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Nina Berman Post by Nina Berman

By Nina Berman on September 18th, 2020

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Starting a New Job 4 Weeks Before a Pandemic

Big Ideas | How We Work | COVID-19

When I started at Fractured Atlas, it was mid-February and in a world that doesn’t exist anymore. My entire experience of working here has been defined by the pandemic, by trying to meet the urgent and deep needs of our community. That is to say, the onboarding has been a little unusual.

There’s always an adjustment period when starting a new job. You have to figure out who your coworkers are, what your day-to-day is going to look like, what systems the team uses, how you’ll organize your work, how people communicate with one another, and what the institutional history is like.

When I started at Fractured Atlas, I told myself that I’d give myself six months to adjust. It’s hard starting a new job, and I could tell through the interview process that the working culture of Fractured Atlas was going to be different from anything else that I’d experienced.

As it turns out, I didn’t have six months to get settled at Fractured Atlas. I had about four weeks.

One thing that’s unique about my particular job is that it doesn’t actually give you a lot of time to adjust to a new organization or company before it requires you to represent the voice of that organization. As the content specialist at Fractured Atlas, I’m in charge of this very blog you’re reading now. My job is to share ideas, resources, interviews, and best practices to our communities of artists and also arts nonprofit professionals. In the realm of this blog, I’m generally the voice that’s here to show you that Fractured Atlas is in your corner, that we want to help you and that we have the tools and knowledge to do so.

Starting any job like mine has a particular learning curve, although a lot of it will happen in the interview process as you familiarize yourself with that organization. You have to learn what kind of tone the organization wants to strike in its communication, what kind of voice it already has, and how you can add your own unique perspective to that communication strategy.

Plus, if you are coming from a different industry, you really have to get yourself up to speed quickly about what your audience wants to read about, what they already know, and who the relevant other voices in the field are.

When I came to Fractured Atlas, I came from the publishing industry. So, while I had done this kind of content work before, I had done it for a whole different audience. The industries are similar in the sense that there are a few very big shining stars who are incredibly successful, and a whole lot of other people who are working very hard to realize their creative vision while trying to make ends meet. Publishing and the arts tend to have opaque inner machinations, and old school work structures that can be deeply toxic. But, of course, there are huge differences. When I was working in publishing, I was dealing with only one real medium. Working at Fractured Atlas, I deal with people who are working across a variety of media, which means that their needs and goals are often pretty wide-ranging. Plus, publishing is focused largely on book sales and consumer purchases whereas the art world depends on funding from consumers buying art or attending events as well as grants and donations.

I knew that by shifting my attention from publishing to the arts, I would have some catching up to do. I just didn’t know how little time I’d have to do it.

In mid-March, COVID started to hit two segments of the Fractured Atlas community very intensely, but very differently.

Our first audience is our community of artists. This includes artists who are members of Fractured Atlas and whose projects we fiscally sponsor. But it’s bigger than that. We see our community of artists as composed of any creative who is looking for resources and connection–anyone with a big vision and the drive to make it happen. Artists were dealing with mass closures, cancelled shows, the inability to get into their studios, loss of day jobs, and confusion about what kinds of benefits would be available for small businesses, creatives, and freelancers. COVID-related closures and job losses hit artists and creatives especially hard. Plus, they were dealing with the emotional stress of having a lot of time available to create, but likely very little desire to do so.

Our other audience is our colleagues in the arts and nonprofit sectors, as well as other organizations and companies who share our dedication to building equitable, anti-oppressive workplaces. They were, of course, dealing with the emotional stresses of the pandemic, but they also had a lot of practical concerns. Many of our colleagues had never worked virtually before or didn’t think that their job or organization could go remote. But all of a sudden they had to. Because we have incorporated virtual work into our culture for years, we felt that it was crucial to share how we work and some of the best practices we’ve picked up along the way.

Because of this huge need from multiple communities that we are accountable to, we had to develop a hefty content plan to support them. This required working closely with colleagues to edit their posts and to solicit their advice and experience. Because we had to put out so much information so quickly, the timescale for how long I had to learn about my coworkers, Fractured Atlas, our audiences, and the arts ecosystem was incredibly condensed.

The massive need for information and resources because of the pandemic made me feel like a member of the organization; made me comfortable saying “we” and meaning Fractured Atlas. I was trusted to speak in the voice of the organization–to guide and build it.

While I’m proud of the way that we came together and that the rest of the Fractured Atlas team welcomed me and trusted me so quickly, the first few months of my life at Fractured Atlas were also fraught because of the pandemic.

Like a lot of other organizations, we’ve had to take a hard look at what we do really well and what’s possible these days given what the arts look like now. We honed our program offerings and are now a smaller staff than we were when I was hired. All of this was done with a dedication to our community of artists, but I still felt like I survived something. I saw the organization go through what felt like a significant shift as we made those changes. We’ve had to figure out what was the most important work we could be doing and how we could do it with fewer people, while also surviving the grief, fear, boredom, and exhaustion we were all dealing with ourselves.

In the very short amount of time I’ve been at Fractured Atlas, I’ve seen the organization morph several times. The staff has changed, the leadership structure has changed, our program offerings have changed. I came in right before several seismic shifts. Nothing makes you feel more like you belong somewhere than remembering its earlier iterations. In the same way, few things make you feel more like a New Yorker than bemoaning places that have closed down or used to be better before yuppies ruined them.

But the real reason that the pandemic made me feel a part of Fractured Atlas so quickly is that I was going through waves of fear, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty with my coworkers. The External Relations team were some of the people that I spoke to most often during those first early months. During our daily standup calls, we checked in about what we were working on every day, but also how we were feeling. We asked each other how we were doing, and took the time to answer as honestly as we could. That level of care and respect for coworkers beyond just what you produce for your job or what happens on the clock was refreshing and honestly pretty important to me.

It felt extraordinary to work with people who affirmed to each other that while it was important to support our communities and our audiences, we also had to prioritize our own wellbeing. Early on, Lauren Ruffin told the whole team that it was mandatory for us to go outside and get some fresh air, even if it was just on our stoop. A lot of jobs tell you that they want you to take care of yourself, but working on the External Relations team in the beginning of the pandemic showed me that Fractured Atlas takes this seriously.

Going through any crisis tends to bond you to people. You go through some of the same emotions, work to solve problems together, and witness one another during vulnerable times. Going through the beginning of the pandemic with my team made me feel like I belonged at Fractured Atlas and made me feel accountable to our members and our community.

I wish that I had gotten to work at Fractured Atlas before the pandemic. I’ve only gotten to see a few of my NY-based coworkers IRL (or “in 3D” as Tim Cynova says). I want to work with my coworkers at a coffee shop and go see plays and art openings with them. And I don’t know when we’ll be able to do that. But I am also grateful that I came to Fractured Atlas when I did. I’m grateful to share information and resources with our communities, and grateful to have been enfolded into a team full of compassionate people who have made me feel like I’ve been here for way longer than 6 months.

Getting by during this pandemic has been hard. It’s been hard for me, even though I am healthy, safe, and employed. For anyone feeling the effects of the pandemic on their mental wellbeing, I encourage you to check out some of the mental health resources we’ve gathered together.

More posts by Nina Berman

About Nina Berman

Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.