Arts & Job Crafting

Apropos to yesterday’s Labor Day holiday there was a blog post on the Harvard Business Review site back in June about job crafting, basically changing aspects of your daily activity to make your job more enjoyable.

I thought many of the suggestions cited by the author, Amy Gallo, were particularly applicable to arts organizations. Arts employees are apt to feeling burned out and unfulfilled due to wearing many hats and having a large workload.

But compared to many other types of businesses, employees of arts organizations generally have a fair bit of freedom about how they accomplish tasks. Employing a little creativity in the process isn’t likely to be viewed as disruptive and might even be applauded.

One of the first suggestions Gallo mentions is examining oneself to assess whether the problem might be that you are simply prone to being dissatisfied all the time. Another is to think about ways to change your outlook about your job and perhaps form emotional connections with colleagues and co-workers.

Next is to look at restructuring the job itself:

“Spreitzer and Wrzesniewski suggest using a job crafting exercise to redesign your job to better fit your motives, strengths, and passions. “Some people make radical moves; others make small changes” in how they delegate or schedule their day,…For example, if your most enjoyable task is talking with clients, but you feel buried in paperwork, you might decide to always speak with clients in the morning, so you’re energized to get through the drudge work for the rest of the day. Or you might save talking with your clients until the end of the day as a reward.

If it’s not the work you dislike but the people you work with, you may be able to change that too. Wrzesniewski says she has seen people successfully alter who they interact with on a daily basis to increase job satisfaction. Focus on forging relationships that give you energy, rather than sapping it. Seek out people who can help you do your job better”

In some respects, the fact that just about everyone performs multiple functions in an arts organization can be an asset to job crafting efforts. Lacking concrete job boundaries, people can swap some of their duties a little bit. What is mind numbing to one might provide a refreshing respite to someone else. One thing I have appreciated about the arts jobs I have had has been the ability to get up and away from one task to do essentially all of the things Gallo mentions.

I have been able to attend artist outreaches to see the impact of our work on people in the community. I can talk with colleagues and patrons and develop connections with them. I have been able to get up from my desk to stick my nose in on rehearsals and classes to get some inspiration. Walking around to inspect facilities and equipment or setting my hand to some physical task often provides the distraction my mind needs to find a solution that wasn’t coming sitting in front of my computer.

If You Meet Mozart On The Road, Kill Mozart

Back in June there was an interesting piece on The Creativity Post about the Mozart Myth.

The Mozart myth goes something like this. Some people are born with talent so tremendous that music and other cultural products spring from their minds fully-fledged, as if by magic. Mozart, so the myth goes, would compose his symphonies in one sitting with nary a revision through a single act of inspiration. The more generalized myth, popularized by writers such as Arthur Koestler, is that all creative people work this way.

The authors, Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein, recount a story about a student they had who had made it big with a rock song in his first year of college, but when it came time to do a follow up, he felt his creativity was blocked. He took their class in the hope they could unlock his creativity again.

They had this student examine his creative process and he eventually came to realize he had actually worked on his first big hit over the course of 6 months. Finally, he had a eureka moment where everything gelled. The reason he felt like he was blocked was because he was waiting for another eureka moment to drop the next masterpiece in his lap, not recognizing the first hadn’t done so.

This story is a good reminder not to mistake the frisson experienced during that eureka moment as the whole creative process. How many times have we heard that genius is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration but continue to value only the inspiration part?

We may be able to dash off some inspired prose or music in a few moments forgetting that there were years of reading, writing, listening, watching, thinking and practicing that have brought us to that moment. More to the point, there were probably long periods of mistakes, lack of comprehension and frustration involved along the road.

Having a solution come to mind so quickly can provide such a sense of relief and joy that it is easy to forget incidents like the anxiety of having to write a book report each week in third grade and the effort involved in that college paper that you still got an F on.

Yes, talent is still distinctly important and can significantly shorten the supposed 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery, but the effort and process is still required.

What is actually probably more damaging than self-recognized creatives buying into the Mozart Myth is everyone else believing it. Believing there is a hard and fast line between those who are blessed with the ability to create and those who are cursed with a lack, is what contributes and reinforces the perception of the arts as elitist.

There is not only the concept that an elite few are granted the talent and inspiration to create, frequently there is a message that there is only a select group that can understand it all, too. It can be difficult to understand that the ability to create and to appreciate are both cultivated over time.

As Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein note, we really only ever focus on the results rather than the process. Bands tell stories in interviews about how they completely wrote a song on the tour bus between Indianapolis and Cincinnati, but no one credits the 15 years spent in 4 different bands no one ever heard of as the incubator in which the requisite abilities were developed.

For the most part, however, our educational institutions tend to do just the opposite: we hold up for scrutiny only finished products, strip them of the processes, tools, skills, histories and personal stories that gave them birth and, intentionally or not, discard and erase creative know-how.

Who Owns The Meaning Of Art, Revisited

Ray Bradbury’s recent death has had me revisiting some thoughts about the issue of who owns the meaning of art. In all the retrospectives on his life, you may have heard he intended his novel Fahrenheit 451 to be about how television would erode literature and that he never intended the book to be about censorship.

Yet pretty much every high school English class teaches that it is about censorship despite his protestations to the contrary. In fact, there is a move to designate Error 451 as a response to any content removed from the web for legal reasons.

I wrote an entry tackling this situation about 5 years ago and cited an article about Bradbury which mentions he apparently walked out of a class at UCLA where a student wouldn’t stop insisting he meant the book to be about censorship.

In that entry I pondered how much license a person has to definitively state what an artist really meant.

As we write program notes, conduct Q&As or talk to ushers and patrons in the lobby, how much are we getting wrong? Maybe the idea that Hamlet was motivated by an Oedipal complex never crossed Shakespeare’s mind. (Especially since the concept is never considered until after Freud coined the term.)

Second is the matter of balance. Where does the balance fall between telling people what is meant and telling people there is no single correct interpretation? People come to educators and arts professionals for the tools to process unfamiliar material. We try to give them language and lenses to assist in this endeavor but part of the joy of encountering art is to see something no one told you was there.

The problem is that sometimes these realizations are tainted by the context we bring to the work and don’t reflect the intentions or reality of the artist. Now granted, personal context is the basis of some works of art like Impressionist paintings. But you are also in the position of not being able to tell people they are wrong about Hamlet since you subscribe to and encourage the “No wrong answer” school of thought.

I don’t want to necessarily paint Bradbury as an obstinate curmudgeon in respect to Fahrenheit 451. It isn’t clear from his interviews if he was annoyed at people for having a different interpretation about the book or because they insisted his interpretation was invalid and ignored it.

Many creators openly welcome and celebrate the variety of experiences people have interacting with their work. Poet Denise Levertov explicitly states this in her poem, The Secret.

As I wrote in a blog post about 5 years ago, I think her poem should be required reading for fine art and literature classes at handed out at arts events to reassure people they aren’t stupid of they don’t “get it.” Your perception of a work doesn’t need to be in synch with that of the creator for you to have an authentic experience.

And because the personal context you bring shapes your perceptions, it is worth re-visiting a book, recording, performance, painting, etc many times over the course of your life in order to experience it anew.

Still we come back to the original question. Who owns the meaning of art? Who has that last word? When a creator sets it free into the wilderness, do they relinquish all claim to it?

I Don’t Remember The Nest Being So Nice

There is potential that cities across the country can ultimately benefit from this economic downturn if they play their cards right and tap into those returning home to help contribute to raising the quality of life. This at least, according to a piece by Will Doig on

According to Doig, young people who have moved to the big cities around the country like NYC, LA and Chicago, find the cost of living to be too high and returning to the places they left, often to start their own businesses.

“Or as urban analyst Aaron Renn puts it: “New York City is like a giant refinery for human capital … Taking in people, adding value, then exporting them is one of New York’s core competencies.”

And it exports them in droves. People associate brain drain with the agricultural and industrial Midwest. But most years, when foreign immigration is excluded, it’s places like New York and Chicago that lose the most residents. Chicago loses nearly 81 people a day to out-migration, more than any other metro area in America. Between mid-2010 and mid-2011, nearly 100,000 people left the New York area. Los Angeles lost almost 50,000.”

Of course, this doesn’t diminish the fact that a whole lot of people are returning home to live a fairly depressing unemployed existence. But according to Doig, in returning home, these people bring expectations of products and services they experienced in the big cities, paving the way for these same products and creating demand for business and government services. They also tell their friends about the great environment in the “nests” to which they have returned attracting more people there.

The reason why I mention cities need to play their cards right is because they have a role in perpetuating an image of their cities as vibrant, interesting places to live. According to Doig’s piece, the reputation perpetuated about cities belie the actual conditions in those cities. (My emphasis)

“The mesofacts say that Charlotte [North Carolina] is a boom town and Portland [Oregon] is cool.” In reality, the economies of both Charlotte and Portland have been struggling for a while now. Yet new residents still flock to these places because the mesofacts tell them they’re hot, when it’s actually Pittsburgh they should be looking to, where per capita income has risen faster than any other major Midwestern city’s, and the unemployment rate has been lower than the national average since 2006.

“I’ve been saying to people in Pittsburgh for years, ‘What Seattle was in the ’90s, you’re going to be that big.’ And they’d laugh. But the data show it,” says Russell. “The editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette keeps saying the biggest problem in Pittsburgh is brain drain. And I’m like, you’re 20 years too late. Why are you torpedoing your own in-migration? When you’re running around saying you have a brain drain problem, what you’re saying to the world is, ‘We’re a loser.’ But if you can convince people the data are true as opposed to the mesofacts, then you open the sluicegates.”

If Doig is correct about all this, it could be the time for arts organizations to step up and take advantage of their trend. As Scott Walters and many other have noted, artists flock to cities like NYC, Chicago and LA convinced they can make their careers there. This is due not only to the alluring glow of the lights of Broadway, but to the practices of many regional theatres that often do their casting in major cities forcing actors to move there if they want to work back home.

This isn’t just the case for theatre either, Trey McIntyre confounded everyone when he chose to base his dance company in Boise, ID rather than one of the major cities. Artists aren’t just seduced away from home by the mythology of these cities, there are very practical reasons to move there if you want an opportunity to practice.

But as I said, arts organizations have an opportunity to reverse this trend by focusing on hiring locally and then getting the local arts community to tell their friends in the big cities why they should move back. For many of those who left, artistic spaces that seemed provincial and under equipped when they left may suddenly seem luxurious after working and living in dingy, holes in the wall in the big city. Yet they have also probably seen and done some pretty artistically interesting things.

As people move back, the arts organizations can tap into the returnees’ experiences interacting with the current thought and aesthetics churning in the big cities and adapt them as their own. You are never going to overcome the allure of going off to the golden cities, but by providing a reason to return, many places across the country can embrace the situation and leverage it to their own advantage.