“Don't pursue a career in the Arts unless you love the Arts truly, madly, deeply. And do not have any delusions about what awaits you both in educational settings, and in the job market. …If you think you're gonna get a break because you have a disability, think again. …You better be the best you can be at what you do, and do not allow yourself to use your disability as an excuse NOT to work continually and consistently towards total professionalism and high standards of quality.”
-- Jaehn Clare, professional theatre artist, from "A Career as an Artist Ain't an Easy Row to Hoe," keynote address for The Art of Employment: Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities on March 25 & 26, 2002 at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis MN.
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Departing from our feature’s customary Indiana focus, we’re giving Honorary Hoosier status to a Minneapolis resident raised in Cincinnati. After all, that’s just across the border. – J.H.S.
A group of Egyptians at the New Library of Alexandria is having a conversation about a book. They have just read an Arabic translation of To Kill a Mockingbird. They’re talking about it with Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress. The creative mind and logistician behind this unprecedented, video-conference event is Adam Perry.
Senior Program Director on the staff of Arts Midwest, Perry is Program Director for The Big Read Egypt/U.S., a project of the U.S. Department of State, National Endowment for the Arts, and U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Perry is thrilled with the “cross-pollination between the American communities that were reading an Egyptian book and the Egyptian communities that are reading an American novel” as this exciting experiment in cultural diplomacy is wrapping up.
So add literary diplomat to the numerous roles Perry has assumed with impressive competence during his 12 years in the field of arts administration. “You have to be well rounded and handle the basics of anything that’s thrown at you,” he says. Having juggled responsibilities akin to entertainment lawyer, accountant and financial analyst, strategic planner, theatrical production coordinator, communications strategist, talent manager, and travel agent, often simultaneously, that is a bit of an understatement.
Perry’s resumé glitters with phrases like “summa cum laude” and “Rhodes Scholar nominee.” How did the arts become a passion and, ultimately, a career for him? “It’s actually because of my disability, to be honest.” Perry recalls when he was 10 or 11, “My mom sat down and explained that I was a little bit different, that I was never going to be able to drive a car… I was just like every other kid, but you don’t see so well.”
“I was kind of a rare case. Most people who have retinitis pigmentosa (“R.P.”) don’t know about it until they’re in their 30’s or 40’s.” Perry considers himself fortunate that this revelation occurred early in his life. “I never had to re-imagine myself or regret any of my choices, as they were all informed by my disability.”
Perry was an avid soccer and baseball player. He had to switch gears. “My mom basically forced me to try out for plays,” he recalls, and he discovered his aptitude and love for acting. As a preteen and high schooler with a disability, the theater enriched him with an identity “that made me feel confident, a way into the world.”
In college he majored in political science as well as theater. He reached the crossroads, as he characterizes it, of a choice between law school and graduate work in theater. Realizing the stage was “where my passion and my identity were,” Perry pursued a master’s degree in theater at Ohio State University. Professional acting gigs followed. Then a crossroads, again.
“Being on stage was not an easy thing for me.” Perry relates how stressful it was to avoid physical hazards and to pitch in with the kinds of odd jobs expected of actors in productions on a shoestring budget. “I grew pretty adept at faking it, but it was exhausting and my love of the craft faded. I felt that I had other talents and I had other skills, and I could be a more viable contributor in other ways.” He had a good friend in Minneapolis and knew it was a great arts community. He landed a Programming Assistant position in St. Paul at what is now called the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.
He worked his way up through Producing Associate to Programming and Contract Manager. “That’s where I discovered that my aptitude is in operations and project management. I like being the guy behind the scenes.” A stint in the for-profit sector at Clear Channel followed. As a Director of Operations, working on multi-million dollar, touring Broadway productions, he learned a new set of skills. However it was “a blessing in disguise” that he was laid off. That’s when he found his present employer.
Arts Midwest is “an exciting place to be because we’re doing some pretty groundbreaking stuff here. The projects are always fascinating and it’s fast-paced.” Perry’s boss David Fraher founded the organization. Perry considers him a mentor, a source of large opportunities and high performance expectations. Fraher is a model for “how I can extend my career, and grow my career, and make my career personal to me.” These days Perry is thinking a lot about strategies for using his skills, background, and connections to assist people with disabilities to succeed in the arts. He is “beginning to get the language, tools, and the connections to open up my career” to accomplish this goal.
Just three years ago was a different story. Perry says he was so focused on his work that he wasn’t thinking much about his future with R.P., much less about his disability as an identity. “It’s a degenerative disease and it’s getting worse.” “Up to that point I wasn’t using a cane or had adjustment-to-blindness training. I was certainly a visually impaired person, but I was able to get by without a means of assistance or at least of recognition.” Time spent working on treacherous film sets with challenging lighting, as well as a nasty sidewalk accident, spurred him on to make some changes.
“I realized that if I was going to continue doing this kind of work, and there was no reason I couldn’t, I needed to let the world know a little more about me immediately.” Although he had been open about his condition, it was a huge transition to use a cane. He had some down time between projects. “So I spent 6 or 7 months at a place called Blind, Inc.,” a nationally recognized Minneapolis rehabilitation center for people adjusting to blindness. “It was really immersive.”
The training includes usage of assistive technology, an on-the-job necessity for Perry. Kurzweil scan-and-read software “is a godsend.” “Any document I can scan into my computer, Kurzweil will translate into something I can magnify or have read back to me.” The Dolphin screen magnifier, and Jaws, a screen reader, are other essential software tools. Perry uses Braille to determine which button to press in an elevator, for example, or how to find a meeting room.
Adding a visible disability to his public identity has been challenging. Strangers offer unwanted assistance. “At some point every day, I’m somebody’s Girl Scout moment.” The cane elicits stereotyped assumptions and low expectations. “The majority of people treat me just like anybody else,” but there are frequent exceptions. “You cannot believe how patronizing people can be.” “[Friends and coworkers] say ‘Wow, you handle it so great. How can you be so calm?’…I have to take a deep breath and realize that people are frightened of what could happen to them, and that I am a physical manifestation of that fear.”
On the job, “people talk with me on the phone for 6 months. We set up a big meeting. I show up and walk in with my cane and things change. It’s up to me to get it back to where we were when we were on the phone.” “You want to be that much better and you want to be that much more perfect.”
Perry aims for excellence, but he isn’t afraid to take risks. “I’m used to walking into places where it’s dark and I don’t know where I’m going.” This serves him well in his career in arts administration, a field he describes as “reimagining itself” in the struggling economy. “The vast majority in the field is project work... There’s kind of an instability that’s built in.” To get a foot in the door, he advises a background in a creative discipline. Knowing how to write and to research are essential skills. “My recommendation to someone who goes into arts administration is to have a wide open perspective, to be willing to take on anything.” It’s about “self-starting and self-generation and coming up with your own idea about how to go at it.” And “working your tail off, just like anything else.”
One the professional experiences Perry has enjoyed most is his recent travel to Egypt. It is a country where “blind people are kept in a house and not allowed to leave.” He found himself representing not just Arts Midwest, but his government, his nation, and the very idea of who a person with a disability can be. “They [the Egyptians] see me and they don’t know what to do with me. They see this capable, just-like-anybody-else guy there to do business with you. That gives me great satisfaction.”