Don’t Feel Obligated To Sink More Into Bad Choices

I am not saying anything new when I note that there are a lot of arts organizations which are incapable of taking much action due to Covid related legal restrictions or lack of resources. My assumption has been that those who are able to make plans or take action are exploring opportunities that require relatively low investment of time and resources — basically taking advantage of any option that allows them to stay nimble and muster the most leverage.

Much to my surprise, as few resources and time people have at their disposal, I have already started to witness people engaging in behavior reflective of  the sunk cost fallacy. This is the practice of feeling you have to continue down a path you recognize as a bad choice based on the fact you committed so much effort to this point. The Wikipedia article I linked to has some good examples – staying in a bad relationship because you have invested so much time and emotional energy in it, getting a membership to an expensive gym in order to force yourself to exercise, continuing a war because otherwise the sacrifice of lives would have been in vain.

One particular example given is applicable to the arts if you substitute a performance/visual arts experience in for deciding whether to stay or leave a ball game you aren’t enjoying:

The economist will suggest that, since the second option involves suffering in only one way (wasted money), while the first involves suffering in two (wasted money plus wasted time), option two is preferable. In either case, the ticket-buyer has paid the price of the ticket so that part of the decision should no longer affect the future. If the ticket-buyer regrets buying the ticket, the current decision should be based on whether they want to see the game at all, regardless of the price, just as if they were to go to a free baseball game.

Many people, however, would feel obliged to stay for the rest of the game despite not really wanting to, perhaps because they feel that doing otherwise would be wasting the money they spent on the ticket. They may feel they have passed the point of no return. Economists regard this behaviour as irrational. It is inefficient because it misallocates resources by taking irrelevant information into account.

One particular recent example I had in mind when writing this post resulted from sharing our research on livestreaming options and equipment after a successful execution with colleagues. What we had found was inexpensive and simple to use, especially in light of the fact that the cameras would communicate well with each other which made switching between camera angles very simple.

Despite our colleagues admitting that this sounded like a simpler option than the one they were working on which required more expensive and complicated equipment and software, they turned down our offer to lend them the equipment because they had put so much effort into researching their option. (I am pretty sure they hadn’t purchased everything they needed at that point.)

It should be acknowledge, there is probably no one out there that doesn’t make irrational decisions which are not in their best interest. I would bet Dan Ariely who studies irrational behavior for a living has succumbed a number of times. It isn’t terribly surprising given the times we live in that we make poor decisions based on gut or emotion, but all the more reason to pay very close attention to what is motivating your actions because there is so little margin for error.

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.

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.

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