Distinguishing Yourself With Your Own Best Practices

One of the big focuses on college campuses today is tracking student success. It is important that students both earn their degree in a timely manner and have developed appropriate mastery. Classes are scrutinized and numbers crunched to insure quality is being maintained but that instruction is not delivered in a manner that inhibits student success.

The students need to master the material, but the way the material is delivered may need to be changed to facilitate the learning process. As you might imagine, there are a lot of conversations about whether standards are being compromised along the way.

I hadn’t really seen many connections with the arts until I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week one of the early sections struck a chord.

1) Institutions should improve student success by focusing on practices within their control instead of blaming external factors.

When asked about the challenges they face in helping more students graduate, higher-education leaders tend to list external forces, such as budget cuts and poor academic preparation. Yet regardless of whether states or the federal government restore needed support, or our K-12 system produces better-prepared graduates, institutions can do more with mechanisms directly within their control to help the students they enroll.

Research has shown that institutional practices make a big difference in student success. Similar institutions (of comparable size, selectivity, and student composition) vary more significantly in their completion rates and success with underrepresented populations within segments than they do between segments—with high performers outpacing low performers by as much as 40 percentage points.

The same complaints are made by arts organizations- funding cuts, lack of arts exposure/involvement and other external pressures. The article goes on to mention that the profile of students diverges from traditional in some way and that they “swirl,” attending more than one institution, sometimes simultaneously.

Certainly the arts face the same thing with audience composition changing and splitting their arts and entertainment activities between many choices. Arts organizations struggle with the expectations their audiences bring to the experience in much the same way as colleges struggle to meet student expectations that their credits will transfer from other institutions.

Yes, even if you are adept at handling them, external forces impact your organization immensely and can not be ignored. But there are still many things within in the scope of your control which can positively impact audience experiences.

Unfortunately, unlike college, the arts are not seen as critical to life long success. Where colleges can answer the problem of poor K-12 preparation by offering more remediation and earning money by the effort, there isn’t as much money to be made from filling in the gaps in people’s cultural education.

Which is not to say educational programs can’t be successful for an individual organization, the necessity of bolstering one’s creativity and arts knowledge just isn’t as widespread a cultural value driving people to our doors. I suspect that this is where the second paragraph I quoted applies. Internal institutional practices can probably likewise make a difference in successful audience/community engagement and set one organization apart from similar organizations.

If you read as many articles and blogs as I do in the pursuit of improving your practices (and creating content for your blog) you may be intimidated by the long list of things you are supposed to be doing to improve your organization. I think one of the things that doesn’t get emphasized enough is to make sure your internal practices are playing to your particular organizations strengths rather than trying to replicate/adopt what you read other people are doing.

Using social media may help raise your organizational profile immensely, but the tone and frequency of your interactions should be your own and not mirror that of the big organization you wish you were. The same with your website, the people answering your phone, your ushering staff, curtain speech, lobby decorations, press releases. It should all play to your strengths rather than reflect industry best practices.

You would think all this would be a given, but think a moment and if your like me you can think of a few encounters you have had that ran contrary to the general environment and screamed “industry best practice.” (And if you think a little harder and honestly, you can probably identify some you have perpetuated.)

Granted, some times it is difficult to separate what you value about yourself from the actual organizational strength. For example, a farmer may view his expertise at growing a certain crop as a strength, overlooking the assets of the quality of the soil that can allow him to grow other crops now in demand.

This is a rather simplistic example, but in a similar way arts organizations can define themselves by their performances only, overlooking the asset of their production studios which can meet a burgeoning demand.

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/)

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.


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