Hobby or profession?
CULTURE IS not profitable and given low priority in the private and public sectors, even in developed countries. So why choose to study and work in culture? When I decided to pursue further studies in this field, I knew what I was getting into. But actually working in the field was far from what I had imagined.
I am not a fine arts graduate. Drawing was always more of a hobby for me, so I finished a communications course. After college, upon my mother’s request, I worked for two years at her executive search firm, a company she built 25 years ago. I learned the ropes of professionalism and business ethics, but I missed doing creative, visual work.
Then I had the golden opportunity to study abroad. I had always enjoyed making and viewing art, but I felt I wasn’t good enough to pursue it as a profession. So I thought about studying management of arts organizations. It was like an MBA but tailored to museums, theaters, cultural agencies, and the like. I studied full-time for two years and graduated with a master’s degree in arts and culture management.
Hopeful, eager, and full of confidence, I went back to the Philippines to look for a job in culture. Coincidentally, I met a professor from my graduate school at an alumni event, which led me to a job at one of the most well-known museums in the country. I was thrilled.
I had heard of the bureaucracy, but to experience it is another matter: the slow procurement process, delayed release of salaries, incessant list of requirements, often unnecessary—the list went on and on. I learned to work with people of different backgrounds and personalities, which was to my benefit. It was difficult to adapt to the bureaucracy at first, but I plodded on. The new projects and the artworks in the museum kept me going, as did the excitement of seeing visitors when I’d check on the galleries and on social media. Unfortunately, these did not offset my growing disenchantment with the organization’s leadership. I realized it was time to leave.
I found another culture-related job, this time in a smaller organization. Though my stint at this job was shorter, I gained a better understanding of how the museum industry works and the amount of research and production that went into it. But after several months, extenuating factors beyond the organization’s control kept me from doing the real work I was hired to do. I no longer found it challenging or rewarding, so I left.
After reflecting on my priorities, I have since decided on a career change. It was in June when I decided to forego pursuing arts and cultural work and return to the corporate world instead.
In July, I attended a conference where many of the speakers were below 35. It was refreshing to hear stories of younger people who did their own soul-searching. Some of them had good careers, but they longed for something more and started their own companies. Although my circumstances were different from theirs, I, too, wasn’t satisfied with my work goals and purpose. I wanted to know what I could contribute to society, and how I could do it well.
In my past jobs, the projects were not fulfilling anymore, with the few measures for key performance and success. Tasks began to feel menial and lacked that sense of achievement one gets after completing a project with a team. I felt I wasn’t in the right environment to grow in, given the work culture and internal issues, where most of management’s energy seemed to go. What achievements, big or small, was I aiming for? Was I even getting there?
The conference speakers said it was okay to fail, take risks, and figure out what to do with one’s life. While they might have referred to creative risks, my experience with risk-taking was different. I took the risk of studying and working in a field that was not going to guarantee me a stable career or a high salary. Still, I wouldn’t call my master’s in arts management a “waste”—it was still a management course in a reputable university. And those two years I spent in Melbourne was a holistic learning experience that I would not have exchanged for anything else.
I left cultural work for the same reason I didn’t pursue fine arts in college: A hobby doesn’t always lead to a career. It works out for some, but for others, a job match depends more on one’s personality and work values than on mere personal interests.
I left because cultural work isn’t as intrinsically rewarding as I thought it would be, not in a country where culture is still a low priority. The Philippines and its education system have a long way to go in appreciating and understanding history, arts and culture. Or in business terms, in “developing the culture industries and its audiences (the consumers).” Yes, it has improved, thanks to a growing economy, but it is far from the level of developed countries where museums can be more crowded than malls.
And to be honest, I need a more stable career, finance- and organization-wise, which I now believe can be found in the corporate sector. My parents worried about my future, and it had rubbed off on me.
Through my successes and failures, I learned more about myself and my relationship with culture: We’re better off as friends—no marriage, no engagement. I experienced doubts and regrets when I quit my past jobs. It took a while to convince myself that I had made the right decision to resign and start over. After all, not knowing your place in the world is one of the scariest things people in my generation have to face.
I am still looking for my purpose, but the path is clearer now. I wouldn’t have arrived at my realizations had I not gone through bouts of longing and actually done something about it.
In this case, I studied, worked, and played. I wouldn’t have learned from experience if I hadn’t made mistakes. My passion wasn’t just driven by my hobbies but also by my skills, values, goals, and work environment. All in all, I still desire efficiency, teamwork, good mentorship, and, most importantly, integrity. And I am still searching.
Culture will remain a big part of my life, and maybe one day, when I have a stable corporate job, I can donate to cultural projects and causes I believe in. In the meantime, I will be one who walks through those galleries, theaters, and heritage spots with love and appreciation. I just won’t be the one working behind them.
Isabella T. Guevara, 29, completed her master’s in management of arts and cultural industries at the University of Melbourne in Australia.