ACL Faculty, Staff, and Students Reflect and Look Ahead

The Arts and Cultural Leadership (ACL) master’s program welcomed its first students in 2012. It was the result of thoughtful planning, innovation, and hard work spearheaded by its first director, Sherry Wagner-Henry. Led by Director of Graduate Studies Tom Borrup for the past nine years, the program has continued to adapt to prepare future arts and cultural leaders to meet the most important challenges of the 21st century.

To address the changing needs of the field, and society at large, the ACL program evolved by adding intersectional cultural leadership as a core curricular element and moved beyond traditional notions of positional leadership. On its 10th anniversary, we asked staff, faculty, and alumni to look back on the program’s trajectory and its future.

Talk about what makes the ACL program so special to you and to the arts and cultural field?

Lisa Dejoras, community faculty member: The flexible, self-curated opportunities in the program offer significant and unique opportunities for learning and advancing leadership capacities applicable to a wide range of organizations. The leaders developed in the ACL master's program are prepared to make a meaningful difference in arts and cultural leadership across the private, nonprofit, and public sectors in organizations of varied sizes and missions.

Kayla Martin at the ACL 10 year celebration

Kayla Martin-Patterson, alumna: Programs like the ACL program are incredibly important in cultivating new leaders and experienced professionals across arts and culture disciplines. It is so important to have programs like ACL that are tailored for specific needs and are flexible in terms of completion so that people of all ages and backgrounds have the opportunity to participate and go on to apply what they've learned to make positive impacts across the sector. Being able to continue to work full-time while in the program, with most classes taking place in the evenings and on weekends, was a game-changer. I wouldn't have been able to complete the program otherwise. The arts and culture sector is critical to our society in so many ways, and programs like ACL are key to maintaining a pipeline of leaders that are not only passionate about expanding and improving the sector, but are also well-equipped to do so.

Sonja Kuftinec, advisory board member: Everyone who works in the program has been really open to hearing challenging conversations about what it means to be an arts and cultural leader. I think we are trying to move away from a model of leadership that is positional and individual and hierarchical and towards a model of leadership that is relational and integrated and more horizontal, at the same time recognizing the challenges in trying to move towards that model when you're embedded within an institutional structure. From what I've seen of the students' work, they've been able to strike that balance as much as possible within the institutional constraints of being within a university.

Lucas Erickson squats in front of a white brick wall with a coffee cup

Lucas Erickson, alumnus: The ACL program was the catalyst for me starting my own theater outreach/audience development program called On Stage MN. In addition to ACL foundational coursework, I chose electives that complimented my theater education and audience development focus area. After taking Critical Literacy, Storytelling, and Creative Drama (TH 5183), I started asking questions like “how does this play reflect the world we are living in?” and “what issues come to mind that this play delves into?” I was able to look at theater as a vehicle that ties in cultural differences, current events, personal values and narratives, and critical thinking. Because of these fantastic courses, On Stage now uses theater as a tool to spark critical literacy and creativity in students’ minds as we talk about social, political and cultural issues that relate to students’ lives and the real world.

The arts are a way for students to process and to feel less alone, and talking about and engaging with the tough stuff really helps, especially when done so skillfully. Everybody is seemingly starving for the arts and for community connections. The simple act of bringing meaningful conversations about relevant social issues to college students in the Twin Cities, and using theater as a vehicle to highlight these issues is incredibly impactful when there are such limited live cultural events right now. I credit the ACL program and these two elective classes for helping me shape my program and my job to something that I am proud of and has a great benefit to our community.

Margo Gray, academic advisor: The infrastructure of the program (the curriculum, the administration, etc.) is important, but what really makes the ACL program special is the people. The faculty are incredibly accomplished in their own right and dedicated to students' development. The advisory board members are passionate about nurturing the best possible leaders for the sector, and they volunteer their time to help make that happen. The students bring a diverse range of experiences and perspectives to classroom discussion, serve as resources and sounding boards for their peers, and are brimming with ideas for forging the future of the arts and culture sector. The alumni not only demonstrate the power of the program through all their amazing work; many of them contribute to the program through event planning, talks, mentorship, and so on. And of course, my fellow staff are there to help make all of this happen.

What has been the most fulfilling part of your relationship with ACL students and helping shape the trajectory of the program?

Lisa Dejoras, community faculty member: It is very fulfilling to see students develop and expand critical understandings of leadership and their responsibilities within a larger social context. Students in the program develop as problem-solvers and leaders in identifying and addressing the multifaceted complexity of contemporary arts and cultural issues. The range of areas they study and the projects produced in the program are impressive in scope, topic areas, and depth. They have real-world applicability to advance forward-thinking leadership committed to making profound positive change.

Sonja Kuftinec

Sonja Kuftinec, advisory board member: I see the projects that the students develop as being really deeply community embedded, sustainable, and emergent from an ethic that is also civically engaged. A lot of the students aren't 22-year-olds coming out of a pure educational journey… These are working adults who have made a deliberate choice to return to get a higher educational degree, but more than that, to invest their time and their resources in a program that feels like it's going to support them in a journey that is already civically and community engaged.

What do you think are the most valuable takeaways from the ACL degree?

Lucas Erickson, alumnus: Since I graduated from the program, I have continued to be a connector and an advocate for a variety of social justice issues, and it was so great to be surrounded by rising leaders of my generation who were also passionate social justice advocates while I was in the program. The board practicum class and the board leadership and development class (which was taught by Julia Classen) were vital to my current role as board chair for Frank Theatre. Using some of the things I picked up in these classes, the Frank Theatre board is now responsible for assisting in fundraising, generating in-kind contributions, and actively promoting the theater through word-of-mouth advertising and any other means available. The board is now also responsible for assisting audience development through the cultivation of personal and professional contacts.

I never followed a “straight path” when I was in the program, since I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do career-wise or how I wanted to apply what I learned in school to the “real world.” Most of the students in my cohort knew what they wanted to do (or were already doing it), but I love that the ACL program was, and is, so flexible to meet all students’ needs. And since I graduated that flexibility has carried on, and to me, that is the key element that makes the ACL program so special.

"Being able to continue to work full-time while in the program, with most classes taking place in the evenings and on weekends, was a game-changer."
– Kayla Martin-Patterson, alumna

Tom Borrup stands in front of an ACL banner at the 10 year celebration

Tom Borrup, ACL Director of Graduate Studies: As with any degree, I think the value is in how each student has used the opportunity to expand their thinking, knowledge, and relationships as those things pertain to their professional aspirations. Having a credential carries value, for sure. However, the most satisfying value comes from gaining traction during the program, achieving greater clarity on their goals, and seeing a clear path towards those goals.

Time well spent in the ACL program goes beyond the classroom to building relationships with fellow students, faculty, staff, and organizations in the community through guest speakers, site visits, the practicum course, events sponsored off-campus, and other ways. Courses mix theory and practice and are designed to provide critical and analytical ways of thinking that serve for a lifetime through changes we can't predict. I often say that the most valuable thing one can learn is to love learning, and hopefully ACL provides learning experiences and ways of learning that people want to continue throughout their lives.

Kayla Martin-Patterson, alumna: Harnessing the power of community building and effectively utilizing the collective skills/knowledge of those in your network can go a long way in being successful in any role, but particularly in the arts and culture field.

Creating and maintaining connections with those who share similar passions is super important on both professional and personal levels.

Don't be afraid to ask for help and extra support when you need it.

Being a leader takes many different forms; leadership in the arts and cultural sector especially cannot be strictly defined, and no matter what breadth of experience and skills you bring to the table, you can cultivate change as a leader.

Margo Gray

Margo Gray, academic advisor: The ACL degree is very customizable. It's not a degree to bring all students from the same point A to point B. The program prompts students to grow their leadership skills from where they are now to where they want to be. We ask students to consider their role not only as a leader of their own organization or practice, but as part of the larger ecosystem of arts and culture and its relationship to the community. Our graduates are not only leading successful organizations—they're re-thinking what role arts and culture can play in communities and how their work can further social change.

There have been a few program changes in the past few years. Mostly these have been focused on making the program more responsive to student needs and accommodating a wider definition of "arts and cultural leadership." The program began its life focused on mid-career arts administrators but now embraces many different kinds of students hoping to grow as leaders in their work across the arts and cultural sector.

What do you see as the most pressing issues in the field for the next generation of leaders, and how can the ACL program help meet these concerns?

Lisa Dejoras, community faculty member: Among the most pressing issues facing leaders in the field is identifying where and how to enact positive change within organizations and systems; moving beyond management and maintenance of systems to become dynamic change leaders, effectively advancing the larger social purpose of the work. The ACL program provides students with critical understandings of leadership and their responsibilities within a larger social context along with practices and approaches for problem-solving. Students have space and support to explore their individual interests and passions, outline big ideas, and frame the steps forward for implementation.

"The program prompts students to grow their leadership skills from where they are now to where they want to be."
– Margo Gray, academic advisor

Sonja Kuftinec, advisory board member: The kind of explosive demand to “White American Theater” in 2020 to be more inclusive was more than just “we want a seat at the table,” but rather a challenge to the very structures of professional artistic creation. I feel like that was a rock thrown into the pond that is still reverberating.

That ethic that I talked about in response to the first question is already there in the program. So how do you keep it growing in the face of the reality that there are still structural elements of hierarchical leadership that have some value? A large organization needs to be able to have different kinds of layers of communication, but how can you have that and also craft new ways of thinking about institutional leadership? I think that the COVID shutdown enabled some arts organizations to reflect: using the time to innovate around institutional culture. And I think that what's happening in the field, which obviously has an impact on what students are training towards, both as a way to become part of that shift and also to become connectors and innovators and developers in their own right.

Where do you see the ACL program going in the future?

Tom Borrup, ACL Director of Graduate Studies: For me, the greatest hope for the program is to build a real community of alumni, a network of people who continue to learn from one another and who work together in various ways to make a major difference, not only in the cultural sector but in the larger community and world at large.

Margo Gray, academic advisor: I'm very excited about our new scholarship opportunities that will allow us to support incoming students over multiple years. I believe that financial support is so essential to building a more equitable future for the arts and culture sector. I'm also eager to see what amazing work our students and alumni will get up to next. Every year I'm impressed by the breadth and ambition of our students' capstones; many of these serve as the basis for future work as well.


Thank you to the participants!

  • Tom Borrup, ACL Director of Graduate Studies
  • Lucas Erickson, alumnus; Founder and Program Manager, On Stage MN
  • Margo Gray, ACL Academic Advisor
  • Lisa Dejoras, ACL Adjunct Faculty Member
  • Sonja Kuftinec, ACL Advisory Board Member; professor, Theater Arts and Dance, University of Minnesota; board member, Catalyst Arts; board member, Sod House Theater; member, Million Artist Movement
  • Kayla Martin-Patterson, alumna; Annual Giving Manager, YMCA of the North