Karen Munnelly joined the College of Fine Arts staff in May as Director of Professional Programs. She worked most recently at the University of Kentucky, where she taught courses in arts administration. She received her B.M. in Flute Performance from the University of South Florida, an M.A. in Arts Administration from Florida State University and is on track to receive her Ph.D. in Arts Administration, Education and Policy from Ohio State University in 2017. Her research focuses on both the career and degree expectations of undergraduate music majors. She’s also worked as the Director of Operations with the Aspen Music Festival & School and as the Artistic and Operations Director for the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckenridge, Colorado. We sat down with her recently to talk about her charge of improving professional outcomes for fine arts students.
Your career has included an interesting mix of teaching and academic research alongside hands-on work in arts administration. Can you tell us more about your career path and how it led you to your new position as Director of Professional Programs in UT’s College of Fine Arts?
As an arts administrator, I worked primarily with classical music festivals, so I had a lot of interaction with students. While I was at the Aspen Music Festival & School, I was responsible for hiring and supervising a large seasonal staff. Many of the people I hired were students studying arts administration. I really enjoyed the mentoring role of working with students, and this led me to return to school for a Ph.D. with the goal of eventually teaching. Both my experience working with students in internship positions and also working with the music students enrolled in the festival inspired my interest in career development. When I saw this opportunity at UT, I was teaching in the Arts Administration Program at the University of Kentucky, and while I absolutely loved my job, I also missed some of the administrative aspects of arts administration. I was really excited to find a position that focused on career development and involved both teaching and administrative work.
Your position of Director of Professional Programs is a new one for the college. Can you talk about the scope of what you’ll be addressing in your new role?
Part of my position is overseeing Fine Arts Career Services (FACS), which has existed for many years. My hope with FACS is to grow the amount of programs we offer, so we can reach more students. One of my other goals is to establish a larger internship program. I would love to see more fine arts students participating in internships. Austin has a really amazing creative economy and there are many out of the box opportunities here. Part of my role is to connect the college with entities on and off campus.
What will be your biggest priorities in your first year in the job?
One of my biggest priorities this year is to redefine and rebrand our program offerings. We offer a lot of wonderful programs including workshops, guest speaker presentations, resume advising and one-on-one career advising sessions. But I don’t think we have done a great job at telling our story and packaging our services into distinct programs and series. Students know that we are here, and they know some of what we do. My hope is by the end of the year, students will have a much better sense of all of the services and programs we put on. Getting that message out to students is a really big priority this year.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing students coming out of fine arts programs today?
As artists, our identity is often very strongly tied to our art. Many of us started practicing our art discipline as young children and have identified as a trumpet player, painter or dancer, etc. since we were very young. For students, I think it can sometimes be a challenge to broaden this identity and to think bigger picture. Careers in the arts don’t always look like they do in school. Graduates suddenly have to find their own opportunities to create art and to perform, as opposed to having existing opportunities. This can be a difficult transition, which is one of the reasons Fine Arts Career Services offers support to both students and alumni.
What are the biggest benefits of an arts education? Do you see a competitive advantage that students with a fine arts background have over non-arts majors?
Fine arts students are passionate. I don’t think you can be an artist without a strong passion for what you do. The dedication of fine arts students is something I am constantly impressed by, and it is a trait that will serve students well. The arts also encourage creative thinking. When I hired people in Aspen, above anything else, I looked for people who had the ability to think creatively and solve problems. There will always be problems, so people who can think outside the box and be solution-oriented will always be needed. I believe the arts encourage this type of thinking.
What can you tell us about your academic research in the career and degree expectations of undergraduate music majors?
For my dissertation research, I surveyed approximately 200 students at five elite music schools. One of my big questions revolves around what careers students associate with success compared to what careers they desire compared to what careers they realistically expect to have. I’m really interested in discovering how the positions students most associate with success might differ from what they desire or expect to do. I collected my data last spring and am just now beginning the analysis phase. I’m really excited to dig deeper into the data and hopefully be surprised by what I learn.
You were a flute performance major in your undergraduate years. How has your musical training shaped your personal and professional life?
While I no longer play, I still very much consider myself a musician. My musical background has influenced every part of who I am and it shapes many of my decisions. As an arts administrator, that background was very important on a daily basis. My background is in orchestral operations, so the decisions I was making had a direct effect on the orchestra. Being a musician allowed me to better consider the orchestra’s needs. Working in the arts, I have always felt that I was working towards a common good that was much bigger than my own needs. My passion for music and my belief in what we were doing in Aspen made the 12- and 14-hour days possible.
Personally, music has made a huge impact on my life. One of my primary reasons for choosing band as a middle school elective was getting out of daily PE classes. I had no idea that what seemed like such a small decision, would literally change the rest of my life!