Don’t Forget Leadership and Teamwork

I was helping out a local high school by conducting mock interviews with their students today. I enjoy doing this because the school does a great job preparing the students for the experience. I often don’t realize just how nervous the students are until the sweaty palm handshake as they depart. The last student I spoke to was applying for a position as a nurses aide and I was pleased to hear him talk about how his experience as the section leader in his band conferred leadership and conflict management skills. I made sure I complimented him on mentioning that and coached him about mentioning it in future interviews. (My interview partner who was not an arts person did so as well.)

It occurred to me that when I have read about the benefits of the arts recently, leadership and teamwork didn’t seem to figure largely in the lists. Given the recent push that education make someone employable, it is probably important that it be emphasized more.

I did a quick and, by no means exhaustive, survey of articles listing the benefits of arts education and found that my suspicion was generally true. Many talked about the cultivation of very desirable traits like intellectual and emotional development, flexibility of worldview, judgement, problem solving, expressiveness and ability to anticipate consequences.

In our desire to justify ourselves by identifying some distinctive advantages conferred only by the arts and creative expression, we seem to have forgotten some basic benefits a high school kid can cite. Speaking of which, while we are touting these benefits, it probably behooves us long term to make sure high school kids who are having these experiences can cite the benefits.

The intellectual and emotional development advantages frequently referenced are often individual achievements. Leadership and team work are assets in the social sphere and warrant inclusion. It may seem of little consequence now, but I suspect there is a fair chance that in the next 10 years technologically induced anti-social/introspective tendencies may be be deemed a crisis and these qualities will be highly prized.

This all being said, there are a lot of benefits to arts education and it is tough to list them all. If you are looking for a list to keep handy, here are some great ones. (A couple which list leadership and teamwork). Again, these are some I personally find helpful rather than an exhaustive list.

Americans for the Arts
National Assembly of State Arts Agencies
Artsblog post by Kristen Engebretsen

Feel free to add a few of your favs in the comments section.

Who Is More Important? The Event Or Organization?

I had a small disagreement about marketing with one of the people partnering on a show with us that raised the question about what is more important, the artist or the organization.

The disagreement was pretty simple. We had designed an ad to promote a show. Between the sponsor and creator logos/credits and the general design of the ad, there wasn’t a lot of room left. To maintain a clean, attractive look for the show, I suggested that we omit the three names of the presenters. We would have the name of the theatre, but not “presented by X, Y, Z groups, each of which were fairly long.

My feeling was that the show was what would attract the audience. If we credited the three of us, it would look cluttered and the pertinent information would be lost. If we reduced the font size to the point the ad didn’t look cluttered, it would be too small to be of value and not worth including.

Since we had already advertised the show via brochures, posters, postcards and email blasts, most of those who associated our names with quality already knew we were involved with the show. Those whom we would be reaching with the ad would be making decisions based on the show, not who was presenting it. Therefore, our names were not as important in this particular communication channel.

My partners disagreed with my point of view (though they praised the ad image as much better than the brochure and poster images which was gratifying) and we included our names in pretty small type.

It got me to thinking, is there ever a time when the event is more important than the organization taking credit? Choosing to cede space in favor of a funder might be done out of a concrete sense of obligation (or lack thereof, I am aware of some organizations that choose to omit funder recognition.) Valuing the event/artist above the organization is a bit more theoretical and nebulous a decision.

I don’t know that it should be a default organizational policy where you decide the artist always comes first and people will have to work to find out whose efforts were responsible for their experience. There are some cases where people won’t be familiar with a work where the organizational reputation for quality will provide the confidence an audience needs.

In some cases, you may want to take credit for an experience but get very little recognition because the artist’s reputation will eclipse your own. We recently presented Ben Vereen and it was clear from the phone conversations we were having with patrons that our involvement played no part in the decision to attend.

Both Elton John and Neil Diamond are performing in town in January and February and I couldn’t tell you who the promoters are. I could make an educated guess of 3-4 different people. That is probably the best rationale for making sure your name is associated with your productions. Get a reputation for quality and people will attribute great experiences with which you had no involvement to you.

Surveys show that audiences don’t have much awareness of the tax status of the organization providing their nights’ entertainment. If people aren’t discerning between profit and non profit organizations, how aware are they of whether a show is being presented by me or someone who is renting our facility? There are times of the year that bring especially high numbers of calls from people expecting us to resolve problems with tickets they didn’t purchase from us, so I know some people aren’t aware of the distinction.

Knowing that people may not be making as great a distinction between you and everyone else as you might hope, are there situations where the event is more important than your organization? I am not talking about simply leaving your name off marketing material for the sake of aesthetics. I am asking if there is some program you have or dream of having where it doesn’t matter if anyone knows you did it?

Is it possible for a non-profit to get to that place? Do the producers of a Broadway show care if they have high personal/business name recognition if the show is profitable? Can a non-profit be that blasé as dependent as they are on attracting funders who want assurances their support is making a difference?

I don’t know the full answer to these questions because I have just started considering them and it is a complicated matter.

I don’t think the inability to subsume the organization name to that of an artist necessarily has a direct correlation to the situation Diane Ragsdale discussed in November about low pay for artists. As I note, there are many important reasons to keep name awareness high. However, the organization’s perception of artists certainly is going to factor into the question.

With all the instances recounted by Inside the Arts blogfather, Drew McManus, of orchestra boards answering the question pretty decisively in their own favor, it may be a question that needs to be asked more frequently.

Teachers Don’t Know From Creative

We all know that arts classes and opportunities have been disappearing from schools at varying rates for decades. It may or may not surprise you to learn that creativity is not encouraged in schools either. While you may have suspected it all along, Alex Tabarrok links to a number of studies from the Marginal Revolution blog.

He cites in one study,

“What the paper shows is that the characteristics that teachers use to describe their favorite student correlate negatively with the characteristics associated with creativity. In addition, although teachers say that they like creative students, teachers also say creative students are “sincere, responsible, good-natured and reliable.” In other words, the teachers don’t know what creative students are actually like.”

As Tabarrok notes, the classroom process is not conducive to impulsive creative expression. Self control is valued in students in order to create an environment for a group to learn in. I would note though that this is not to equate self-control with smothering creativity. Even in self-directed learning environments where students are more in control of the pace and manner of their learning, a degree of self-control is still expected.

It occurs to me that part of the fight to restore arts education to schools needs to include advocating for a learning environment that encourages creativity. Arts people may hold certain assumptions about that arts in education involves cultivating creative expression, but it might not necessarily be so. Everyone probably has a story about a teacher who nearly killed their interest in an artistic discipline.

It may seem like incrementalism in the face of the size of the struggle to get arts education restored, but in the process, it will be important to try to preserve opportunities for creative expression still have left lest they slip away.

Think about it– outside the classroom the only place where a child is still permitted to indulge their screaming anarchist tendencies is on the playground and a lot of schools are doing away with recess. Without recess, there is another moment of a child’s life where they are expected to behave.

Now granted, for all I know kids today may stand around at recess playing on their Nintendo DSes and ignore their screaming anarchist tendencies without any help from their schools and such advocacy is for naught anyway.

My point is that while fighting for the restoration of arts, it is probably important to make teachers aware of what creative students are actually like and provide tools/guidance for dealing with them rather than requiring them to conform to expectations all the time.

Essentially the approach of “Arts offer X, Y, Z to your students. But since you may not provide opportunities in the coming academic year, we will happily help you to recognize the creativity of your students and engage it in your classroom to some degree since these kids are likely the ones you have pegged as disconnected.”

Comes The Curator

While at the Arts Presenters conference, I learned that Wesleyan University has a certificate program in Curatorial Practice in Performance. My first thought was to wonder if there was really that much of a demand for such a program. Then I recalled that many arts organizations have long been consolidating their executive and artistic director positions into one person and that there were likely quite a few people who sought the training originating from this situation alone. People hired for their ability to run the arts organization like a business might find themselves a little anxious about making the correct artistic decisions.

According to the program website, the purpose is:

“…designed so that students can learn to modify and adapt curatorial practices from one discipline to another. ICPP welcomes emerging curators as well as other arts professionals who are interested in time-based art practices in visual art, traditional arts and the performing arts. The emphasis of the program is on the how of curating and focused on developing tools to contextualize performance.”

I was in a session where either Program Director Kristy Edmunds or Managing Director Pamela Tatge, (whomever was sitting behind me) noted that the visual arts have long had curatorial training, but it was lacking in performance disciplines.

In a separate session moderated by Alan Brown on what drives and inhibits our success, Brown noted that presenting arts organizations are becoming increasingly interested in having a curatorial relationship with artists rather than just taking what is offered. Given that most contracts coming across my desk stipulate that the artist has sole control over the artistic content of the show, I wondered if there is going to be a lot of pressure to on that very common contract clause in the future.

Conceivably, if arts organizations take their responsibility to more effectively serve and engage their community to heart, they will have a better sense of what their community will respond to than the artist. I am not talking about pressing artists to tone down edgy elements in the performance to conform to local tastes. Rather I envision a presenter may ask that a particular piece be performed knowing how it will resonate with the history of the location or address an on going concern of the region.

Brown noted that a few performing arts organizations are soliciting requests for proposals (RFQ) from performing artists so that projects more closely conform with what they want to achieve. RFQs from visual artists aren’t uncommon, and Brown says there aren’t a lot of performing arts organizations soliciting, but the fact there are may represent a shift in the approach to residencies. Pam Tatge who was on the panel for this session commented that artist residencies were becoming an intersection of the artist’s goals and presenter’s goals.

It seemed to me that this is something of a compromise between commissioning a piece and hosting an artist for a performance. There is a desire to provide the community a deeper experience than might be derived from attending a performance but not enough resources to direct the creation of a new work. So presenters are seeking artists who can provide additional experiences with specific relevance to the local community. These additional experiences seem to tend toward interaction and working with members of the community and de-emphasize the lecture/demonstration model.

It just occurred to me that another one of the underlying themes of the conference seemed to be the blurring of distinct roles. In addition to a session specifically about cross-discipline performance curation, there were two different sessions on the dissolving boundaries between agent, manager and producer with people taking on the functions of all three in various situations.

Those were just the sessions specifically dedicated to this idea. Just as the topic of cross-discipline curation came up in a separate session I attended, I am sure the topic permeated other conversations.