Don’t Forget That Failure Is An Option

It has only been in recent years that a message of embracing and talking about our failure has been part of a public conversation among arts and cultural organizations. I am not sure how many people are including these stories in their reports to funders, but little by little people are willing to admit that not everything has gone has planned.

Still, we don’t see a lot of articles and case studies where people are analyzing where they went wrong. It was for that reason that Madhavan Pillai’s account in Arts Management Quarterly drew my attention. Pillai had experienced great success with a walking project which drew attention to the polluted ecosystem along the Cooum River near Chennai, India. Buoyed by this success, he wanted to create an arts festival along the river to inspire people to take ownership in the well-being of the river.

The project concept was well received among partners and supporters, the goals and objectives were crystal clear. A proposal was written, presentations were made, budgetary details worked out, teams were set, their roles and responsibilities were defined and agreed on. A strong network was established without leaving a single stone unturned including a focus on public relations and advertisement. With all ingredients for a very successful international festival in place, the project failed

Among the factors Pillali attributes to the failure was actually not acknowledging that the project might fail. The other was using a democratic leadership style that sought the consent of all the partners. (my emphasis)

The overemphasis on democratic leadership, which is otherwise considered to be a best practice, turned around to become disastrous…During the high-point of crisis I was consulting team members and addressing everyone’s concerns….A consent with all members could never be reached. The mode of action instead geared towards an apologetic atmosphere with self-satisfied and settling egos within the team.

Based on this experience, I think that leadership should be trained to face failure as the most powerful source for know-how and understanding. It teaches survival, renewal and reinvention of yourself and the organization you are leading, but this learning about failure should be built in education. If the control over the team and partners is not strong, the leadership is forced to accept new ideas that emerge every day.

The lack of factoring the failure left no room to fight the crisis and I was left alone with unnerving thoughts, waiting for a miracle to happen. Irrational and persistent fear of failing kept me towards pushing my limits and digging inside to explore….As the famous proverb goes “success has hundred fathers, failure is an orphan”, I was abandoned.

A lot of interesting thoughts here. In addition to the text I bolded regarding how experiencing failure makes you stronger, Pillali’s mention of being paralyzed by fear and waiting for a miracle were not unfamiliar. I have seen a good number of arts and cultural organizations where miracle seeking in the face of a paralyzing crisis has been the default mode of operation. I have felt fortunate that I was not on the inside of those organizations because I have had the unfortunate experience of being on the inside of organizations that operated in this way.

Things To Ponder When Endeavoring To Tell Other People’s Stories

There is a lot of conversation about the need for people to see themselves and their interests reflected in arts and cultural experiences if arts and cultural organizations were going to remain relevant.  I saw an article on Arts Professional UK that gave examples of what organizations across the Pond were doing along these lines. Many of the observations about the challenges involved which are just as true in the US as the UK.

Tamsin Curror opens by citing, Glenn Jenkins, who has collaborated on projects with her organization,

“Imagine a scenario where all of the creative choices in your own home, the colour and style of the decor, the music you play and the films you watch were all up to somebody else to decide. This would be pretty disempowering, yet in our neighbourhoods or collective homes this is exactly how it is…”

This is the perception people can have when entities create a work purporting to reflect the experience of a group of people without the involvement and input of those who are/were part of the experience.

As much as we in the arts and cultural sector believe that what we offer contains a degree of universality with which everyone can identify, that may not be the perception in every community.

Project Director, Nancy Barrett, says: “A lot of touring work didn’t ‘speak’ to diverse urban communities and we needed to create something that would resonate with the intended audience.”

As I was reading that I wondered if this has always been the case and the greater arts and cultural community hasn’t recognized it because the focus of work has been so oriented toward a middle-class, Caucasian experience. Or if perhaps the isolating effect of social media has magnified the feeling that no one else shares your experience.

If you are only seeing the best selves of those around you rather than engaging in conversations about the boring, difficult situations they face, and therefore don’t feel you have much in common with your neighbor, it may be doubly difficult to discern shared universal themes in a creative work.

It isn’t saying anything new to observe that the time and energy required to build an authentic relationship with the communities with whom you wish to be involved in telling their stories is pretty prohibitive for most non-profit arts and cultural organizations. Added to that is something I hadn’t fully considered – the disconnect between relationship building and the funding cycle. (my emphasis)

“You need to build good relationships with people on a permanent basis, not just be pulling people in…. because if they think you’re just someone that comes in and then goes… you’re a one trick pony,” said a resident of Mereside Estate in Blackpool.

We’ve learnt that you can’t underestimate the time needed to really listen, facilitate and build mutual trust and respect. Being transparent and open about the process and budgets is also key. There’s got to be a genuine, long-term approach, and this raises questions about responsibility to the communities we work with and how to sustain this work over long periods within shorter-term funding contexts.

So You Are Saying An Intern Isn’t Supposed To Improve Productivity?

I was really excited today when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the headline, “Diversity organisation celebrates placing 1000th paid intern.” The concept that some entity was able to secure PAID internships for over 1000 people in creative field was amazing to me.

I was a little disappointed upon realizing moments later that the organization was in England, not the US. But it is great that they have been effective at finding internships for low income young people from diverse backgrounds.

Just as in the US, there has been recognition in England that having an internship is beneficial for career development. Unfortunately, only people with the means to support and transport themselves while receiving little to no pay are able to avail themselves of this opportunity.

The organization that has conducted these placements, Creative Access, says that 90% of their participants secure roles at the end of the internship. Since they offer to provide support finding a job when the internship is over, presumably not everyone secures a position with the place at which they interned.

The interns receive at least the equivalent of the National Living Wage of £15,000 a year (US $19,764.45). It helps that all interns in England must be paid the equivalent of the National Living Wage so Creative Access doesn’t need to spend a lot of time insisting their applicants be paid.

Still, it isn’t easy matching and monitoring internships across dozens of organizations. In addition, Creative Access provides training and mandatory monthly masterclasses to their participants to help them prepare for their careers.

If you are thinking about how great this is and wondering why it isn’t happening in the US, part of the difference is that in addition to the payment requirement, there are other rules and regulations in England governing internships that ensure the experience is valuable. Many of them are actually mirrored in US rules governing internships, but appear to be more clearly defined. (see “What Constitutes a Training Role“)

For example, both the US and England say that an intern is being paid to learn, not to provide a service, and therefore can’t replace an employee. The rules in England extend that idea further by prohibiting termination on the basis of poor productivity or income generation. Interns can only be terminated for behavioral issues like tardiness, negative social interactions, etc.  So essentially you couldn’t terminate an intern for taking too long to process a ticket order, rewiring lighting instruments incorrectly or failing to proofread something that went to print.

Actually, while the implication in the FAQ section is that these are the rules governing internship termination, I couldn’t find mention of them in the documents linked to by Creative Access. However, I think structuring an intern’s experience in the context that they can’t be fired for lack of productivity shifts the dynamics of the relationship and avoids viewing them as a replacement for an employee, a situation which is spelled out in US law regarding internships.

A Good Community Is An Asset To An Arts Organization

I frequently urge people not to focus on the value of the arts in terms of economic impact on the community. Not only do the arts bring other forms of value to the community, but what is frequently un(der)mentioned is that the community provides reciprocal value to the arts organization.

We had the tour of a Broadway show come through a couple weeks ago. I was speaking with a local store owner who I know is a big fan of Broadway musicals and had attended the show. He mentioned that a number of cast members had come into his store and he had been thrilled to engage in some pretty lengthy conversations with them.

In fact, on the return visit of one person, the shop owner almost inadvertently revealed the purchase of a Valentine’s Day gift in front of the customer’s wife who was accompanying him at the time. The shop owner reveled in the experience of quickly changing what he was saying mid-sentence and sharing a knowing look with the husband.

The shop owner had mentioned local attractions, including a national monument, which the visitors were excited to learn about.

Based on this anecdote, I figured there must have been numerous other interactions with individuals and businesses throughout town and posted a general thank you on social media to everyone in the community who had shown the cast and crew kindness and hospitality during their visit. I mentioned the shop owner had directed some people to the national monument and tagged both the shop and the monument. At the very least, I thought it was good PR to employ outwardly focused messaging.

I didn’t necessarily think that the cast members had visited the monument.  They apparently did and identified themselves (or were recognized) because the folks at the national monument replied about how nice the cast and crew members were and their interest in information about the monument. The shop owner also posted his delight upon learning they had taken him up on his suggestion.

I have had similar experiences in other places I have worked. Local residents have been thrilled to have conversations in passing on the streets and coffee shops. I have had visiting artists express how friendly and helpful local residents were to them without knowing who they were.

One of my most favorite stories is from when a flamenco group and the guest services manager of a hotel struck up such a strong friendship, the guest services manager went to visit them in Spain a few months later. I never had any problems with getting performers early check in for years after that so it was a big win for everyone.

Bottom line though. As much as great events can bolster the reputation and appeal of your organization in the community, a good community can bolster the reputation and appeal of your organization among performers. A pleasant neighborhood with a wide choice of shops and restaurants isn’t just an asset to promote to attendees who want to grab something to eat before the show, visiting performers value those amenities as much, if not more.

Don’t think word and personnel don’t circulated among artists. I was trying to describe our wardrobe facilities and green room to a company we had never worked with before in an email and one of the guys responded that he had been here before and sent pictures he had on file of our wardrobe facilities and green room.

Every little thing counts.

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