What Is Your First Hint?

I was reading today how the new CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, has insisted that all employees be working at their corporate campuses by June rather than telecommuting. Yahoo has not been doing well in recent years and she took it as a bad sign that the parking lot was slow to fill in the morning and quick to empty out at night, something that is atypical for Silicon Valley tech companies, including Google where Mayer was recently an executive.

This got me to thinking about what the signs for arts organizations/companies would be that your staff wasn’t fully invested in the company? Since working conditions at many places are rarely optimal to start with, it may be difficult to know when morale and organizational culture is waning.

While we shouldn’t depend on people’s passion to keep them motivated in lieu of actually paying them, the passion is often the primary motivator ahead of pay, if the staff as a whole seems to have lost that feeling, you have to ask why.

There is a point where it is patently obvious to everyone that morale is low and the spark is gone. What I have started thinking about in reaction to the stories about Yahoo is what the warning signs might be that things are heading in the wrong direction but could be turned around before the negativity became omnipresent.

I would say the parking lot test is one indication. If people are leaving as soon as the job is done and seem reticent to come in any earlier than necessary, then the situation may be deteriorating. In my experience, unless it is 2 am after a load out of one show and a new show is loading in at 9 am the next morning, a fair number of theatre staff will hang out together for another half hour or so chatting and decompressing after the event.

I would also say that the lack of discussion about the event around the office the next morning is a bad sign. There is always need for a debrief and examination of what could be done better the next time. But even beyond the practical considerations, if people around the office aren’t spontaneously reflecting on the quality of the event and exhibiting some sort of intellectual or emotional connection with the experience (even if it is to reflect on audience reaction), then the environment may need to be examined.

What other signs are there? I have worked in performance most of my career so I would be especially interested to learn what is considered a bad sign in the visual arts. Though everyone should feel free to comment, regardless of what discipline you identify with.

I am not really looking to open a gripe fest where people complain about how the cheap bastards cut off the free coffee. But maybe you started noticing people stopped participating in the weekly “Bring Your Own Meat” barbeques in the summer and knew things were going awry weeks before anyone said anything.

Want To Pursue A Creative Career?..Uhm, The Brits Will Help You Decide

Finder of interesting things, Thomas Cott, tweeted a link to an article about creative apprenticeships in the UK. While unpaid non profit internships are not against the law in the U.S., they have been something of a hot topic in England.

According to the article Cott linked to, the creation of the National Skills Academy is not a reaction to the internship scandal, but given that many businesses in creative industries heavily depend on unpaid labor, it does provide a response to that problem. Essentially, it allows young people to gain the skills they lack in professional settings and provide organizations with some labor without running afoul the law.

I am not quite sure how this is arranged. Apprentices are entitled to a special apprenticeship minimum wage. Whether the company using their labor pays it directly or indirectly, or the training program does isn’t clear to me.

What interested me was some of the things the National Skills Academy was doing to provide training. Whereas getting a degree in the arts is increasingly seen as not marketable in the U.S. given rising tuition, the National Skills Academy has done their research and are working with creative industries to answer the demand. They have even built a training and rehearsal facility.

We’ve encouraged a shift in education away from courses of over-supply towards training that fulfils a clear demand from the industry. In the theatre and live music sectors, our members told us they needed new backstage staff more than anything else (and they weren’t at all worried about performers). But lots of colleges were offering over-subscribed performing arts courses first and foremost. We had a look at this, and our education members now deliver quality backstage courses approved by industry and popular with students.

Our members also felt the live events, music and theatre industries needed somewhere to train and rehearse. Together we made the case for a £13m investment to build an industry-spec new building for industry and students, The Backstage Centre.

The situation in the UK isn’t that much different than in the U.S. in terms of what is needed to do the job. One section of the site observes that even though 58% of those working in creativity industries have degrees, they ironically valued experience over education because there are gaps in the education people are receiving.

They also observe, as in the U.S., unpaid internships are not a viable option for people who don’t have the money to support themselves while they work. They strive to shift that dynamic.

But that’s not what we’re being told – a quarter of employers we asked said they were experiencing skills gaps and shortages in key areas. As a result, we’ve seen a rapid growth in unpaid internships – now much longer than the traditional three-month placement.

We’re concerned that there’s a disconnect here between employers and the education sector supplying them with staff. We’ve also seen that unpaid work is unsustainable for anyone without private support.

The overall picture shows under-employment, unemployment and unfair access.

Changing recruitment culture

Our membership network led the campaign to encourage a change in recruitment culture. In 2009, we created the first specialist apprenticeship frameworks, to supply employers with staff who have the specialist skills they want.

There are whole sections on associated websites devoted to helping young people make decisions about what creative careers they might want to pursue and what opportunities are out there. There are two sites devoted specifically to theatre work and another to music.

It is not just online resources, they have a series of in person sessions around the UK young people can attend. Some are targeted at students as young as 13. Many of them are fully booked.

So if you are like me, your first reaction is probably something along the lines of “Why don’t we have something like this in the U.S.?” I think even with all the talk about how the arts councils are continuing to be defunded in the U.K. and how cultural organizations may have to look to the U.S. model of garnering private support for their work, there exists an immense fundamental gap between how arts and culture are valued in the respective countries.

This program was only created five years ago and it already has 1,800 apprentices and the Backstage Centre built. Now admittedly, it remains to be seen whether there are jobs for all these people. My suspicion is that they expect/hope some of these people to end up creating their own companies and to help drive a shift to a creative economy.

Take My Job, Please

Come May I will be leaving Hawaii to assume the position of Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts in Portsmouth, OH. The University of Hawaii has posted my current position today and I thought I would draw attention to it since the classification of “Public Information, Public Events Planning and Publications” doesn’t quickly catch the eye of arts administrators.

My dean is rewriting the job description a little so the title is presented more naturally in the job ads. It will be posted on arts job sites shortly, but I thought I would give my faithful readers some advance notice so you can apply or pass the posting along to colleagues.

As you may have surmised from the illuminating job title, bureaucracy with all its arcane rules is the biggest impediment to the expedient execution of duties in this job. However, if you are well organized, good at planning ahead and adept at navigating bureaucracies, you can do well in this position.

The positive points about this job are numerous and are centered on the people.

The chancellor of the college is extremely supportive of the arts here. In fact, I was trying to keep a low profile about my job change but he found an article online announcing my new job and sent it around to all the deans and vice chancellors at the college. The dean of our division is also a very amiable and supportive guy who wants to help the theatre thrive.

As you may have read in some of my blog posts, there is a lot of cross-discipline activity that occurs almost spontaneously in the building. The tables in our backstage are a very social area where students and faculty from theatre, music and visual arts are often found chatting and offering advice about different projects.

Being able to engage in that conversation is key to the success of the theatre manager position. I may depart my office at a certain time, but often don’t leave the building until an hour later. Many of the problems and concerns for the facility get addressed during that period.

There will be a $7-8 million renovation of the facility potentially starting in the next year. I have overseen a large part of the planning and design. The goal was to be shovel ready once the funding became available.

Even if the renovation doesn’t happen in the next year, the theatre will be celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2014. I have started some very preliminary planning and grant writing to support some great events.

The assistant theatre manager is really well organized and has a good instinct for design. Our website was much more “blah” when I was making the design decisions. She will actually be chairing the search committee.

The theatre collaborates with the Performing Arts Presenters of Hawaii, a statewide consortium of presenters which leverages their collective power to negotiate contracts and write grants together. I have served as an officers on the board for the last 8 years. While you can contract artists alone, you definitely get more bang for your buck cooperating with the group.

It takes some patience and tenacity when advocating for artists. Sometimes dates and artistic mix don’t synch up for everyone at the same time. In some cases, you may have to reintroduce the artist over the course of multiple years to get the buy-in you need to make the tour happen.

On the other hand, you have people who are familiar with the intricacies of your organization bringing you well-qualified suggestions, many of them great performers you weren’t really acquainted with before. In many respects, they are helping you shoulder the responsibilities that are associated with booking a season.

The theatre also has a very active rental business with over 350 public events a year (not counting classes that schedule time on the stage). There are a lot of perennial renters who can almost run the show themselves. There are also many first time renters whose vision outstrips their budgets whom you need to teach about organizing their production. Fortunately, the technical directors have a deep commitment and long experience in doing that sort of thing.

Representatives from all these constituencies will be on the search committee–theatre staff, drama instructors, visual arts instructors, a representative of the booking consortium, perennial renters, a community artist. I believe the committee numbers about 8-9 right now.

Then, of course, there is the obvious benefit of living in Hawaii and interacting with the confluence of cultures which live and visit here.

So why am I leaving? Well many of the things I value about my current job are present in the one to which I am moving. The university president and many of the staff are really wonderful people. A community board has an amazing relationship with the university and shares in a great deal of the presenting responsibilities. I am absolutely looking forward to joining the organization.

So in short for those interested, the theatre manager position is suited for a mid-career arts professional with a solid background in performing arts who is prepared to act assertively to advance the interests of the theatre.

Please don’t apply if your qualifications don’t meet this level and are not entirely sincere. The school declared two failed searches before the search that resulted in my hire so they are not about to settle.

So write a great cover letter that inspires and expresses your vision. You will be writing to a group of arts people who want to be excited by the next theatre manager.

…Just realize those arts people are constrained by a pedantic bureaucracy that makes them go down a check list of the minimum qualifications. If they can’t find evidence you meet the qualifications in your cover letter or resume, it doesn’t matter how inspiring you are.

Also pay VERY close attention to the transcript requirements. If you submit online transcripts, the committee has to evaluate whether your experience is equivalent to a degree.

I am happy to answer any questions people may have. Just submit them through the contact link atop the page.

Info You Can Use: In House Professional Development

I came across a piece by the Bridgespan Group about creating professional development opportunities for non-profit organization staff members when you don’t have the money to send them to conferences.

Some of their suggestions included cross-training, job shadowing and stretch assignments which give people responsibilities outside their usual scope so that they can begin to develop in areas they are lacking.

One thing that caught my attention was the suggestion that employees be given the responsibility for organizing internal gatherings. In addition to having employees take turns organizing and running staff meetings, the article discusses companies where the staff arranges for speakers and other activities for in house professional development, training and team building exercises.

As I was thinking about this idea and who might the staff invite to speak or provide training, it occurred to me that this practice might be helpful in promoting greater understanding between non-profits, their boards and the community.

One of the first thoughts I had was that board members might either attend or be speakers at these events. The experience might either be very informative and help the organization move forward or reveal the gaps in understanding.

This is where things might get tricky. In the best possible situation, board members might come to an understanding of how the organization is run and the challenges it faces. Staff might learn new practices for the way forward.

On the other side, people may realize there is a huge lack of understanding. Staff may realize that a board member presenting a talk has no concept of the business model non-profits follow as they encourage the organization to embrace practices to move them toward greater profitability. How to approach them diplomatically and clarify matters may not initially be clear. However, it may provide a realization that a better board education program is needed.

The same thing can happen involving the public sphere. Staff may become aware of new trends applicable to their organization. Using these talks as an example, the non-profit staff could turn around and create/join a speakers bureau to raise awareness about their organization.

Finally, having read many excellent arts social media postings and blog entries by arts leaders, it is clear there are many very intelligent, well informed people out there in the non-profit world. If they are able to get up in front of their own company and speak objectively (rather than with a subtext about where the staff is failing to live up to expectations) about general philosophy and practice in their industry, I would bet those they work with would see them in an entirely different light.

It is so easy to get bogged down with the day to day details of running the organization, few in the organization may be aware of breadth of knowledge and passion their colleagues have. People may suddenly realize they have a unexpected source of expertise and inspiration readily available.

Of course, no matter what you do, you run the risk of he internal development/training sessions being entirely inappropriate and boring. But you can get that at a conference you pay to attend, too.

Send this to a friend