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M.A./M.B.A. Alums Guide Arts Organizations with a Double Dose of Skills: Art Knowledge and Business Savvy

Elizabeth Kegley (’12), executive director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, talks about the dual degree and its effect on her career.

A quick look at recent data on the health of arts organizations makes it clear: Love of the arts is not enough. Today’s arts leaders also need business acumen to keep their organizations thriving.

SMU’s M.A./M.B.A. (Master of Arts/Master of Business Administration) graduates are bringing both skills to arts and culture boardrooms. The M.A./M.B.A., one of only two concurrent dual degree graduate program in arts management offered in the U.S., has multiple unique dimensions. Established in 1981, the two-year program combines contemporary general management skills with in-depth study of today’s professional arts world. It includes the highly ranked Cox School of Business Global Leadership Program and a Meadows School of the Arts exchange program with Bocconi University in Milan, Italy.  Students learn from distinguished arts and business professors from Meadows and Cox, as well as continuing seminars with nationally recognized arts managers. Students also complete three well-placed internships with arts organizations during their studies.

Many M.A./M.B.A. alums have advanced to leadership positions in opera, symphony, art and theatre companies after graduation (see partial list, right).

Elizabeth Kegley, executive director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Mass., earned her M.A./M.B.A. in 2012. Below, she shares her thoughts about the value of the M.A./M.B.A. program.

Q: Prior to taking the helm at the Merrimack in 2013, you worked in stage management with several well-known theatres such as The Public and the Signature Theatre in New York. Did your M.A./M.B.A. education bring about a shift in your career?

A: It's pretty much the only reason I'm in my current position - or certainly that I'm here so fast. I made a career transition from stage management to the executive side, which is not uncommon. But many do it through working their way up via a few positions. I got impatient and decided going back to school for two years would help me amass the right knowledge in a compressed amount of time, along with internships for experience. Then I could move into arts management smoothly but without starting “at the bottom” again.

Q: The combination of an M.B.A. in business and an M.A. in the arts is an unusual duo. Has it helped you as executive director of the Merrimack?

A: It’s been invaluable. I couldn't really say which I use more - I use them both a ton. There are certainly the basic important skills and academics picked up at Cox, which I'm using every day. But the augmentation from the M.A. classes at Meadows was the perfect complement. I learned marketing, and then I learned nonprofit marketing. I learned accounting and finance and then took nonprofit financial management. They're perfectly and usefully intertwined.

Q: The program includes one semester at Bocconi University in Milan. Was it worth it to study in another country?

A: Well, first, I mean: Milan. Who says no? I'd actually lived in Florence as an undergrad and hadn't loved Milan then, but ended up adoring it this time around. It's definitely tough - even as someone who speaks the language a bit, it’s a foreign city and you're trying to have your “normal” academic life with a new and occasionally frustrating layer of challenges. But it also exposed me to so many varied ways of thinking about the arts. Even just to remember that my approach to arts management isn't the only one is important, but I took a couple classes that really stayed with me as well.

Q. The M.A./M.B.A. program has been offered since 1981 and connects its students with its many alums. What’s your experience been regarding networking with other M.A./M.B.A. alums?

A: Well, the M.A./M.B.A. world, like the theatre world in general, is really small. So it's useful to have a handful of people who really get where you're coming from and are often in positions similar to yours, whom you can reach out to for advice, for career networking, for friendship. And frankly, as nonprofit executives, networking is a HUGE part of our job - and you're in school with about 150 other potential corporate patrons! These folks will be your board members and sponsors and patrons of the arts. So I appreciate that network as well.

Q: After you graduated in 2012, SMU launched a new initiative called the National Center for Arts Research (NCAR), which provides data on the state of the arts free of charge to arts leaders. Do you use the NCAR data for the Merrimack?

A: If I'm being perfectly honest, I follow all the data releases and rarely have time to read them thoroughly. Which makes me nuts because I am a complete data nerd and really believe in data-driven decisions. I try to read ones that relate directly to topics my company is talking about, or that a board member or donor has asked about. It's on my goals list for this season ahead to carve time out specifically for reading and amassing knowledge through data analysis - it's crucial to long-term planning and true organizational stability. Our field is so lucky to have NCAR doing the work for us - if I had to do all this research plus then analyze it, I'd never get past the headlines!

Read more about MA/MBA alumni success stories.

Read about the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts.

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