Innovative Ideas from the JSoM Community
“The big question is why? What is the value of art? And who gets to make those cultural decisions?”
This month we are featuring Jacobs School of Music alumna Aisha Ahmad-Post, who is now Executive Director of the Robert and Judi Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver, as the OECD Entrepreneur of the Month.
We chatted with Aisha over the phone about what it’s like working in the arts now as a professional and what is was like as a student preparing for a career. She thinks deeply about the role of the arts in local communities and advocates for diverse programming aimed at achieving artistic vibrancy over artistic excellence. Upon arriving at the center a year ago, Aisha commented that we live in “a time when the performing arts industry faces, quite literally, an existential crisis, and our country grapples with how to better uphold our pledge to justice for all.”
Tell us about your journey. You’ve studied and worked in a variety of fields: piano performance, music theory, agent, director. How did you get there?
While in college I discovered that I had a more political, administrative inclination. I was on various student committees and always hustled for more jobs across campus. After a while I realized that I had become very interested in policy. I flirted with the idea of going to law school but didn’t, opting instead to get a Master’s degree in music theory. After about a week I knew this was a mistake and thought “oh shoot!” But I stuck with it anyway. I continued to talk with people in other departments and because of one of those connections, I got an internship in arts admin in New York City with CAMI Music which was responsible for helping to start the Lang Lang Foundation (LLF). I also continued working on a volunteer basis with LLF during my second year of my theory degree. I got to do all the things I enjoyed in this role, and all my strengths fell into place. I left the internship feeling very excited. After this I was an Artist Liaison at the Aspen Music Festival and then moved to New York in 2009. Once I realized what industry I liked, things took off. I was soon hired as the producer for public programs at the New York Public Library. This gave me the opportunity to see culture from a literary perspective and to learn a lot about other cultures. I also learned that book talks are much easier to coordinate than orchestral performances! This position felt sustainable and wasn’t toxic like a previous job. Eventually I got married, and we wanted to leave New York so I looked for other places to live. I was hired at the Director of the Ent Center for the Arts in 2017, so we moved to Colorado Springs. A few years later in 2020 I got the job at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver. These positions have made me think a lot more about questions of social justice and equity: How do you have hard conversations with people. How do you meet people where they are? It’s important to build fluency, to be willing to have the conversation of why someone should give art a try. The big question is why? What is the value of art? And who gets to make those cultural decisions?
It can be difficult for students to balance meeting all their curricular requirements with an eye toward what will come after graduation. Can you speak a bit about the tensions between music school expectations and real-world relevancy?
I learned so much about classical music by leaving classical music. As an IU student, I spent a lot of time with the ballet department. I would read Pointe Magazine and watch old-school ballet videos to learn what mattered in their world. I had the world’s worst FOMO! I wanted to learn as much as I could. Force yourself to get to know other art forms, don’t limit yourself to just classical music. This has been strikingly relevant for my work at the Newman Center. Patron bases like all sorts of things, they are “culture vultures”. So much out there just confounds the imagination. Have an open, curious mind; throw yourself into nerding out and exploring those interests. For example, theater is at the forefront of cultural justice in art—how do we bring that back into the classical music world? I want to see classical music succeed, but it needs innovation. I’m really interested in artists who can tell me the “why” of what they’re playing. Great, you can play all of Ravel. Why? Why did you program these things? What does this say about your values? Even jazz is seeing similar challenges. What often gets programmed or taught in performing arts centers or jazz education programs reflects a type of jazz that was current sixty years ago
Worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Everyone told me to stay at a toxic job for a year because it was “better” for my resume.
What practical advice do you have for students when they begin navigating the professional world after they finish school?
As a newbie to the field, it’s extremely difficult to ask what the salary is if it’s not listed. What I encourage is for candidates to try and figure out what that position *might* pay so you can be in a better position when you go to negotiate but also so you have realistic expectations going in. I am in a position of privilege in that I can be direct with my peers who are also hiring managers and push them to include salary info when they post jobs. There are resources for you to be able to gauge how much you could make so you have a point of reference. Check out GuideStar’s website, it’s a great place to start. They have information on form 990s and can give you a sense for how big a nonprofit’s budget is that you might be applying to. Also take a look at Glass Doors to see what folks have listed. I suggest looking at comparable job postings in the same city. Ask potential employers if they offer benefits and the option of a flexible work location.
The key to starting your career after school is to arm yourself with as much information as possible. Think about what kinds of things matter most to you for your quality of life. To economize, consider having a roommate. Consider taking a non-music job if you need to. Embrace the freedom to imagine where your income could come from while acknowledging that you don’t have to make money from your artistic pursuits. Being poor sucks, so there’s no shame in finding a gig while you try to figure things out.
I’ve also found that independently represented artists tend to have a weird lack of boundaries. The notion of a self-made human is bogus. You are part of larger networks. You’re not doing stuff alone, so know when to outsource something. Make sure a professional looks at your press kit!
What advice would share with your younger self at IU?
That’s a good question. I wish had taken more interesting courses elsewhere in the university outside the music school. Just take random classes for the sake of taking them because they sound interesting to you. I wish went to the Lotus Festival more intently. Go to more shows and performances outside your genre. I also wish I had hung out with the ethnomusicology folks more. They really helped me question my Euro-centric worldview. Music school always felt like such a rat race, so I wish I had been more intentional about not practicing.
The transition out of school was really hard. I suggest trying out different careers and internships to see what you like so you have a sense of direction when you leave IU. Again, so much is chance. If it looks interesting, try it! You have no idea what’s going to happen anyway. Have an open mind about what work is and what work can be. And you can have an average job! This is valuable. You can have an entire life outside of work. It’s ok to not love everything about your job; thinking otherwise only sets people up for disappointment. Of course, don’t be miserable, but work isn’t the be-all-end-all. I happen to love my job and my work, but I know that I’m very lucky.
Favorite places to eat in Bloomington?
Always Mother Bears! The Irish Lion, Samira, Anatola, The Runcible Spoon, Upland Brewery, and a shout-out to the coffee place that used to be by Bears from 2005-09!