Executive Program Q&A with Brian Johnson

By ,     Aug 15, 2017

Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson has worked in the public sector as a federal contractor for over 10 years supporting agencies such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS): Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). His background is in logistics, program analysis and IT project management. Brian is also a lifelong artist who employs multiple disciplines: painting, sculpture, photography, and multimedia as platforms to explore his artistic ideas. His abstract artwork aims to pull apart the commonplace and exalt the subtle experiences in between. He has exhibited at galleries and art festivals in the DC Metro area. Brian is goal-oriented and is working to combine his technical project management skills with his passion for the arts into a fulfilling career. When not creating new artwork, or managing projects, Brian is usually exploring overlooked parts of DC and surrounding areas or hiking a trail with friends.

Program Coordinator

Royce Hodnett

"Exposure to arts & culture disciplines outside your own can provide exceptional opportunities to build connections, expand your awareness and provide inspiration for bigger goals."


Meet Brian Johnson, a federal IT contractor. Although Brian does not work in a traditionally creative field, the tools and skills he has learned during the Executive Program in Arts & Culture Strategy have transcended beyond the Arts & Culture sector and allow him to make meaningful contributions to the work he is doing. The program has also helped him think about next steps in a potential career transition into the arts.

Read on to see how he used the tools he learned in the Executive Program in Arts & Culture Strategy to transform the culture at his office and contribute creative solutions to his jobs biggest challenges.

Can you tell me about where you were when you first applied to the program? Were you working? Where and what was your position?

I have been an artist all my life, primarily in drawing, painting and sculpture. I have also been working in the field of Information Technology (IT) for the past 10+ years, most often as an IT project manager. The past couple of years I have been searching for a way to combine my project management skills and my passion for art into a more fulfilling career. I discovered the National Arts Strategies ‘Executive Program in Arts & Culture Strategy’ through my Google searches for arts administration and Masters-related programs. Last Fall, November 2016, I decided to take a short sabbatical from working and left a full-time job as a federal contractor IT project manager supporting the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), giving myself 2-3 months to clear my head and set the foundations for where I wanted to be next, transitioning from IT to the arts. It was at that time I applied to participate in the Executive Program in Arts & Culture Strategy through NAS.

In January of 2017, when the program courses began, I was still voluntarily unemployed. It felt great to completely focus on starting the program without distraction or competing priorities. Then in mid-February 2017, I started a new job still as a federal contractor supporting Enterprise IT Governance for the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA).

What were you specifically hoping to gain by participating in a continuing education program, such as this one?

By participating in the Executive Program in Arts & Culture Strategy I was hoping to fill in some of the gaps in my technical and business skills as related to the arts and non-profit sector that my IT work experience has not provided. Additionally, and more importantly, I hoped to network with and meet like-minded individuals from different arts disciplines for personal and professional growth.

What ultimately made you decide to participate in this program as opposed to other programs?

After careful consideration, I felt the NAS program was a great next step towards the transition from IT to the arts, that I am pursuing; and possibly a middle step to an Arts Administration Masters program. I decided to participate in this program because it aligned with my personal goals, was affordable and provided the flexibility to working professionals through an online platform that I would need.

How did you find the time commitment/workload? How did you balance this with a full-time work schedule?

Generally, I found the weekly time commitment and workload completely reasonable. My approach was to briefly review the coursework for the week early on Monday or Tuesday night, then try to set aside time the next few nights to tackle the readings and videos. By Friday I would usually start the assignment for the week, giving myself the weekend to proof and finalize my submissions. The only time I felt pressured and got behind was around early June when my day job workload increased and I went on vacation, but it was still manageable. The NAS faculty and staff were totally supportive and understanding and worked with me to get back on track.

What was your favorite course or session? Why?

The Convening in March was absolutely electric! Coming from an environment where I am typically the creative, arts-minded person to congregating with nearly 50 arts focused individuals from varied backgrounds and disciplines was exciting and motivating. The lectures and activities were engaging, informative and did an excellent job of sparking the participant community for the rest of the program.

The two specific courses I enjoyed the most were Arts and Culture Finance and Nonprofit Governance, both of which I learned a great deal from and could directly correlate and apply to my current position in Enterprise IT Governance.

Tell us about your experience with the online learning component.

Overall, I found Canvas Instructure to be an excellent learning platform. Having the course materials and lectures readily available via desktop or mobile device allowed the flexibility for me to access the coursework on my schedule. Using the Discussion Topics for each week of each course was a terrific way to keep the cohort actively engaged with each other over the months and the open forum format was collaborative and constructive.

There were a few technical glitches early on when we first started using the platform, but those mostly seemed to be due to settings and were quickly resolved by the NAS Staff.

What are the top 3 most valuable skills/takeaways from this program?

For me, the most valuable takeaways from this program are as follows:

A clearer understanding of the connectivity and influence of each organizational area (Finance, Fundraising, Governance, Strategy, etc.) and the holistic influence they can have on the health and success of an organization.

Community building and collaborative engagement can be key to the acceptance and growth of an organization; especially when existing assets can be mapped and partnerships developed across both arts and non-arts groups.

Exposure to arts & culture disciplines outside your own can provide exceptional opportunities to build connections, expand your awareness and provide inspiration for bigger goals.

If you had to ask yourself what do I have now that I didn’t have before the program began, what would you say?

Through the Executive Program in Arts & Culture Strategy I have obtained a broader appreciation and clearer understanding for the many components of arts and culture nonprofit management.

What would you say to a colleague in the arts field deciding whether to attend this program?

I have highly recommended the Executive Program in Arts & Culture Strategy to my colleagues in the arts field. The NAS Executive Program in Arts & Culture Strategy is built on community, comprised of past and present participants; all bringing their knowledge and expertise to share. The coursework is structured enough to be informative and flexible enough to be attainable. Each participant contributes to the cohort’s collective knowledge through their engagement and specific background, leading to a diverse community full of opportunities to learn.

You’ll learn something new and most likely complete the program inspired by a new set of friends!

Anything else you’d like to share?

During the March Convening in Philadelphia we learned about Human Centered Design through lectures and activities facilitated by Hannah Fox from the Derby Museums, UK. I really enjoyed the lecture on HCD; so much so that I introduced the concepts to my colleagues at my 'day job' supporting the Enterprise Governance Team GSA in Washington, DC.

Shortly after returning from the Convening, questions arose about the role, function, schedule    and authority of the highest governance board, the Investment Review Board (IRB) that we support as part of the Enterprise Governance Team. I suggested we use HCD to tackle these issues with the IRB! We came up with some great recommendations and presented them to senior leadership for consideration. The exercise demonstrated the value add of employing HCD.

Since then, my government Team Lead (I'm the contractor/consultant task lead) has used the phrase "How Might We..." all the time! Nearly every meeting or day she says it! It's taken root in our team's culture. In fact, we just signed up as a team to do a free Design Kit: Human Centered Design 7-week course through IDEO.org starting in September.

I emailed Hannah to let her know the impact/influence of her talk.

I’d also like to mention that the NAS Faculty and Staff were excellent throughout the program, totally fun, informative and engaging at the Convening and readily available and supportive for the specific courses.

We would like to give Brian a huge thanks for participating in this interview and speaking openly and honestly about his experience.