Can Arts Orgs Play Moneyball With Their Staffs?

Ever since the movie Moneyball came out, I have been thinking about whether similar system can be applied to the arts. I mean a system by which baseball teams with small budgets were able to compete on par with the most well-funded teams by assembling a team of under utilized misfits? Heck, I am describing the place you work, right? It seems ready made for the arts!

I was happy to see a recent post by Shawn Harris on the TCG website raising the same general question. I agree with most of what Shawn suggests, including taking an objective look at different aspect of our operations and audiences to determine whether we are truly serving the interests of the community or just perpetuating assumptions.

One assumption I feel pretty safe in making is that what motivates people to attend a baseball game is different from what motivates people to attend an arts event. While celebrity is certainly a factor, people attend baseball games looking for an engaging contest. If they don’t know a lot about each of the players, that is okay if the game was well played. Can the same be said about an arts event? If someone is unfamiliar with a performance, will the fact that statistically speaking, the actors, while unknown, are the most effective performers in a period play?

Probably not. But then again, you shouldn’t be selling the show based on statistics anyway. Even though stats are a huge part of sports, that isn’t what primarily sells tickets. While a well-known artist would make it easier to sell a show, in the long run it is going to be better to take the “brains in the seats” view and work on engaging audiences in the organization, one aspect of which is going to be based on the quality of your personnel choices.

That is what I first started thinking about when I was considering whether Moneyball could be applied to the arts–are we hiring the best people? More over, are we actively seeking the best people or just casting a net and taking whatever swims our way?

I recall going to an Arts Presenters conference where Andrew Taylor talked about how a lot of arts organizations didn’t know how to effectively evaluate the skills of job candidates. He said there was a tendency to hire to the specifics of a job description rather than to the general needs of the position. Though he did mention an associate who hired a person who managed a Sears call center to run their ticket office after some unsatisfying interviews with people from the arts field, it seemed the exception rather than the rule. Taylor said he teaches his students to take control of the interview in order to illuminate their skills and illustrate how it applies to the criteria laid out in the job description.

While I am reluctant to put arts people out of work by suggesting that you look to hire those without any industry experience, I think it can help to always be mindful of the basic abilities you seek in employees. I once had lunch with some representatives from Enterprise Car Rentals and they were so impressed by the affability and service provided by one of the wait staff, they tried to recruit her at the end of our meal.

When was the last time you even thought about adding a person you met outside the context of the arts to your team? In fact, other than pursuing people who would increase the prestige of your company, when is the last time you tried to recruit someone way from another arts organization based on abilities and effectiveness alone?

When I think about the Moneyball model of finding success putting together a seemingly mismatched set of players few other teams desired, I wonder about our collective ability in the arts to effectively identify and cultivate the talent of people who aren’t necessarily shining in their current position. I know this can be tough in the arts where everyone wants to be the star actor/dancer/artist/director. Even if you are perceptive enough to see their talent lay elsewhere, people may be resistant to taking a different role.

The thing is, non profits should be pros at identifying and leveraging undiscovered skills. With all the volunteers we use to assist us with our programs and to serve on our boards, we should be championing seemingly unorthodox hiring decisions. But if Andrew Taylor is correct, the hiring practices in the arts are actually more orthodox than in the for profit sector.

If that is the case, perhaps we aren’t using our volunteers’ skills as effectively as we could, as well. That question starts to bring me back to my post last week featuring Aaron Hurst’s suggestion that certain volunteer programs may be a waste of time.

The research he cited found little difference in effectiveness between well- and poorly- managed programs involving less than 50 people. I wonder though if well managed programs might have beneficial side-effects for organizations in the form of improved hiring skills. In other words, the capacity to identify and employ highly capable people may be developed in the process of effectively doing the same thing with volunteers.

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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