There Go The Brains of The Operation

I had been pondering on whether to post on this topic but Thomas Cott’s link to a Bloomberg News story about how leaders of arts organizations in the U.S. remain in that position far longer than colleagues in the UK.

The story weighs the benefits of leaders having long term relationships with donors vs. concerns about leadership becoming staid and slow to be responsive to changing times.

My concern comes from a slightly different, though related, direction. Over Christmas I received an email from a long time friend saying she was leaving the performing arts sector to take another job. We had been students together and I had initially modeled my career path after her’s until I realized I really didn’t want her career path. She was essentially the founding executive director for her organization and had held the job for over a decade before deciding to make the job change.

I have heard similar stories from other colleagues, including those in my cohort at Arts Presenters’ Emerging Leadership Institute. People ended up leaving performing arts, some only a few years after having earned a master’s in arts administration.

While I am pleased to see that a master’s in arts administration can get you jobs in other sectors, I am a little concerned about what this bodes for the future. I am not calling for long term arts leaders to vacate their positions and let others get their chance, though that is something that is frequently mentioned.

My concern is that there is going to be a huge leadership gap when the long time arts leaders do retire. My long time friend had about 20 years experience before she made her decision to leave the arts sector. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see her assume a state or regional arts policy leadership position. Granted, she could easily return to assume such a role in the future. I wouldn’t discount it happening.

My knowledge of people leaving the arts is anecdotal and not backed by hard statistics, but I have to imagine there are quite a few others out there of whom I am not aware who are likewise leaving the arts. If so, there is a going to be a huge gap to fill if people with 10-20 years experience leave the sector with only those with less than 10 years experience to replace them.

And lets not forget, there is research showing that many people don’t want to become executive directors. There may be few of any level of experience who are willing to step up. This is where the research and the reasons given by my colleagues intersect–lack of opportunity and work-life balance are dissuading people.

I have written about this topic a number of times before throughout the years, but it was largely theoretical. Now I begin to see signs of the problem impacting my own experience and the repercussions become less abstract and more worrisome.

In terms of a solution, I look back to my post last month on the executive leadership as my best suggestion at this juncture. There I suggested there might be benefits in adopting emerging business models and changing job descriptions so that responsibility and involvement in marketing and development permeate the entire organization rather than being siloed.

Info You Can Use: Negative Feedback As GPS Data

In my last entry, I cited the pitfalls of providing too great a forum for feedback and expectations about how that input will be addressed. I think we all recognize though that as arts organizations, we need to solicit feedback in order to better serve our communities.

How you receive the feedback is just as important as how you ask for it. It is easy to dismiss feedback we don’t like or be paralyzed/depressed by taking it too much to heart. FastCompany recently had an article addressing how to take negative feedback on an individual level, but the advice can scale up to the organizational level.

The article talks about using negative feedback to make yourself more successful. I was interested to learn that openness to feedback is actually a significant factor in an employee’s success.

“A recent study found that 46% of newly hired employees will fail within 18 months. Of those that fail, 26% do so because they can’t accept feedback,…


“People who are at the bottom 10% in terms of their willingness to ask for feedback–their leadership effectiveness scores were at the 17th percentile,” says Joseph Folkman, president of Zenger Folkman… “But the people who were at the top 10%, who were absolutely willing to ask for feedback, their leadership effectiveness scores were at the 83rd percentile.”

One of the problems a lot of people face with negative feedback is that they see it as an indictment of them as a person rather than, say an indication of their poor typing skills. I don’t know for sure if it is any worse in the arts sector than any other sector, but I imagine given that those involved in the arts tend to derive so much emotional satisfaction from their work, negative criticism may be more apt to be taken personally.

Article author Denis Wilson suggests just treating the feedback as a single piece of data among many to guide your personal development rather than orienting specifically on it. He cites an apt analogy made by Joseph Folkman that a GPS device needs 3-4 sources of information to accurately track your progress. For the same reason, Folkman also cautions against relying entirely on your own perceptions.

The article goes on to suggest a number of ways to handle the feedback, again by mostly focusing on the facts of the situation rather than emotions involved. A patron may complain angrily and indicate that they have lost faith in you due to problems with their experience. Your focus should be on solutions to those problems rather than fixating on and reacting to the anger.

Of course, it it often no small feat to remain centered on the facts of a situation when on the receiving end of emotionally delivered criticism. Remember that being able to do so contributes to your personal growth.

There is nothing to say the person delivering the criticism will be satisfied with your composed reaction and apology. Just reading the comments to the article, it is clear some people have an expectation that those on the receiving end of the criticism will be contrite and cowed.

All Your Dance Are Belong To Us

Thomas Cott recently included a link to a story about dance and visual arts that I found extremely intriguing. The article starts with a quote from Ralph Lemon, “I wait,” he said, “for the day when a museum acquires a dance.”

My first reaction was that this could be valuable for cross audience pollination. I thought back to an entry I did last February where the coordinator of a visual and performance art festival observed that there was little cross over between her audiences and that of a theatre oriented festival even though they had many of the same artists in common.

Then I started wondering about the logistics and arrangements involved for a museum to acquire and present dance. Fortunately, the article addresses all these things.

Apparently dance and museums are not strangers. A choreographer received top honors at the Whitney Biennial this year. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is featuring a 3 week dance series organized by Ralph Lemon. I was surprised to learn that both MoMA and the Guggenheim own several dance pieces and have paved the way for museums to collect “ephemeral works.”

Apparently working in a gallery space challenges choreographers to think in new ways about the visuals and use of space. Museums find they need to think differently about performance arts. (my emphasis)

“But dance isn’t performance art, as Jens Hoffmann, director of San Francisco’s Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, well knows; he encouraged Mr. Sehgal to transition out of dance, and pursue an audience in the art world.

…Naked on a stage, Mr. Sehgal “re-danced” moves from famous choreographers. “I thought it was interesting that he was turning himself into a museum of dance.” Mr. Hoffmann invited him to participate in several shows in Berlin and Dusseldorf.

Mr. Sehgal, who also has a background in economics, is adamant that his work be treated like any other work of visual art—bought, sold and exhibited. To exhibit one of his pieces, an institution must follow certain contractual obligations—the piece must be shown for a minimum of six weeks, during which time it is presented all day, every day, like any other art exhibition.


According to Ms. Breitwieser, the rise in interest in dance does parallel a similar rise in interest in live art, or art like Mr. Sehgal’s. Since visual art has become so conceptual and predicated on a kind of “de-skilling,” live art, including performance, dance and theatrical works, she said, present an element of “re-skilling” that audiences crave. Awwnd dance presented in the white-cube context of a museum presents a new challenge to both choreographers and viewers that dance in conventional theater doesn’t offer. “The museum’s position is to write history,” Ms. Breitwieser said. “This makes one look at a piece of live art differently.”

How the dance is treated and viewed is of some concern to those in the dance community. If the relationship is to continue, the situation will likely have to move beyond one-offs and short run exhibitions. Tino Sehgal’s insistence that his work be experienced by visitors with the same degree of persistence as any other art work in the museum may become something of a precedent.

According to Judy Hussie-Taylor, the director of Danspace Project, there is chatter in the dance community over whether museums are co-opting dance without fully understanding what it takes to support dancers. There’s also concern that financial resources that now go directly to choreographers and dance organizations may be diverted to museums and visual arts institutions.

“Selling a dance performance as a work of art is an interesting proposition,” she said, “primarily because it’d be great for choreographers to have the same kind of economic control of their work and its distribution [that visual artists have].”

As I said, for me this whole discussion is intriguing to me. I haven’t even been able to imagine all the implications. What does it do for museums which have heretofore always been the site of static art work if they are regularly offering art that is transitory in nature?

One of the big selling points for the performing arts has always been that it happens only for a moment in time. What is the impact of being able to see it 9-5, Monday – Friday in a MoMA gallery? Even though there is still a higher degree of randomness inherent to 50 live performances than 50 viewings of the same YouTube video, do all those repetitions diminish the value of the performance?

On the other hand, does the fact that MoMA has exclusive rights to an exciting, highly acclaimed dance piece and no amount of begging and money can get it performed in Minneapolis enhance the value of both the museum and the company?

Your Personal Board of Directors

The Drucker Exchange has an animated interpretation of a speech Jim Collins (Good to Great, Built to Last) delivered in 2009. The speech is titled “Ten To-Dos For Young People” but I am pretty sure it is good advice for people of any age.

The first thing Collins suggests is getting a personal board of directors where the members are chosen not for their accomplishments but for their character. These people don’t necessarily need to know they are on your board of directors.

This struck me as an oft overlooked aspect of personal development. We are often told to find mentors and network to advance our careers, seldom does the character of these mentors and the necessity of moral and value guidance get mentioned.

People in the arts often need this type of guidance because establishing a career is so difficult and subject to so many conflicting pressures. It is not only a matter of whether you appear nude in an “art film” to pay the rent but also the question of whether you are a sell out if you faced with an opportunity for commercial success. Are you a bad person for choosing either of these paths? Professional mentors may not provide the same advice as personal mentors.

He also proposed examining yourself as objectively and dispassionately as a scientist would a bug. Just as a scientist doesn’t make judgments about how the bug would be better bug if it only worked harder or learned more, you should just look at yourself as you are at this moment and simply catalog the features you and others observe.

I thought this was especially apt advice for people in the arts since so much self evaluation is derived from qualitative, often emotionally based criteria. Detachment can be difficult to achieve, but the results can be both valuable and comforting.

Although I have often heard the advice to perform objective self-evaluation and had it compared to a scientific approach, I found it helpful to be reminded that a scientist doesn’t generally wish the insects they are observing were as fast as cheetahs and intelligent as dolphins. They hunker down and try to discover what the bug can teach us about the world.

I also liked Collins advice to look at your statement to question ratio and see how you can double it. He says he was once told that he was spending a lot of time trying to be interesting and that perhaps he should shift his effort toward being interested.

Now I will say that while there is that stereotype of the self-impressed artistic type who makes statements about the “true meaning” of something, I think this is part of the learning process. Often these statements are just an attempt to test one’s view of the world.

I think everyone is allowed to be an unsufferable egoist for while to work themselves out. The problem arises if you don’t realize this is a method of learning and not the default mode of social interaction.

Collins advice is apt both personally and professionally as a method of teaching yourself how to learn from everyone you meet. I think this dovetails well with my post last week about the importance of asking audiences and the community about their experience with the arts rather than telling people what their experience will or should be.

Finally, (and if you have been counting, you know I have covered fewer than 10 points–watch the video it is only 4:30 minutes long and a cartoon for goodness sakes), Collins advice is to find something that you have so much passion for you are willing to endure the pain.

If you are involved with the arts, you have probably already made this decision. Even if Collins wasn’t thinking specifically about the arts when he said this, the animation team was and depicted this point with a ballerina dancing and then massaging her feet.