Leadership InSight: Margaret Perry

In our Leadership InSight series, we ask arts education leaders to share advice and the experiences that have helped them become successful leaders. Margaret Perry has served as executive director of the Armstrong Community Music School in Austin, TX for over 17 years. She is also an accomplished pianist, teacher, and arts advocate. She is a member of the Austin Arts Hall of Fame and received the 2012 National Guild Service Award.


My life in arts education, thankfully, started very young. I was incredibly fortunate to be raised in a family that highly valued the arts and knew that they should be a part of our daily experience. More than that, I was fortunate to be raised by a family who said, “you’ve been given some great gifts, and now you need to give them back to your community. For the rest of your life, you need to be engaged.” So music and, for the last 17 years, the Armstrong Community Music School, has been my vehicle for doing just that.

With almost two decades of experience as an executive director, I’ve started to feel a significant change in my role in the last year—and I think the shift will only continue in the future. Now more than ever, I have to step outside of the school to engage in conversations with the community, to hear what they need from us and from arts education. The results of these conversations often have challenged both my comfort level and my knowledge base. These conversations remind me that I must continue to rethink and reevaluate how my organization speaks to our stakeholders as our political environment changes. My staff and I have found that professional development on issues of poverty, violence, and the trauma of prejudice is a critical, ongoing necessity in our daily work, and it feels more vital every day. 

Making the Space to Listen
The conversations I’ve been having with arts leaders in my community suggest that, moving forward, real organizational leadership will require a truly new level of listening and direct engagement. We must connect with different segments of our communities and have real open-hearted conversations, not just with those who support us or those who need our offerings, but also with those who don’t understand or value our work. We must connect with people who may not have directly experienced the power of engaging in the arts and bring them to the table as equal partners. 

Of course, this work is time-consuming, difficult, and at times frustrating; but how else will we weave a fabric of common community and work toward a nation that values and supports the arts? Leaders in the coming years need to recognize that having difficult conversations with your community is the way to test assumptions and inspire ideas—ideas about how to approach our work and adapt based on the people that we seek to serve. 

Some executive directors in the field might argue that, moving forward, we may have to put all of our energy into keeping the lights on, and there may not be space to step outside of the day-to-day requirements of running an effective school. But I would suggest that we have to be realistic with our goals in this area and, importantly, we have to be kind to ourselves if we don’t always achieve success. I’ve found that, rather than having hundreds of individual conversations, community members are often willing to gather in a shared space to share their thoughts on a particular issue. So you can look to the community for help; you don’t have to go it alone. 

Advocating in a New Political Context
Looking toward the future, it is likely that demand for the arts will continue to outpace the services that we can provide. Our difficulties may never go away. However, effective leaders should recognize that difficult times can be the catalyst for everyone in the arts to embrace their personal leadership. Those of us who know the healing power and energizing beauty of the arts need to personally set goals for action. 

In some cases, that action may look like community organizing, as we seek to answer questions such as: who is resisting the value of the arts in our community, and what can we do personally and professionally to bring about positive and life changing conversations that translate into action in a difficult political climate? In other cases, it may be direct political engagement that draws on your knowledge of the arts. Before I leave for the school each morning, I send emails or make phone calls to our senators and legislators on issues concerning the arts. That way I have at least accomplished that small task before the whirlwind of each day hits me.

Difficult political climates, both now and in the future, will create uncertainty, confusion, and frustration. However, it is also an extraordinary moment for us to give careful thought to our work and to find new inspiration, truth, and energy in what we do each day.

Published: July 18, 2017