Students at Shenandoah University prepare to rehearse for Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre’s production of “Oklahoma!”

After years of working in the arts, Karen C. Garrett knew a master’s degree in arts administration would help advance her career. But she wound up seeing the impact of her graduate degree before she’d even finished it.

During the three years she spent earning her M.A. in arts administration through a limited-residency online program at Baltimore’s Goucher College, she received a promotion at her job at the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Education and Access — from program manager to senior program officer — and was seen by her colleagues in a new light.

“Just the fact that I had entered into a master’s program had an impact on the way that people perceived me,” says Garrett, 53. “There was a level of respect there, if you will.”

Garrett started her degree in 2015 during a period when interest has been growing in master’s degree programs in arts management and administration. These programs include specialized training in nonprofit policy, arts marketing, fundraising and other topics critical to the business of art. They’re filling the need among arts businesses for greater efficiency and for leaders who understand both the arts and how to run an institution. Like in plenty of business fields, there’s a push toward transparency (thanks to things like Enron and other scandals of recent years) that requires an understanding of complex financial, legal and regulatory subject matter.

And looming retirements among the baby boomers mean a wealth of opportunities for up-and-coming arts enthusiasts who aspire to run art galleries, theaters, head up dance companies or lead arts nonprofits.

“We are on the cusp of enormous leadership changes in the arts in the United States,” says Ramona Baker, academic director for Goucher’s arts administration master’s program. “Literally every day I see someone else who is stepping down, and we have people who want to be able to step up into those positions.”

A growing focus on the arts at the local government level is also helping to drive interest in these master’s programs. “There’s been an increase in local cities having cultural plans and thinking through the impact of the arts on their economies,” says Aimee Fullman, program director for the arts management program at George Mason University, which offers an M.A. in arts management and dual M.A. in arts management and art history. “Those are the areas creating new positions every day for arts managers. The field is really growing in new ways.”

Arts management master’s programs in the greater Washington area tend to draw three types of students: recent college graduates who majored in arts-related fields, folks with several years of experience in the arts who want to give their careers a push to the next level, and students looking to change careers. Many of the programs are offered exclusively online or with online, hybrid, and part-time options that allow students to continue working — a major plus, considering that the arts aren’t known for being an especially lucrative field.

“Our philosophy is that there’s nothing that can’t really be done online at this point,” says David Edelman, director of the performing arts leadership and management program at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., which offers a fully online M.S. degree. “When students come out of this program, they will find that their indebtedness is not what you typically hear of with other kinds of programs and is the kind of thing they can manage, even at the traditionally lower salaries you find in the nonprofit sector.”

The impact of the degree can be measured on several levels. Because these programs strive to offer diversity in terms of both subject matter covered and the students and faculty who are part of the programs, graduates develop a broader perspective of different areas of the arts, which they can apply in a variety of positions and fields. Graduates go on to work at museums, theater and dance companies, arts centers and councils, symphonies and operas, and private foundations. Some even start their own galleries or arts nonprofits.

“We want to recruit someone who is ready to be shot out of a cannon and lead something,” says Ximena Varela, director of the arts management program at American University, which offers an M.A. and certificate in arts management. “And to have access to medium- to high-level arts management positions sooner, you do need an arts management degree. We don’t place anyone in entry-level positions.” Graduates of the American program have gone on to work at such institutions as the Cleveland Orchestra, the Dance Institute of Washington and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Students who earn the degree while working full time often find themselves immediately applying what they learn in class at their jobs. “No graduate program can tell you the answer to how to respond in every situation you’re going to encounter for the next 20 years,” says Baker. “But learning the skills to be able to figure it out and problem-solve is incredibly important.”

Garrett says: “There was a sense of overall confidence that for me was the most tangible impact. It wasn’t that the subjects I was learning about were necessarily new to me. But the degree put in a better context what it was that I knew and what I could improve on.”

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