Alum George Chen on Building a Life in Development

How supporting the arts became a calling and a passion for one #Columalum.

When George Chen first began his MFA in Photography at Columbia, he did so with a passion for his art and an excitement at being able to begin a new chapter in a new country; coming from Beijing, there was a plethora of new experiences and opportunities to take advantage of. For Chen, the son of two photography gallery owners back in China, joining a photography program connected to the MoCP, one of the premier photography museums in the country, was a bonus he couldn’t ignore.

Once at Columbia, Chen thought it would be a good idea to take a couple of business classes. “I found out that I actually love it,” Chen says. In fact, he loved it so much that he immediately decided to follow up his MFA ‘17 with an Arts Management master’s degree (MAM ‘19). “I suggest that all artists, [regardless] of the degree they hold, take one or two business classes,” Chen says, “because it will be beneficial for you in many ways.”

For Chen, the opportunity to explore his own interests proved foundational to his experience in the MAM program, which has set him up for success in a development career. “What Columbia did is prepare me to be ready,” he says. “If I need to work with a budget, I understand that, and if I need to do grant writing, I know how. If I have to lead fundraising events, I think, ‘Oh, I did that with [Associate Professor] Bob Blandford!” The journey towards earning the MAM was choc-full of opportunities to level-up his skill sets in every area of arts management.

After graduating with his MAM in 2019, Chen left Columbia with an impressive resume that included a robust art-related practice and a stint at the MoCP. He ended up landing a job at SkyART, a South Side nonprofit dedicated to providing free, quality art programming to the local communities. As a part-time development coordinator, Chen began by supporting his full-time manager. Then, two months later, the manager left the organization. It proved to be just the push Chen needed to dive in full time and learn how to harness the skills he learned at Columbia in support of the organization.

Being shaken by racial inequality during the global pandemic, Chen later shifted his focus from art to racial justice. So when an opportunity at the collective advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice|Chicago became available, he jumped at the chance to join. “I got here as a grant writer and then was promoted to a development manager,” he says. “In development, if you show proof that you have the necessary skills and are willing to work hard, you can be acknowledged pretty fast.” Now in a management position, Chen relishes learning how best to serve diverse constituents and hopes to continue to grow in his role for years to come.

And to others who may like to follow in his footsteps, he has a simple piece of advice: “the more experience you can get before you get into the real world, the better,” It’s a ringing endorsement for Columbia, the MFA and MAM programs, and opportunities that await future artists, businesspeople, and leaders in development.