Michelle Laflamme-Childs Appointed Executive Director of New Mexico Arts
March 25, 2020 | By Hannah Loomis
Michelle Laflamme-Childs (SFGI96) was appointed executive director of New Mexico Arts in early 2020. She has followed an unusual path from physics to corporate direct marketing, arts administration, and poetry writing, with a stop along the way at the Liberal Arts graduate program at St. John's College in Santa Fe.
What are some of the ways you’ve applied your St. John’s education to your career?
I think that one of the key things you learn at St. John’s—besides all of the cool stuff that’s in the books—is how to engage, how to debate, how to have a conversation, and how to listen to somebody else and let what they’re saying maybe reshape what you’re thinking. I came out of there knowing that I didn’t really know anything at all. And that has served me very well in my life and career.
How? Tell me more about that.
Because I almost never take a very hard and fast stance on things. I was going to say, “until I really have all the facts,” but you almost never really have all the facts. So I think it’s really important to be flexible and dynamic in your thinking, to take a step back sometimes and think, “Okay, maybe I’m being too rigid on this, let me hear what else there is.” And I think it’s a lost art right now in the world.
When you were looking at graduate schools, what particularly appealed to you about St. John’s?
I loved the concept of reading original sources because—especially as a young person—I wasn’t a very good student. I never liked history. In high school there was too much of “memorize this date, memorize that date. There’s this little isolated thing that happened in the world.”
I began college as a physics major; I wanted to be an astrophysicist. But at some point along the way, I was like, “Hmm, maybe not.” And then I did prelaw. And then I thought, “Hmm, I don’t know about prelaw.” My stepfather actually taught a class at my college called History of Ideas, in which he tied in major philosophical, social, and art movements with historical events, and you could see how major art movements predated major social change. That was fascinating. I changed to interdisciplinary studies, with a theater minor, though in the end I graduated with an English degree. I thought I was going to go to graduate school somewhere away from New England, and then go back and finish a doctorate in New England in creative writing and teach at some small liberal arts college. That was my goal: to teach and write and be a poet.
But then I found St. John’s. I discovered I could learn from original texts and kind of weave together the history of the world, almost, or the history of modern Western thought. And that was exactly what I wanted. Clearly, I had a love of science. I had a love of English. I’m very left and right brain. And so it just seemed like I could do all of those things at St. John’s.
Did your St. John’s education help you get to where you are now?
It absolutely did. I left the corporate world and found a job at Santa Fe Art Institute as the administrative director and the deputy director; they wanted someone with business experience. I just fell into that; it was incredible, and lucky, and amazing. I had corporate and leadership experience, but I had also grown up in an art-filled household, and I was involved in the arts.
I think that the St. John’s Program develops leaders for many reasons. It cultivates the ability to hear feedback, to take a lot of differing opinions into account, and to make a decision to move forward in a way that seems to be the most beneficial for everyone involved, whenever possible.
Tell me about the job that you’re doing now.
I’m the executive director for New Mexico Arts, the state art agency. I was appointed to this position in late January, but I’m familiar with it because for seven years I’ve worked for the Art in Public Places program, which is part of New Mexico Arts. We do a lot of things: fund nonprofit educational organizations around the state doing arts-related programming; oversee the Art in Public Places program; and run the Folk Arts Apprenticeship program. We also have the Music Commission, the State Arts Commission, the Poetry Out Loud program, the Governor’s Arts Awards for Excellence in the Arts, the Poet Laureate program, Arts in the military, and we provide arts education, and technical assistance and professional training to artists and organizations around the state.
What advice do you have for Johnnies who want to go into arts, or arts administration?
To me, the best arts administrators are people who are pretty evenly split between creative and analytical thinking. Arts administration requires a lot of ability to work with artists and the arts community and to think in an artistic and innovative way; to be able to be outside the box, so to speak. So having an interest in and love for the arts is really important.
But it’s also administrative and bureaucratic. It takes a certain type of person to be able to navigate that: someone who can be flexible and nimble in the way they think. I believe anyone who has navigated the St. John’s Program is ideally suited to that kind of thinking. There are people who just don’t want to follow the rules, and that doesn’t work. You have to know that they’re there and be respectful of them, but be creative in working through them. I call it creative bureaucracy. It should be a master’s program somewhere…or you could just go to St. John’s!
Would you say the structure of the St. John’s program itself is a good preparation?
It is so similar. It’s a very structured program, but with a very open way of learning. And I really believe that structure is important. As a writer, a poet, I find that although I don’t write in structured verse very often, when I do it’s very creative. It forces you to think in a more creative way when you have a really stiff structure you have to follow.
Working with people in government can be very challenging. I think so many people have gotten so used to “No.” It’s easier to just say “No” to everything. Because there’s work when you say yes. But I relish that; I love the work of saying “Yes,” because it means we can actually do something. You know there’s a light at the end of that long “Yes” tunnel. Whereas with “No” there’s nothing.