Adjunct Professor Courtney Perkins recently accepted a new position as the Executive Director of the Prescott Park Arts Festival in New Hampshire. We got to ask her a few questions about her new position and the advice she has for this year’s graduating students.
Congratulations on your new job! Tell us more about the position.
After a national search, I was selected by the Prescott Park Arts Festival in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to be their new Executive Director. Prescott Park is a summer outdoor festival that lasts for twelve weeks and features live music, musical theatre, movies in the Park, and a host of other activities for the community. And, embedded in their mission is accessibility – everything they do is free to the community, so many people have their first arts experience at Prescott Park. I see it as a privilege to curate those kind of experiences.
You have been teaching a graduate Fundraising class at Columbia College Chicago this semester. How did you get your start in development?
While finishing up my Master’s degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Art History, I worked at a pro bono law firm to make ends meet (as a lawyer in a former life), handling some cases and managing all of their grant writing. I discovered that I had a real knack for fundraising and for selling people on the idea or spirit of an organization and its mission. I also have a genuine curiosity for how people think and what makes them tick. At the root of all good fundraising is relationship development.
In addition to teaching, you have also worked as Chief Operating Officer at Chicago Sinfonietta. What lessons will you take with you as you begin your new role?
While at the law firm, I was simply biding my time for a job in the arts. That’s when I found Chicago Sinfonietta, the nation’s most diverse orchestra, rooted in equity and innovation. I came in as the Director of Development and just learned about every aspect of the work from education programs to programming to throwing insanely complicated and innovative fundraising events. Being a good fundraiser demands that you know how your organization works from the inside out – which is generally why development is a great path to one day leading an organization.
The lessons I have learned at the Sinfoneitta is that diversity, equity, and inclusion matters…at every single level, from the board to the staff to what you put on the stage. Period. Arts organizations will not have a future, in this incredibly challenging time, if we don’t reflect the communities we serve.
Other bits of wisdom – I would say meet people where you find them and build authentic relationships. Finally, and maybe most importantly, is use the power you acquire to make space for others – lift others as you climb. It pays dividends when you look back at all that you have accomplished. You can celebrate your wins and the growth of others too.
What advice do you have for students graduating this semester and taking their next steps?
Be adaptable and understand your value. This current climate demands innovative thinkers that are not hampered by the traditions and histories of the way things have been done for years. Our current challenges demand a rethinking of arts and culture – its value proposition, its presentation, and its protection. Columbia students are uniquely positioned to tackle those problems. I know it must feel like a crazy time to begin your careers, but in adversity there is always opportunity. Believe in yourselves and your immense talent, and go out there and change the world, even if the start of that change is small.
What are you most looking forward to about moving to New Hampshire?
I laugh to myself at this question because who ever thinks of New Hampshire—as a state much less a place you move to in a pandemic? However, my husband and I drove there and back in a weekend (16.5 hours each way) defying the stay at home order to see a place we possibly might move and we were blown away. It’s on the ocean, it’s near the mountains, and Portsmouth is inexplicably deeply devoted to arts and culture. I am looking forward to making an impact in a new community that really invests in the arts. And, I am looking forward to having some room to breathe.
I will miss Columbia and the incredible students, but I hope to stay connected and teach some online courses in the future. And, perhaps have the opportunity to hire some alums!!