Info You Can Use: Is This A Bully I See Before Me?

With the recent ruling about unpaid internships being illegal kicking up a conversation about the necessity of internships to secure a job, the topic of bullying in the workplace is apropos. Especially for the arts.

Situations like this can bring on a lot of pressure to those trying to cultivate a career. No place more so than in the arts. In fact, unpaid is more often the situation regardless of whether you are in an internship or not. Even if you are getting paid, you might be subject to all sorts of pressure and abuse in the highly competitive arts industry.

A researcher from Chapman University is conducting a survey of people’s experience of bullying in the performing arts.

Those who have an interest in the subject might want to check the survey out. It is being conducted with formal research protocols including informed consent statements.

The only really explicit incidence of bullying I can remember is someone using the cliched line that they would ruin my career before it even started.

There are probably opportunities for conversations about these and more subtle issues. For instance, when does cajoling to stay late, be a team player and help with strike go from group camaraderie to bullying?

Researcher Anne-Marie Quigg has studied this issue, focused primarily on the UK and wrote a book on the subject. There were a number of conversation sessions held in London last month on bullying that occurs in the arts. Some brief notes were posted online for each, including the question “Who looks after the ones who aren’t “artistic?”

I Will Fear No Photoshop

Last December Seth Godin made an entry on his blog, True professionals don’t fear amateurs in which he says,

“A few years ago, typesetting, wedding photography, graphic design and other endeavors that were previously off limits to all but the most passionate amateurs started to become more common. The insecure careerists fought off the amateurs at the gate, insisting that it was both a degradation of their art as well as a waste of time for the amateurs. The professionals, though, those with real talent, used the technological shift to move up the food chain. It was easy to encourage amateurs to go ahead and explore and experiment… professionals bring more than just good tools to their work as professionals.”

I wrote briefly about creativity on Monday and how different cultures may have different definitions of creative work, some of which may encompass activities that don’t take a lot of thought and effort.

I think Godin’s comment wraps up a lot of the concerns shared by people in the arts. Among those concerns are not only that people are creating things of little value and degrading their work by association, but that people would eventually be unable to discern what real quality was and seek out professionals when the time came as Godin suggests.

I had a conversation recently that illustrates both this fear and Godin’s assertion that there is still a place for work by experienced professionals in this world.

I was in a cafe for lunch and stopped by the table of the muralist who has done all of the floodwall murals in town. I commented that I saw a story in the paper that there was a guy who was also from Louisiana doing a mural in town and wondered if it wasn’t some state industry I wasn’t aware of.

He told me the other guy was actually someone who grew up here locally, joined him in working on the murals and then eventually moved to Louisiana to work for him. It was only in the last few years the other guy had struck out on his own.

He went on to say that murals are getting to be a popular thing these days and there were a lot of people who were selling themselves as muralists. The problem is, not only is it a much bigger undertaking than you realize to work in such a large scale, you also have to know your materials, medium and siting as well as work with the community. As a result, there are a lot of angry communities out there with murals no one visits that are peeling off the walls after a few years.

I had actually been to a talk he had given about painting the murals a few weeks earlier and quickly realized that I had no idea about all the engineering and site and materials preparation that went into creating a mural.

It is also pretty interesting to hear how helpful iPads are in providing research and reference assistance without having to leave the scaffolding.

But as I said, his comments illustrated the value of experience and professionalism in artists. It also showed how difficult it is for people to discern the value of a skilled practitioner.

I guess that is true across all professions. The high visibility and reputation of skilled doctors has never really prevented people touting bottled miracle cures.

Still it may be worth exploring, as Godin suggests, where you can position yourself in the spectrum of practitioners in order to be available when someone of your skills is really needed.

What’s Your Culture?

When I assumed my current position, I had hoped that I had escaped the need to complete long annual reports. I was leaving a region whose higher ed accrediting body has the reputation for being the toughest. So I thought, if I did end up having to do an annual report, it wouldn’t be too onerous.

Well, I was wrong. Under the guise of a lunch invitation to meet the rest of the university leadership, I discovered that I would indeed need to do an annual report. And it seems to be more extensive than the one I used to have to do.

In addition, the reporting protocol this year seems to be entirely new, giving rise to thoughts that this is a conspiracy against me by a universe that just won’t let me escape doing annual reports!!!!

While I am not looking forward to the task, one section of the report that I must admit met my approval inquired by department culture:

3. Please answer the questions below addressing departmental culture. As you answer the questions, please include examples from the past year illustrating your points.

a. Describe your department culture?
b. What influences your culture?
c. What theories or practices inform your culture?
d. How do you assess if your departmental culture is impacting the continuous improvement of your department and the institution as a whole?


I think reflection on organizational and departmental culture in this way can be important. Even within a performing arts organization, the culture of the tech, marketing, front of house and artistic areas are distinct from each other.

Discerning what influences your culture and how your departmental culture contributes to the organization as a whole can be contribute toward bolstering the positive and making a constructive effort to repair the negative.

It can help recognize the truth of dysfunctional dynamics if a department realizes a prime influence on their culture is acting as a buffer between two other departments to prevent them from throttling each other.

Yeah, acting as a peacemaker is a positive thing, but if the result is to delay or deflect conflict rather than effect a continuous improvement, it isn’t ultimately a constructive contribution.

The Apprenticeship Option

Recently Marginal Revolution blogger and economist Alex Tabbarok linked to an article he wrote a year ago suggesting that the United States would be well served by adding a focus on putting students into technical apprenticeships to the current push to get kids into college.

He starts out by applauding the now familiar push by governors in many states to provide incentives to students pursuing STEM fields over Liberal Arts. “We should focus higher-education dollars on the fields most likely to benefit everyone, not just the students who earn the degrees.”

I particularly oriented in on the part of the article where he notes,

“In 2009 the United States graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math, and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual-and-performing-arts graduates in 1985.”

Wow, that is pretty great, huh? But he goes on,

There is nothing wrong with the arts, psychology, and journalism, but graduates in these fields have lower wages and are less likely to find work in their fields than graduates in science and math. Moreover, more than half of all humanities graduates end up in jobs that don’t require college degrees, and those graduates don’t get a big income boost from having gone to college.

Most important, graduates in the arts, psychology, and journalism are less likely to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth.

I initially felt a little indignant at the idea that graduates in the arts aren’t spurring innovation. But then I started wondering if the arts sector needs to take a little responsibility for this. It seems this might be a result of a lack of training and good public relations.

There is an on going conservation about training arts students to take a more entrepreneurial approach to their work so there is already an acknowledgment that this is an area to be improved. Perhaps part of that training should emphasize not undervaluing your work so that people don’t undervalue the work that artists do.

In terms of public relations, I think there is a lack of circulation of stories about successful creatives like those I recently cited about the winners of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Competition (one with a BA in East Asian Studies and Chinese Lit., the other with a BA in Aerospace Engineering) and the Rotman School of Management’s design competition.

The main thrust of Tabbarok’s argument isn’t so much to diminish the liberal arts degree as to advocate for apprenticeships. He notes that some people are simply not suited for college but vocational education programs have a stigma of being the dumping ground for high risk kids. He points to the model of Germany (among other European countries) where students normally opt for technical training and apprenticeships that provide real world work experience while the students are in high school.

What appealed to me about this was the idea that if there is room in the day for a high school student to receive vocational training, then you have to allow that there is time in the day for arts classes.

But I am not suggesting that some kids be allowed to paint while the other kids go learn to weld. I think high school vocational training should seek to provide opportunities for students to train and apprentice at local arts organizations as well. Who says you can’t take some of your welding classes in a scene shop or art studio or that you have to do your apprenticeship in a shipyard?

Apprenticeship programs like this could strengthen ties between schools and arts organizations and reinforce the idea that vocational skills don’t have to be applied in purely practical ways.

On the other side of the coin, I have a vague recollection of reading an article that suggested many visual artists today don’t have a good understanding of the materials they use because they haven’t had a lengthy exposure working/playing with them. Even if my recollection isn’t correct, the opportunity to work with materials still exists.

The reality is, four years of college isn’t the entire key to becoming an artist either.