Canadian Arts Advocate Karl Schwonik Receives QS Community Scholarship |

Canadian Arts Advocate Karl Schwonik Receives QS Community Scholarship

By Visnja Milidragovic

Updated July 4, 2019 Updated July 4, 2019

Jazz musician, Karl Schwonik, is the recipient of a QS Community Scholarship this year, in light of his prolific arts advocacy work in rural Canada and far-reaching career as a professional drummer. Valued at US$2,000, the scholarship will help support Karl’s next pursuit – a Cambridge MBA, with a concentration in culture, arts and media.

WJS has brought music to nearly 20,000 students in rural communities in Canada
A multi-award winning artist endorsed by Yamaha, Karl has travelled the globe, led over 20 performance tours across North America, and has taught music at over 200 institutions including the University of Toronto and Indiana University. Though Karl’s name has donned concert line-ups at famous venues, such as New York’s Carnegie Hall and the John F Kennedy Center in Washington DC, some of his most moving performances could easily be said to have been held in far simpler locales - rural schools and country barns – thanks to his entrepreneurial work as an arts advocate.

Growing up on a farm in Gwynne, a town in the Canadian prairie province of Alberta, Karl nurtured a deep appreciation for music and arts education, which were not readily accessible in such rural communities. “Because of the location, and size of the surrounding towns, there wasn’t always a lot of touring acts performing or teaching when I was in school,” he explains. Having received so much support from his own network in making music a viable career for himself, Karl is dedicated to giving back to small communities which are underserved in terms of arts education and exposure to the arts. “I grew up there and received an incredible amount of support as I was beginning my career.” Now, Karl dedicates much of his time volunteering and leading a nonprofit that brings more access to music in rural areas of Canada.

In 2008, while still in his early 20s, Karl founded a small non-profit arts organization in rural Alberta, nine miles from his hometown. To date, the Wetaskiwin Jazz Society (WJS), including its flagship program, Jazz-in-Schools, has visited over 70 rural schools and has reached nearly 20,000 students.  “I have been fortunate to have great success as a performer and to study and travel to many places around the globe,” Karl notes. “My colleagues and I endeavor to bring these experiences to rural areas in Canada to teach about creativity and artistic expression,” which he values as an entrepreneur, artist and arts advocate.

Karl hopes that the next five years will hold more opportunities to further his impact as an arts advocate. “In a world of shrinking budgets and economic (and sometimes political) instability, we need more arts – and arts advocates,” he fervently says. Karl’s belief - backed by extensive research - is that more attention needs to be paid to the benefit of the arts due to its positive impact on quality of life and society as a whole. “Most of my experience is in arts education,” he explains. “I can tell you both anecdotally and empirically that the benefits to an individual, to communities (both economically and socially) and to society as a whole are immense.” 

Advice to artists and entrepreneurs: “Even if your success rate is low, hard work is key.”

In addition to running WJS, until last year, Karl was heavily involved with the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (AFA), responsible for distributing nearly C$30 million (US$22.7 million) in grants to artists and arts organizations in the province. He says his time sitting on various committees and the board of directors drove home the importance of both music and the arts to his life and to society as a whole: “At the AFA, I got to know all aspects of the arts in our province and chaired a research committee that brought an evidence-based approach to our advocacy and decision-making process.”

Like any successful entrepreneur, of course, Karl is no stranger to hurdles “It’s important to keep applying if you feel the project is important and worthwhile,” Karl advises, in response to his own tenacity for seeking funding – whether for his MBA or for other projects he’s been responsible for. “I have always taken this philosophy in my career to date,” he explains. “Just as you can have some great successes in securing funding, you can also have disappointments along the way.”

Having grown up legally blind, Karl astutely points out that this philosophy is especially true of factors and scenarios beyond one’s control. “You have to make the best out of the situation you are in and work hard to achieve all of your goals…even if your success rate is low, hard work is key.”    

Spirit and tenacity paired with a supportive community – whether online or off – may just be the formula for success. “Before the digital age,” Karl contemplates, “things may have been different for people like myself. Now, the world is at our fingertips and is more open to people with non-traditional backgrounds.”

Business education like a specialized Cambridge MBA “a great asset to artists” 

Education has had a central role during the evolution of Karl’s musical career. In addition to his two degrees in jazz performance from universities in Canada, Karl also completed the Rozsa Arts Management Program (RAMP) in Calgary. “This was a foundational course for many of the challenges and skills that arts managers encounter…and a nice springboard for our organization [WSJ].”

In a continued effort to refine his skills to further his nonprofit work and fuel his engagement in public policy and arts advocacy, Karl decided that the time was ripe for more extensive training – in the shape of an MBA. “The skills gained in a business degree are a great asset to artists – many of whom are entrepreneurs,” Karl points out. “We often have the responsibility to take on every task in our career - both artistically or on the business side,” he says.  As an entrepreneur, many of the business skills applied in his nonprofit work have come from being forced to learn out of necessity and through trial and error, in stark contrast to the more methodical and proven teaching methods of an MBA.

In the search for an MBA program that would allow him to build on his work in the arts sector as well as to further his own entrepreneurial pursuits, Karl cites academic rigor and curriculum as his key criteria. Ultimately, he chose the Cambridge MBA because it offers a concentration in Culture, Arts and Media (CAM). “The formal study that the degree offers in terms of finance, economics and leadership will help refine my existing skills and give me tools going forward in my career,” he explains.

Karl anticipates many other benefits coming his way in the next year, including making new connections - a must for any entrepreneur and change-maker. “Gaining a new and impressive network of colleagues, faculty and staff is exciting,” he adds. “The great thing about taking this next step in my education is that I am keeping the door, and my mind, open to any and all possibilities.”

This article was originally published in July 2016 . It was last updated in July 2019

Want more content like this Register for free site membership to get regular updates and your own personal content feed.

Related Articles Last year

Most Shared Last year

Most Read Last year