Re-Defining Elite

Seth Godin is talking about us. Well, actually I think that is a little narcissistic to think he is merely talking about people in the creative fields. I am pretty sure his comment encompass American culture as well as that as that of a number of other countries.

His post titled, “I’m an elitist” addresses a lot of topics we in the creative fields get conflicted about:

Lowering the price at the expense of sustainability is a fool’s game.

Only producing tools that don’t need an instruction manual takes power away from those prepared to learn how to use powerful tools. And it’s okay to write a book that some people won’t finish, or a video that some don’t understand.

Giving people what they want isn’t always what they want.

Curators create value. We need more curators, and not from the usual places.

Creating and reinforcing cultural standards and institutions that elevate us is more urgent than ever.

We write history about people who were brave enough to lead, not those that figured out how to pander to the crowd.

Elites aren’t defined by birth or wealth, they are people with a project,…

These are all issues that are constantly being bandied about in the arts today. Pricing seems to always be a topic of conversation.

Diane Ragsdale and Nina Simon recently challenged us to think about wants versus needs.

While Godin never promises you that someone will pay for it, he encourages the creation of challenging work because to do otherwise is a disservice those who are ready to be challenged.

He actually developed that idea in a post he wrote about 4 years ago and links to in his current post.

While Godin does acknowledge that affluence does play a role in ones ability to become an elite by providing free time to pursue knowledge and the tools to communicate and process that knowledge, he states that birth, class and affluence do not make one an elite.

The number of self-selected elites is skyrocketing. Part of this is a function of our ability to make a living without working 14 hours a day in a sweatshop, but part of it is the ease with which it’s possible to find and connect with other elites.

The challenge of our time may be to build organizations and platforms that engage and coordinate the elites, wherever they are. After all, this is where change and productivity come from.

Once you identify this as your mission, you save a lot of time and frustration in your outreach. If someone doesn’t choose to be part of the elites, it’s unclear to me that you can persuade them to change their mind.

Two things that come to mind. If we define elites as he does, people who are willing to be challenged, rather than worrying they are the people we are focusing too much upon because they possess interest and ability to support our endeavors, what will need to change in order to engage and coordinate this new constituency? And is it sustainable?

Not the first or last time this basic question has been asked, probably even in the last week given all the conversations about how the non-profit arts sector needs to change themselves. Following Godin’s suggestion to look in new places to find curators may be a start down the right road.

Second question is about that last paragraph of Godin’s that I quote. How do you determine if someone is unwilling to embrace the challenges that are a hallmark of an elite and shift your attention elsewhere? This seems to a difficult proposition because we are not always the most objective.

As I noted at the start of this entry, there is a degree of narcissism in the arts, really just about every industry, where we see people who don’t experience the world in a similar way as we do as an outsider. Lawyers view the world differently from engineers who view the world differently from computer programmers and visual artists. Those who do not value what we value are not valued.

Yet there are groups in each who are furrowing their brows and generating a lot of sweat, tackling problems with the gusto of Godin’s elites. We know they are fellow travelers in pursuit of progress, but we want them to pay attention to us right now. It may be 15 years* before their pursuits orient them in our direction and into our orbit looking for solutions.

I am sure Godin’s definition of outreach is much wider than what arts organization define as outreach, but even if your efforts embody his definition, 15 years is a long time and it is easy to give up on someone (or a group) that is clearly engaged and actively pursuing productive projects simply because they aren’t engaged and active with you.

As a whole, arts organizations currently don’t have that sort of patience. Even if they don’t expect people to fall in love with the arts after one exposure, they still want it to happen fairly quickly and investment to manifest in frequent interactions. Otherwise, organizations wouldn’t purge their mail lists after a year or two of apparent inactivity.

On the other hand, if you take up Godin’s challenge, take the approach that you value seekers and restructure to serve them in all the ways they want to interact with you, both on- and off-line, maybe it doesn’t take 15 years.


*I use 15 years because it was about 15 years ago that friends from grad school took me to an art museum when I was visiting them in NC, as did another pair of friends when I was visiting them in OK. However, it was only about 4 years ago that I started going to art museums of my own accord and on a regular basis. I figure if it takes a person with a career in the arts around 15 years to start to do that, it may take someone who is not in the arts around that long as well to go from infrequent to occasional and we need to wait for them.

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.


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