The business of arts

Ryan Saunders grew up singing in the Chorus of Westerly, a large intergenerational community choir based in Rhode Island. And now—many years later—he serves as the organization’s executive director.

Before landing where he began, though, Saunders followed quite a journey. He built up his credentials working in leadership roles in various arts organizations, and has successfully advocated for state funding of the arts.

This spring, he shared his knowledge as visiting instructor of the Wheaton spring course “Arts Administration.” In this course, students explore the organization, governance and administrative management of a variety of performing arts organizations.

Saunders, a history major and music minor, developed skills in both music and management as a Wheaton student. He joined the Wheaton Chorale, under the direction of conductor Tim Harbold, as a freshman.

“It was interesting going from being a small fish in a very big pond to a big fish in a small pond. I had to learn to sing at Wheaton, even though I had been singing my whole life. I was going from a group of 200 to about 35 to 40 [at peak],” he said.

As a student, Saunders balanced four jobs: assisting Harbold with managing Wheaton’s arts events, working in the history department’s computer lab, conducting project work in the History Department, and serving as resident advisor. Under Harbold’s guidance, he learned all aspects of arts management.

Saunders ended up channeling these skills post-graduation as event manager/publicist at Tufts University. When the college built a new state-of-the-art $30 million music center, Saunders earned a promotion to help develop and then manage the center’s operations and programs. “We had to create innovative new performance systems and offerings for a major new regional arts hub,” he said.

While he worked on managing the new center, Saunders took night classes and, in 2007, earned his M.S. in arts administration from Boston University.

“My next phase was to go places and be with people and really have an impact on the community. It was finding a place to nurture something and make it grow,” Saunders said. That place ended up being the Chorus of Westerly, which he joined as executive director in 2009.

Wheaton is another one of those places. His “Arts Administration” course features lectures, readings, case studies and guest presentations—including from Peter Mello at WaterFire Providence and Randy Rosenbaum of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.

Saunders discusses topics that include marketing, fundraising, financial management, staff and volunteer management, advocacy, board relations and programming. He also shares how he successfully worked for the passage of Rhode Island’s $35 million cultural facilities bond in November 2014.

Sarah Chin ’10 says she has enjoyed learning about the theoretical practicalities of running an arts organization. “Professor Saunders has equally stressed the unpredictability and multidisciplinary aspect of maintaining a nonprofit arts institution. The course has emphasized the importance of learning both the concepts of arts administration and gaining practical experience,” she said.

Chin particularly enjoyed a talk by Michele L’Heureux, director at Wheaton’s Beard and Weil Galleries. “I liked her speech about her career as a gallery director, as working within a gallery is a professional goal of mine,” Chin said. “She demonstrated the skills an arts administrator utilizes every day, like curating artwork, social media, public relations and research.”

Saunders said the students’ own diverse backgrounds in life and in the arts have inspired thoughtful conversations about how art drives this world socially and economically.

The students have opened his eyes to new ideas, too.

“These students care deeply about the arts, but they are also comfortable challenging assumptions or historical theory,” he said. “I might be learning more from them than they are from me. But that’s how good arts organizations work. A lot of passionate, smart, creative and thoughtful individuals can make really special things happen.”