What Is Quality?

The question about what constitutes quality is one of those things an arts manager usually doesn’t have time to ponder but which is central to all the activities an arts organization undertakes.

Most mission statements for arts organizations allude to providing quality to the community if they don’t do so outright. But when the doors open, are you offering the very best quality, the top quality you can afford or the top quality people are willing to pay for? Or does your product fall right there in the middle of the bell curve–something of middling quality that the largest group of people is willing to pay for?

Every couple of years I go back and read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In the book, Pirsig methodically advances through various philosophical schools of thought in an attempt to create a valid definition of quality. He doesn’t actually complete the process until his second book, Lila.

There is a summary of his conclusions here. It is pretty heady stuff and tough to see the application to the arts just by reading the summary unless you are avid about philosophy. There is an essay by Mark S. Lerner called “Management and Art” that takes a crack at it that might be helpful in understanding some of the implications of Pirsig’s work.

I like reading Zen… because it gets me thinking and the detailing of his process aids my comprehension of the issues involved. I will admit I get lost at various points, though I make progress on each rereading. I don’t know if he actually arrives at a valid definition of quality. What he does arrive at makes more sense than what the dictionary says. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I come away with a broader appreciation of the elements and considerations that comprise the measure of quality.

Does reading the book better inform my administration of my theatre and programming of its season?

Yeah, well it is often tough to take satisfaction in knowing that you have been responsible for the propagation and dissemination of a large concentration of quality into the universe when box office receipts are so dismal.

We go before legislatures and tell them that they should be concentrating on all the lives that have been changed and not numbers served when choosing to fund the arts. But when we get back to our offices, damned if it ain’t a lot about the numbers, eh?

In his book Pirsig talks about how he decided not to let his students know what grade they got on a paper but instead give extensive feedback about the work they did and how to improve. The students went crazy. The comments on the quality were well and good, but they wanted a quantitative measure of their success.

When you are running an arts organization it is much the same way. You love the comments about how great the show was, but what you really care about are a satisfying number of butts in the seats (or butts passing through the doors if you are a museum/gallery.)

I should note that subsisting solely on a diet of comments, most of Pirsig’s A & B students improve their performance. The C and D students either saw an improvement or hovered about the same with some D & F students sinking into oblivion. Operating an arts organization in ever fluctuating social, technological and economic environments is a lot more involved than applying oneself in academic studies. It is nigh impossible to survive solely on that diet of feedback, but handled well some nutritional value can be distilled resulting in organizational health and growth.

So yes, absolutely, reading the book definitely informs the day to day decisions I make. I ponder such things as I have written above and throughout this blog. Obviously, I think reading and thoughtful consideration of different issues is important even if the idealism presented in writings seems far divorced from the hectic, time crunched reality of our daily lives.

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A brief related story I wanted to share. I first came across this book while taking a class in college. I wrote a paper supporting his ideas about replacing simple letter grades with brief evaluations of a student’s work. Much to my delight, my professor took me at my word and didn’t grade my paper. (She was already in the practice of writing comments on our papers.)

Given the college’s expectation that she assign a grade, she invited me to come to her office to discuss what grade I should receive. After reviewing her notes on my paper, I decided I had earned a B+. She was prepared to give me whatever grade I chose, but agreed that is what she would have assigned the paper.

Factoring in all the time and energy she invested in this whole encounter, this was very expensive for my professor. It is also one of the incidents that contributed to my feeling that I received a quality education at that school. An experience that resonates with me so many years later though she has probably forgotten all about it. (Though hopefully she offered similar experiences to other students.)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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