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.

Merit Can Be More Easily Inherited Than Earned

There was an article on San Francisco Classical Voice website on September 1 about racism in classical music titled “The Last Water Fountain: The Struggle Against Systemic Racism in Classical Music.” The last water fountain phrase was coined by Lee Pringle, founder and artistic director of the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, SC.

The narrative of the article orbits around Pringle and includes numerous anecdotes about the direct racist experiences different Black artists and professionals have experienced throughout their careers as well as ways in which the general framework of the classical music industry inhibits their careers. (e.g. don’t get offered many opportunities, but union membership prevents participation in non-union events organized to amplify the talents of musicians of color.)

There were many aspects of the article that grabbed my attention, but a statement made by the articles author, Robert Macnamara, early on really illustrated how the concept of meritocracy resulting in the best ensemble is undermined by the lack of access many Black musicians in particular have to “farm system” that begins to channel musicians on a career path at a young age.

In the system, support is assumed, and when the question arises, the answer is predetermined: “Oh honey, $1,800 seems like an awful lot of money for an oboe, but I guess, if you really want this, we can always find the money somewhere.”

And so begins the march; the route is fixed. White people and some ethnic groups follow a progression of youth orchestras and schools of the arts and then are often paired with principal musicians in local professional orchestras. Meanwhile, young Black musicians inevitably draw attention to their raw talent but can’t afford the coaching and mentoring to help develop technical expertise and to help direct the way through the audition maze. Having little or no experience in a youth orchestra, they arrive in college music departments with, as one musician put it, “a lot of heart and personality but may not catch every note.”

The effect of this closed system is that it’s pervasive, ingrained, and needlessly exclusive, a monoculture that white audiences often don’t know much about or, frankly, seem to care much about.

I have posted about this before in regard to internships. Studies have shown that internships tend to be valuable when it comes to getting a first job and establishing a career. However, those who benefit most from internships are those whose families support them financially and reinforce their choices through their expectations.

This idea that meritocracy isn’t the value neutral measure we think it is has been around for a few years, but in the last few months, and apparently few days as I searched for links to articles I recalled reading, it has come to the fore again and is something to consider as we examine the composition of our organizations their relationships to those being served.

Do They Know Its Covid Time At All?

I am guessing it isn’t any news that a lot of arts and cultural organizations are struggling financially and grappling with the challenges presented by Covid-19. I mean, there is a lobbying effort to have Congress provide relief specifically aimed at helping both for and not-for-profit arts and events organizations and spaces. A lot of service and trade organizations have partnered up to advocate in this area.

But you wouldn’t know it isn’t business as usual from the job postings out there. I am hardly the first to notice this. I saw someone tweet about it a couple weeks ago†. While I had noticed an increase in job listings over the last few months and took that as a positive sign, I didn’t read any of them because I am not currently seeking a position.

After that tweet, I started paying closer attention.  I have to say, they are right. I have looked at about 40 listings that were posted since mid-July for everything from executive director for state arts councils and major cultural centers to part time jobs in rural communities. With one exception, none of them acknowledged that there was an epidemic going on and how that might impact job duties, or even more helpfully, how the board of directors had resolved to respond.

Honestly, it looks like people pulled out the job description file they used for their last search. The Opportunities & Challenges heading of one description listed delays due to jurisdictional issues between government entities, but apparently the epidemic won’t hinder anything.

By the way, the one group that did acknowledge the operating environment had changed was Children’s Theatre of Charlotte which wrote:

CTC is facing the current economic challenge with resiliency and innovation. In 2020-21, CTC will mount an entirely virtual season with four productions: The Velveteen Rabbit, GRIMMZ Fairy Tales, My Wonderful Birthday Suit and Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba. In addition, CTC will provide week-long mini-camps as a resource for families looking for creative solutions this school year, along with a combination of in-person and virtual theatre education classes in the evenings.

Nothing complicated about this. Hundreds of organizations have sent out this sort of messaging in press releases and social media posts the last few months. However, no one else seems to see the need to even awkwardly cut and paste out of a press release and into a job description.

I seems like right now, if you are looking to hire quality people, a job listing should implicitly, if not explicitly carry a message which acknowledges regardless of whether you are looking to get a job or transfer from another one, there is even more stress and anxiety associated with that process than usual. However, not only has our organization developed a plan which frankly acknowledges what is viable over the next two years, we are looking to add someone to a supportive team which will translate this plan into action.

Even if I were out of a job and extremely anxious to find another, I would question my potential career with an organization that failed to give a nod to overwhelming reality.

Likewise, the shifting expectations and activity associated with diversity/equity/inclusion (DEI) didn’t seem to be present other than generic statements about the applicant needing to be committed to DEI. These may be new additions to some of the descriptions, but they read as boilerplate from the past. There were a couple exceptions like Burlington, VT’s Flynn Center which included:

“Address systemic racism with thoughtful programmatic vision, embedded governance structures, dynamic staffing, equitable vendor interactions, and intentional audience experiences.”

and Dance/USA:

Recognize, acknowledge and address power imbalances and privilege within a membership that is diverse with regard to a role (e.g., dancer, choreographer, artistic director, arts administrator, presenter, agent) and locale, as well as broader diversity dimensions such as race, ethnicity, economic status, gender, disability status, gender expression, nationality, sexual orientation, and religion.

† N.B. – Nina Simon was the person who mentioned generic job descriptions in a Medium post she made. My recollection was that I saw it on Twitter and my gut told me Nina wrote it, but I couldn’t find the Twitter post–because I saw it elsewhere.

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.

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