Arts Leaders Ain’t Learnin’ Too Good

I have just returned from the Arts Presenters Conference. I must have tried to do too much in too little time because I am fighting off a cold right now. I did want to make a post on one of the sessions I attended because some of the information communicated was simply fascinating.

In the Learning to Lead session The Artful Manager, Andrew Taylor’s graduate students presented the results of their research about what resources arts managers used to learn and solve problems. When they finished, I got up and asked a question about the results of their survey. They found that 90% of people read reports, books, etc at least once a year. I asked what end of the spectrum the majority of responses fell since last year Neill Archer Roan had presented findings at the APAP conference that said that learning was not valued in the presenting field.

Since Neill’s research was based on interviews and were anecdotal, I wasn’t sure if his results were any more scientifically based than the grad student’s results which was based on a self-selected group that filled out an online survey. I also stated some curiosity about whether people who were more comfortable with online surveys might be reading more reports via that medium. The students who responded said the reading that was taking place were skewed toward the less frequent.

I hadn’t known that Neill was sitting a couple rows behind me and soon he got up to address the issue of learning not being valued. I was so amazed by what he had to say, I bought the MP3 file of the session so that I could quote him accurately.

Speaking of the work the Roan Group does, he said,

“We believe there is a cultural bias against learning in this field and in the non-profit field as a whole. We believe that that exists for several reasons. One is cultural another is really biological. There are a lot of studies about satisfaction and how we are actually wired…Someone who is rationally satisfied behaves no differently than someone who is rationally dissatisfied. People behave differently when they are emotionally satisfied…the pathways back to learning are different where there is emotional satisfaction…I think in our field and in the performing arts, there is so much emotional satisfaction…that is actually a barrier to our need to understand and respond. (my emphasis)

The idea that emotional satisfaction, which is probably what allows people in the arts to tolerate low pay and long hours, is actually inhibiting progress just sort of blew my mind.

He goes on to say that in the arts there isn’t a practice of looking back and evaluating a situation for what works and didn’t work and then documenting the findings. Without the documentation, the arts rely on tacit knowledge carried in individuals. While tacit knowledge is superior to documented knowledge, if you have high turnover, your organization doesn’t learn.

The session was about two hours long so I imagine there will be other insights I will derive from them as I review the file.

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 ( 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. (

My most recent role was as Executive 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.


2 thoughts on “Arts Leaders Ain’t Learnin’ Too Good”

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