Being Generous With Your Creativity

Since I have been on the topic of arts and cultural organizations broadly providing content to anyone who happens by virtually, I figured there is space to point to another voice in the conversation.

Seth Godin made a post recently titled Generous isn’t always the same as free.  I raised the idea yesterday that maybe providing all this content isn’t in the best interests of creative entities in the long term.

Godin’s idea of generous not being the same as free may hold a key to resolving questions about this. He uses examples of a doctor taking the time to understand your needs, a waitress anticipating your needs and a boss who provides the challenging work you need.

In this last case, the generosity might actually result in you working longer and harder than before in order for you to grow. It may be a few years before you recognize that bit of generosity was beneficial and required more of your boss than they need have invested in you.

I don’t bring this up to transition to an argument about suffering contributing to the eventual growth or appreciation of creative organizations or those that participate in their activities. Lord knows there has been plenty of “suffering for your art” conversations throughout history.

Rather, I wanted emphasize Godin’s point that the common element in each of his examples is the contributions to stronger relationships.

Gifts create connection and possibility, but not all gifts have monetary value. In fact, some of the most important gifts involve time, effort and care instead.


In this moment when we’re so disconnected and afraid, the answer might not be a freebie. That might simply push us further apart. The answer might be showing up to do the difficult work of connection, of caring and of extending ourselves where it’s not expected.

When you are pretty anxious about the future of your organization, you may not feel you have the luxury of the deliberative, multi-week process Nina Simon laid out in her blog post I excerpted yesterday. You should have the time, though, to consider whether choices made and effort expended are generous gestures that will contribute to a relationship, albeit over a long term, or a simple freebie.

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.


1 thought on “Being Generous With Your Creativity”

  1. I’m going to comment here as well, because you raise really important concerns that we DO need to take seriously. The idea of generosity vs freebies was well thought by Seth. My perspective is slightly tangential. From a recent personal exchange with someone I had been friends with for a long time it became obvious that simply offering something to someone was not always a generous act. That is, just because something is given to you doesn’t mean the gift qualifies as an act of generosity.

    What do we call something that is put in front of us that we didn’t ask for, don’t want, and is given based on erroneous assumptions about us? The person (or institution) doing the giving thinks they are being selfless, offering what THEY find important to people THEY think need it. In other words, the ‘gift’ is more about themselves than it is about the recipient. Even worse, suggesting that you need to accept the ‘gift’, that it would somehow be wrong or improper if you didn’t, is both patronizing and selfish. It is entirely tone deaf and does not actually SEE the person on the other side as their own authority on what matters to them.

    Why this is important to the discussion you raise is that in these moments of stress and crisis it is now more important than ever to actually listen to one another. We cannot simply assume that because people once had such and such values, desired such and such services, liked such and such particular things, that this is automatically still the same. We cannot assume that we know what they are thinking in this changed world.

    So a gift that may very well come from the heart and with the best intentions but that didn’t actually first check to see if it WAS something being asked for, WAS something they desired, WAS something that actually made sense in their circumstances, will only miss the mark, waste both our own efforts at attempting generosity, and waste the recipient’s resources in either accepting something unwanted, or irritate them that it was given in the first place. We may think that simply providing ‘free’ content is a neutral act at worst, a sign of real generosity at best, but this doesn’t account for anything on the receiving end. If we say that they don’t have to accept what we are offering, that it shouldn’t be a big deal to refuse it, we ignore that sometimes it IS a big deal. If you were a vegetarian an someone kept offering you bacon, how would you feel? If you were an atheist and someone kept preaching at you, how would you feel? These are reasons to shut out the person/institution doing the offering. Do we want to be shut out simply because we mistook what we were doing as something other people carted about?

    The upshot of what I’m talking about is that we cannot merely assume that we have what people want or need, and that asking them FIRST how we may be able to help both includes them in the decision of what we can do, and turns a merely ‘free’ act into one of actual generosity. Generosity means accounting for the real needs, not simply assuming you know better what others need than they do themselves. Ask first and give your best as a response to that.

    Practical applications of this might be to survey one’s community to ask whether it or parts of it might desire specific things we are suited to providing. What would YOU like to see us doing? What can we do that YOU might be interested in? And we need to ask that because people’s responses will be different now than they were a month ago. We need to be engaged with where people are at, right here, right now. As much as our own institutions have been forced to change, people themselves have become different from who they were. Don’t be the bacon salesman to a vegetarian community. We are already being told to do so much “for our own good”, and there already is enough exhaustion from that or downright resentment. Don’t add to that by being tone deaf and presuming.

    Last thought. Back when Rocco Landesman declared that there was a surplus of art there were only some attempts to find ways that we ourselves might change to be more of what people needed. My impression was that the focus for the most part, after the initial shock, was that we simply ramped up the efforts to bring more people to what we were already doing, as if the supply surplus could be solved only by increasing the demand. The lesson some of us took away was that there were existing demands, or possibly even potential demands that could be invented by reimagining who we were and what we did. How could we rethink our own process and product in ways that people could better relate to? The difference, again, is between keeping our mission and identity intact and unchanged, despite circumstances, and reinventing ourselves in a conversation with our community at the center of a new shared identity.

    How can we and how do we belong to a community? That is a question with a shifting answer. As the Titanic was sinking, the band played on…… We cannot be so stuck with our previous identity that we fail to live up to today’s new challenges.


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