she knows she's not happy with her current situation. I think a lot of creative folks can identify; it's a place we return to many times over the course of a creative life and career. Moana's wayfinding is basically "design thinking" (as it's by now been borrowed and made trendy by Silicon Valley). Coming to this realization was liberating. Instead of feeling like a professional failure, rather than feeling "stuck" in a navigational sense, I began to view my most recent work experience as one of a handful of possibilities or "prototypes". Like Moana, I didn't know exactly what I wanted, but I knew I was longing for something else, drawn to it over and over again despite how many times I resigned myself to being satisfied with where I was and what I was doing. This desire to rapidly prototype one's way through life by tackling many different projects while holding down multiple day jobs, isn't a deviation or distraction from any one right path. For me, there is no one, right path. I've failed often. I'm not a navigator; I'm a wayfinder. Indeed, that's what this whole "burning bridges" series is all about, like Maui tells Moana, "knowing where you are by knowing where you've been."