December 2021 Student Spotlight
MPA student Arden Armbruster sees the arts as a social service. She tells us how she approaches this connection, her Research Assistantship at the Marxe School, and more, in this month’s student spotlight.
What got you interested in the arts and how do you connect that interest with public affairs and administration?
Part of it was dumb luck. My parents enrolled me in piano lessons when I was very young, despite the fact that few people in my family are musicians. Until my teens, music was just something I did—church choir, band classes, etc.—but then my dad and I started connecting over classic rock, so I started guitar lessons. I had a lot of feelings as a teenager, as most of us do, and music became a crucial expressive outlet for me.
During my Bachelor’s degree program (in classical guitar performance), I started to become more interested in what music could do. I wasn’t the best musician, but I was a fantastic audience member and felt truly transformed by my experience with the arts, so I started considering career paths that would allow me to support arts work. I dabbled in arts education before moving into concert and cultural event production, which has been the bulk of my career to date.
However, I wanted to make a broader impact than I could at a single organization or program. That is what led me to pursue an MPA in Nonprofit Administration. The “art world” is often perceived as separate from the rest of our social and public lives, yet the arts themselves are essential for building community and understanding our complex, shared humanity. Given the dire need for these qualities in our public sphere, I think the arts need to be positioned as a social service and centered in democratic life.
How do you see the arts as a social service? How should local governments approach arts as a social service?
I’m working toward the day when we strategize about developing New Yorkers’ imagination and intuition with the same rigor that we apply to getting them to work on time via the MTA. The arts bring history into the present and allow us to imagine new futures, both of which are musts for nuanced, productive conversations about the present. They are also one of the few ways we can experience the perspectives of other people. I think there is a direct connection between divestment in the arts after the Cultural Wars and our current political polarization, so it is urgent that the public and nonprofit sectors take seriously the potential of the arts to move us toward better mutual understanding as a nation.
Cultural policy in the United States takes place largely on the state and local level. (Fun fact: The budget for NYC’s Department of Cultural Affairs is similar to that of the National Endowment for the Arts.) This means that local governments are instrumental in stewarding the arts and have a unique opportunity to position the arts as a social service. There is no shortage of work to be done, so local governments have a lot of options, but a couple of ideas:
First, local governments can structure their policies to support the art that is already happening in their communities and grow it at its source. Artists aren’t all living by MoMA, Lincoln Center, etc. They’re your neighbors! Part of local government strategy must be to provide resources at the root of artistic creation, and that happens at the community level. Those resources should not only be grants, but material resources such as space. I have been very pleased to see space for local artists being added to government-led development projects in my neighborhood, for instance. Second, local governments should be leveraging their expertise in research and assessment to better understand the impact of the arts. Because governments have access to a broad array of data about their constituents—data that might be time-consuming and/or expensive for nonprofits to collect—they are uniquely positioned to help us understand the value of the arts not just economically, but socially.
Your professor, Don Waisanen suggested we speak to you. Can you tell us about your experience learning from him?
I decided to enroll in Communications Strategy with Professor Waisanen because I was terrified of all things marketing related. The idea of writing compelling social media posts at past jobs gave me (metaphorical!) hives. But Professor Waisanen’s class has brought communications down to earth for me, helping me realize that there are many ways to effectively communicate and that there is no need to sacrifice authenticity. I’ve particularly valued his emphasis on learning and asking questions. The assignments are designed to encourage you to practice, dig deeper, and connect with your peers.
You’re a Research Assistant for Marxe Professor Michael Seltzer – can you talk a bit about that?
I feel immensely fortunate to be working with Professor Seltzer. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the nonprofit sector, yet he continues to push the envelope and insist on finding strategies for making the sector more just and equitable. I have been working with him in a couple of different capacities. I’m supporting his course Race Policy Matters as well as alongside his colleagues at the New York Community Trust Leadership Fellows program. The Trust Fellows is a partnership between the Marxe School and New York Community Trust to provide leadership training for the next generation of nonprofit leaders, with a focus on race and gender equity principles. (Also, Professor Waisanen just published a book based on research about the program! You can find it for free on the publisher’s website here.) It’s inspiring to witness the program in action, let alone contribute to it. One of the projects I’m especially excited to work on is a survey of alumni to better understand how the training impacted them, where they are now, and what the program can offer to support their professional development moving forward. Looking forward to put my Research and Analysis skills to use!