Talking More About The Real DNA of Your Successes

Nina Simon was recently a guest on a podcast hosted by Culture Reset. As always, I find anything she has to say increases my contemplation about the way arts organizations, including my own, operate and interact with the community.

There was one part of Nina’s commentary about her career that caught my attention because it resonates closely with a central topic I have been writing on for a couple years. (By the way, MANY thanks to Culture Reset for providing a transcript of the podcast, I was not looking forward to having to transcribe this by ear.) (also, my emphasis)

…I identify very quickly the board cared about attendance, dollars and good press. And so I said, ‘OK, I’m going to make change in the direction I want, that generates those outcomes, and then I’m going to show them those numbers on a platter. And I’m going to tell them here are the activities, the weird activities we did that led to those outcomes. And I am going to buy myself more and more space to pursue this strategy as long as it delivers these outcomes.

But the fatal mistake I made is that (and this is very personal for me. I actually haven’t talked about this before) is that as the years went on and we did more and more of this work, I kept delivering those same outcomes to the board and I delivered the strategy where we shared that area of change, we shared all the data, blah, blah, blah, blah. But when I was getting ready to leave and when they started to recruit my successor, there was a real battle that was rooted in the fact I think, that the board had never fully internalised these strategies, led to those outcomes. And that is my fault because it was easier for me to sell them those outcomes and have them nod and be happy and for me to go on with my team doing the great work we were doing than it was to really say to them, we’ve got to talk about how different this is and what we are willing to do to keep this, you know, that what is in the DNA of the success that you’re so proud of.

While anecdotal, this is another example of why we can’t continue to simply use economic value of the arts as a justification of its existence.

As I have quoted Carter Gillies a number of times before in connection with this idea:

But this never teaches them why we value the arts. It is not a conversation that discusses the arts the way we feel about them. Its not a picture of the intrinsic value of the arts, because in talking about instrumentality we always make the arts subservient. That’s never only what they are to us. Sometimes we just have to make the case for a lesser value as the expedient means to secure funding or policy decisions. It’s better than not making any sense at all.

Nina basically says at first she used these metrics to help her gain some room to operate so that the board would be more open to some of the more orthodox approaches she was looking to implement. If you know Nina’s history, with the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, you know it was in dire shape when she took up the mantle of executive director so there was a need to implement a turn around couched in the terms that met the board’s criteria of success.

But even in the face a wondrous revitalization which included a growth in staff and attendance and a expansion into adjoining property, she and the board never got around to having a serious conversation about the fact that it was those wacky ideas she and the staff implemented that made people feel the museum was a place made for them. The metrics they were looking for followed that effort, but the metrics weren’t the measure of the organization’s success.  The measure was that people felt heard, represented, and respected. To them museum was more invested in them than before, and they became more invested in turn and showed up at the door.

The conversation Nina regrets not having needs to happen more often and it will get easier with each attempt. (Not to mention it is the stuff of good grant narratives.)

Success isn’t a matter of good budgeting, advertising and the highest quality programs the organization can afford. From what I remember, I think some of the stuff Nina did that people engaged with most involved activity prompts, paper, and magic markers.  Success is a matter of the highest quality experiences and interactions.

One of the stand out memories I have of this past Friday is a conversation our marketing director had while asking permission to take the picture of three little girls in a very unsocially distanced hug where one declared “She is practically my best friend!” There wasn’t any special investment on our part, though the father appreciated being asked if we could snap the photo, but it was pretty clear that despite all the Covid related signs and paraphernalia, the group felt good about the interactions they were having.

It often doesn’t take much to help people feel they, their family and friends are welcome. What can be tough is asking and correctly discerning what the things that make them feel welcome are and deciding to effect the changes to include 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 (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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