Wasn’t Looking For Substantive Discussion of Workplace Equity On An Orchestra Podcast, But There It Was

I may owe some apologies to Drew McManus because I would have never expected that a podcast about the classical music industry would provide one of the best discussions about the complexities of workplace equity that I have heard. (And I have heard a lot, even in the last 10 days.)

The most recent episode of Shop Talk features a conversation with Ruby Lopez Harper, Americans for the Arts Senior Director of Local Arts Advancement; and Dr. Brea M. Heidelberg, Associate Professor & the Director of the Entertainment & Arts Management program at Drexel University.

The fact both guests had an established rapport from having previously worked together allowed them to move quickly to a substantive discussion of workplace equity efforts. For the most part, Drew just stood back and let them delve into the subject.

Even before they brought it up, I was already thinking about what the future might hold when workplace equity programs are no longer the hot priority for funders. It occurred to me that the test-focused values of our education system is reflected in many other aspects of our lives. (Likely the education system is also a reflection of broader values.)

Just as knowledge is only valued until a test approves of our apparent mastery, there is a feeling that once you have taken the equity seminar and received the certificate, the problematic elements have been eliminated and you are now an approved good person.

So it would make sense that there might be a similar transactional approach to funding: Once X amount of dollars has been spent on the problem and Y positive outcomes have been reported, (and as we know, every funded program comes off exactly as planned, at least in final reports), then the bulk of the important work as been done and the funder can move on.

It also occurred to me that the mindset of orchestra musicians, though not necessarily the boards and administration that run the organizations, might be among the best suited for work place equity efforts. Musicians know that the attainment of knowledge and ability is not complete when a passing grade is received but rather it is a lifelong pursuit of self-improvement — much as the pursuit of equity.

Kudos to Drew for pulling this off. This is not an easy topic to get honest, quality discourse on. Take a listen.

As Drew writes,

…it’s more frank than candid and I mean that in the best possible way. Even if you don’t think you’re the sort of person who “needs” to hear this, you do. If you’re white, you’ll probably feel uncomfortable, but again, only in the best possible way. Don’t miss the section on #TraumaEntrapment around the 40min mark.

We Are Gonna Need A Slower Elevator

There has been an ongoing conversation among the arts community that there needs to be less effort invested in selling people on an arts experience and more listening to people to find out what they are looking for.

Seth Godin made a post earlier this month that encompassed that when he suggested substituting the elevator pitch with the elevator question.

The alternative is the elevator question, not the elevator pitch. To begin a conversation–not about you, but about the person you’re hoping to connect with. If you know who they are and what they want, it’s a lot more likely you can figure out if they’re a good fit for who you are and what you want. And you can take the opportunity to help them find what they need, especially if it’s not from you.

[…]

Instead of looking at everyone as someone who could fund you or buy from you or hire you, it might help to imagine that almost no one can do those things, but there are plenty of people you might be able to help in some other way, even if it’s only to respect them enough to not make a pitch.

The truth is, unless you are in the presence of a very narrow demographic, chances are that few people you meet can fund or buy from you. Since we know that the narrow demographic most inclined to buy from us is not sufficient to support our work long term, you do need to talk to a lot of people whose general inclination toward the arts and your organization is less known. Therefore the elevator question is going to be better alternative.

Of course, the elevator part is a misnomer for this concept because there is likely no way the conversation will effectively be completed on an elevator trip between floors. It may be months or years.

Just because you aren’t practicing to deliver a frantically paced pitch between floors doesn’t mean you should neglect to provide a focused introduction of yourself and the work you and your organization does. There is so much more you can talk about if you aren’t trying to milk a sale out of precious seconds, but people will appreciate an organized, interesting self-introduction as much as they appreciate not feeling hustled to buy into something.

Don’t Forget Lessons Learned About Business Insurance

One of the panel sessions at the recent Arts Midwest-Western Arts Alliance virtual conference was on Reopening. The one panelist that really caught my attention was Anna Glass, Executive Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH).

She said when the Covid emergency hit, the Cultural Institutions Group, a collection of major arts institutions in NYC area which had been organized some years prior, provided a great resource for information sharing during the crisis.  Apparently there were group calls seven days a week for the first two months to discuss the issues and they have scaled back to four times a week now. The group organized itself into various working groups to help figure out solutions to problems and organize advocacy efforts.

Glass is the co-leader of the insurance working group and spoke about the rude awakening groups like hers had when they discovered how lacking their insurance policies were.  One thing they didn’t realize was that there were caps on the amount of money their policies would pay out. So while DTH face the cancellations of events that annually brought in over $1 million, their policies were capped at $30,000. On top of that, while they were so sure that they could make a business interruption claim based on government action due to Gov. Cuomo’s executive order, they learned their policies would only cover them if there was physical damage to their buildings.

Glass said her insurance working group provided a lot of information to the greater Cultural Institutions Group membership about how to read their policies, make claims, etc. The working group encouraged everyone to make a claim even if they didn’t think they had a chance of having it approved just to make some noise about the issues with business insurance.

Glass said she paying greater attention to her insurance policies and really pushed back on her (previous) insurance broker for “not working for me.” She is determined not to make the same mistake twice.

The brief silver lining Glass sees in all this is that arts organizations in the NYC area are cooperating, collaborating and advocating as a unified groups in a way they hadn’t before. She hopes that becomes an ingrained habit/practice moving forward.

I wanted to bring this up in general for the broader lessons about cooperation and advocacy this has for us all, but specifically to remind people to pay attention to things like insurance policies and contracts moving forward. I am sure it will be nigh impossible to get appropriate coverage for epidemics, but you still need to think seriously about what types of coverage you need and what you will or won’t accept from a policy. There is so much other crap going on right now, it will be hard to effect change but eventually there will likely be a movement to reform insurance coverage.

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.

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