What I Opposed In Good Times I Praise You For In Bad

Recently I have been talking about how Covid times have brought a greater tolerance on the part of boards/audiences for experimentation with programming choices. I guess I have been talking about it with colleagues and co-workers because when I went to find my post I made so I could link to it, I couldn’t find it.

In any case, Drew McManus posted another episode of his Shop Talk podcast today where he talks with Jeff Vom Saal, Executive Director of Spokane Symphony & Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox and Zak Vassar, President & CEO of the Toledo Alliance for the Performing Arts.

At around the 16 min mark, Drew talks about the difference between creativity and innovation and notes there really hasn’t been a lot of the latter in the orchestra world and in fact many great administrators have been punished by boards and donors for pushing boundaries and taking risks. He says now arts organizations are paying the price for failing to become nimble enough to respond to the current challenges.

Vassar responds by talking about a trustee that recently pulled him aside and said:

“You’re trying to do something that in a good economy I would have voted down everyday of the week. But now is the time to experiment and to be nimble and to learn what we didn’t know and learn how to do it better. Because by the time the economy and the world comes back online, you’re gonna be at least one hare’s run faster on the track than the slowest tortoise…”

Let’s just ponder that for a second. I am not saying organizational staff don’t buy into this sort of thinking as well, but just imagine having a board member tell you that they would have fought you tooth and nail in better economic times, but now that you are really wondering about how you are going to meet payroll, have no audience willing to show up, slimmer fundraising prospect and almost no staff to pursue donations and grants, this is the best time to invest non-existent time, energy and resources into innovating?

I understand that when you feel you have nothing left to lose and find your perceived competitors on a level playing field (or teetering at the edge of the field) it seems like seeking new pathways is the best course of action.

Why were the decisions we are making now problematic when the economy was better and there was more ability to mitigate the impact of failure?

Perhaps the first thing in need of change the organizational dynamics that won’t tolerate change until complete failure is imminent.

We have seen the results of this type of thinking for decades – people rally around an organization at the moment its existence is imperiled. Those cases are isolated and individual. Now everyone is imperiled and we realize there is a need for a broad, communal rally–probably necessitating listening more to the other people at the rally.

Or more aptly in the terms of this metaphor, inviting a lot more people to the rally than in the past and listening to them.

If you have a board member that is either explicitly or implicitly communicating they would have opposed you before, but now they are willing to support you, you need to have a very honest talk that makes it clear there can be no return to those old modes of thinking when the economic picture improves. While the economy may improve, the operating environment and expectations people have will not return to what they were before.

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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