A Better Future for Women and Girls, One Show at a Time: Gwendolyn Tunnicliffe and WAM Theatre

by Serena Wong, AES Blog Writing Intern

People tend to keep useful things on their desks. Some pens and pencils, perhaps. A bust of an inspirational historic figure. For Gwendolyn Tunnicliffe, it was a copy of Fundamentals of Arts Management.

Gwen is currently the Philanthropy and Outreach coordinator at WAM Theatre in the Berkshires, whose slogan is “theatre for everyone that benefits women and girls." As the outreach coordinator, Gwen gets to work with donors and businesses to acquire donations for the theatre. “My goal is to ensure that all WAM supporters feel included and engaged with our work and updated with the things we’re doing,” she says.

A portion of box office revenue from each WAM show goes directly to small organizations where the donations will noticeably benefit the recipients. For example, during WAM Theatre’s last spring season, the box office proceeds from that show provided academic scholarships to ten girls from the Flying Cloud Institute, an organization that aims to inspire young people and educators through programs that spark creativity. “We’re more interested in a measurable impact,” Gwen explains. “While organizations like Planned Parenthood are great, they’re so big that you can’t really see where your donation is going,”

Gwen graduated from UMass in the winter of 2015 with a Bachelor's in Theater and a Professional Certificate in Arts Management. For her, the Arts Extension Service allowed Gwen to pursue a career in the arts outside of performing. Performing didn't give her the autonomy she sought. “I started thinking about careers that could give me the power to positively influence a community.” As it turned out, UMass Amherst, with their Arts Management and Theater programs, was the school to give her just that. 

During her time at UMass, Gwen pursued the Professional Certificate in Arts Management, which involves taking eight Arts Management courses. Her coursework was a mix of on-campus and online classes, including Grantwriting for the Arts, Arts Programming, Financial Management in the Arts, Foundations in Arts EntrepreneurshipIntroduction to Arts Management, and Strategic Planning. “There’s an aspect of each course that I get to use in my day-to-day life,” says Gwen.

Even though each course had a wealth of useful information, Gwen admits there were some stand-out favorites. “Strategic Planning influenced the way I thought about non-profits,” she says. “It gives you a framework to understand nonprofits and how to keep serving the missions that they work towards. If you can identify that, you can understand all of the other aspects of running a nonprofit. Although it’s not something you do every day - you don’t strategically plan - it was the one that influenced the way I thought about everything else,”

Gwen’s AES course work is still helping her out to this day, Some courses taught her skills that she used immediately at the start of her career, but there are some that she’s getting to use just now, such as research practices or time management for fundraisers. Sometimes she ends up referencing her papers, she recalls, and other times her field experiences will contrast with the proposals she wrote for case study organizations in her papers. “The classes are a very good place to try out ideas and get them wrong," she explains. “There’ll be aspects of the job where I’ll be like ‘Oh my gosh, I was so wrong on my paper!’...but also times where I’ll think ‘Oh, I wrote a paper about this and I need to look at it again!’”

One of the primary benefits of the courses was the mentorship that was available to her. Not only were her instructors mentors that “I know I can call and email my questions to,” local arts organizations also functioned as case studies in both her on-campus and online classes. The relationships formed with those organizations in-class meant that Gwen had an easy transition into working life, something that many students struggle to find so fresh out of college. “It was like a gift,” she says. “Finding a job is the main struggle of college graduates.” Gwen was hired at WAM Theatre within two months of graduating.

One of the projects the theatre is undertaking is the process of building women and female-identified leaders of tomorrow. This year, they host the first-ever Berkshire Leadership Summit, a conference for women and female-identified theatre leaders from around the country, providing them with workshops and connecting them with mentors so that they can build relationships and networks in the industry. The idea for the Summit came from research that was done by the Wellesley Center for Women in 2016; the research showed that women in the arts industry were constantly being passed over for their male counterparts, leading women - out of frustration - to create their own opportunities.

“If you can identify why these women are not being chosen to lead, you can change that,” Gwen explains of the summit. “If you can get them to the top, those women will start hiring with intersectionality in mind and there will be this kind of trickle-down effect.” She hopes to one day attend a similar summit herself - perhaps when WAM isn’t hosting it and some other organization has taken the torch.

Where does she see herself in ten years? “I don’t know!” Gwen laughs. “I’m working at a fairly young organization, and I’d like to get a taste for a larger organization,” she begins. “I would like to grow with the organization, but I’d like to keep working at my skills in general management.”

One of her major goals? “I would like to live in a city just because I haven’t yet,” she says. “Probably Boston,”

As for whether curious students should pursue a Certificate in Arts Management with the Arts Extension Service, Gwen’s reaction is instantaneous. “Yes! It’s like a cheat sheet for an arts career,” she says, adding that there was no reason not to pursue coursework that would both complement a student's arts training and make their professional life easier. While she does suggest dipping a toe in to see if the classes will ultimately be beneficial to their career, at the end, people do come out with important relationships and skills useful in a variety of professional contexts.

And, of course, a useful book to keep on the desk.