Using business to pursue a passion

A masters of business administration (MBA) and a lifetime of art might not seem like the most natural combination.

However, for Jeffrey Melanson, completing his MBA was the most logical next step in his fine arts career.

Melanson, who graduated with a MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University in 1998, is now the executive director of Canada’s National Ballet School.

Since he was appointed to the position four years ago, he has had incredible success by eliminating an operating deficit, increasing annual revenues by over 30 per cent and creating essential national and international partnerships.

“I never imagined doing an MBA, never imagined bringing those two worlds together,” said Melanson in a phone interview with The Cord en route to the airport in New York, where he travels a few times a month.

“The MBA really was born out of experience as a professional within the sector, seeing these organizations really struggle.”

Although he did not have a business background prior to enrolling in the MBA program at Laurier, he had a strong desire to grasp fundamental economics, which he believed would translate into success for the industry.

“The MBA package is a really good enabling vehicle”

Melanson believes that, in particular, it is those with an incredible passion for something who succeed with the MBA skill set.

“I think of the MBA as a vehicle to ensure that that thing you’re passionate about becomes more successful. For me, the decision to do an MBA was [because] I love the arts.”

Being involved in the arts since high school – Melanson’s first experience on stage was the result of “getting sucked into” a musical in grade 10 because there were no men involved in the production – the arts are not only an important part of Melanson’s life, but he views them as essential to the core of every human being.

“In the case of art I fundamentally believe that we’re all artists; that every single person has a pulse, speaks on pitch, moves through space. We’re all artistic,” he explained.

“We’re all involved in the arts”

It is because of this inescapable essence of art that Melanson believes it is essential to restore arts education in both the public school system and society at large.

“Art is an extension of being a human being and the more I can expose that to people, hopefully [that will help] awaken in everyone a sense that they are fundamentally creative and innovative and that there’s deeper meanings to things in life.”

Although a lot of debate has been taking place in the media recently regarding arts funding, specifically in context of what are perceived as cuts by the federal government, Melanson is actually quite optimistic about the future of arts funding in Canada.

He notes that both the Canada Council for the Arts and arts training have seen unprecedented increases in recent years.

Although he recognizes the incredible challenges facing the arts world right now – specifically the state of the economy, shifting demographics, the impact of technology and the lack of success amongst arts organizations at attracting young audiences – Melanson doesn’t look at this in a pessimistic way.

“The challenges are just more dynamic and exciting,” he said.

“Think of the opportunities that might be present but might not apparent”

Referring to a theory by Tom Kelley, author of The 10 Faces of Innovation, Melanson described how it is those people that remain optimistic in adversity that succeed in the end.

“In this world we’ve enabled cynics and the devil’s advocate to be the smartest people in the room and to deflate ideas,” he explained.

“One of the challenging questions that’s been posed to me of late is of those successful people that you know, or of those iconic innovators … how many of them were cynics? How many of them were negative? The reality is nobody.”

It is this sense of optimism that carries into Melanson’s work, as he simply focuses on how he can enable people to succeed within the industry.

“I didn’t have any sort of tools to figure out how to creatively address the problems”

Highlighting strategy as essential in the success of the arts, Melanson sees the need for artists to utalize a business mindset.

“In arts organizations what we have, which is amazing, is all of these really talented people and this plethora of incredible ideas and initiatives that we could possibly embark on, and there’s tons of them.”

Melanson explained that at Canada’s National Ballet School in particular there are three or four dozen projects that they would like to embark on immediately – involving things such as motion capture technology – but that it is essential that they develop a sustainable business plan to ensure these projects come to fruition.

“There’s just tons of creativity but just not enough skills in terms of thinking strategically about how to make stuff happen.”

When Melanson decided to go back to school to do his MBA – he already had obtained a bachelor of music from the University of Manitoba – it was because he saw it as an opportunity to obtain a skill set that the industry desperately needed.

“I was looking around and seeing the arts sector really struggling and a lot of organizations struggling and I thought ‘you know, I may actually be able to do more as a producer than as a performer.’”

“Executives need to have a compelling sense of purpose”

While acknowledging his MBA as central to his recent success, Melanson noted that at the core of it he sees his love for the arts as his biggest asset.

“If you’re going to work in social enterprise … the not-so-profit sector … a fundamental is passion. You need to be smart, you need to be skilled, but it’s hard for me to imagine staff leadership, artistic leadership that would have all of the business attributes but none of the core fire for the arts.”

Building on this passion, Melanson hopes to continue to further his arts training.

He plans to complete his PhD at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music as he is a strong advocate for formal education because of how it shapes one’s world view.

“Education is about transformation. It’s about exposing people to new ideas, it’s about exposing yourself to new ideas. It’s not about a finished product, it’s about a process,” said Melanson.

“It’s really a robust challenge,” he added. “We need really, really passionate artists who also are equipped to produce and create the arts organization of the future.”