Sunday, January 9, 2011

Artists and Administrators and Never the Twain Shall Meet

Good Morning

“And the beat goes on……………………………..”

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Bridging the Great Divide:

We’re arts administrators. We run the nation’s arts organizations and the organizations and programs that serve the nation’s artists and arts organizations. Our job is principally twofold – to nurture, support and facilitate the creation of art – hopefully at the highest level of excellence, and to support and facilitate access to that art.

We are intimately involved with the artists who create. Many of them do double duty as administrators too. Some of our organizations have as their charge to directly support the needs of these artists themselves.

Yet there remains a huge divide between us as administrators and working artists. Even within a single arts organization there is artificial distance between the artistic and administrative sides of the organization; very often there is almost no communication or interaction at all between the artists and most of the staff or board.  In a sense we purposefully do not involve artists in much of our daily efforts to meet the challenges we face. Perhaps that’s because we see their role as creators and our role as administrators and we don’t want to blur that line for some reason. Maybe we think it’s our job to shield the artists from some of the more pedestrian aspects of pushing the “business” of art. Maybe we think involving them in our decision making would unfairly steal some of the time artists ought to have to devote to their art. Maybe they intimidate us and we intimidate them. Maybe we think that it is our job, not theirs, to run the businesses, set the policies and be the advocates. Maybe we think they just don’t understand the things we have to deal with to enable them to do what they do. Maybe we perceive that they don’t want us in their world and so we don’t want them in ours. Maybe we don’t want them to interfere. Maybe we fear that they have no interest in our problems and would resent our trying to include them in the solutions to those problems.  Maybe we fear they might have too much interest in what we do.

Whatever the reason, we have vivisected our workloads and separated artists and administrators into isolated silos and created a somewhat, I think, false barrier to our relationship with each other. We always include artistic performances at our conferences, but it often seems an obligatory token gesture - not much more really than a reminder, I suppose, of why we do what we do.  While artists are sometimes keynoters, there is little attempt to integrate artists onto our panels and in our discussions – no real attempt to insure their perspective is at the table. We include them on our peer panel reviews, but fail to involve them in addressing major policy issues. At times it seems we almost regard them as errant children; at other times humanity's future. There is wide divergence of opinion on whether artists are our colleagues or clients or constituents – all of those designations, or none of them. We remain, in effect, citizens of separate camps. And we are the poorer for not having their input and ideas. 

I hope 2011 might be the year we intentionally and consciously try to break down that separation and divide, and that we start by trying to involve artists more in our world of running arts organizations and setting policy. I suggest we might begin that process with an effort to involve artists more in the advocacy arena – and in our efforts to tell our stories, make the case for our value, organize the public to support us, garner media attention and lobby decision makers to rally to our cause. There are, of course, many situations and programs that do integrate artists with adminstators successfully - even if they are not the norm.  We need to identify those and replicate them.  I suggest we begin that process by staging, locally first, then regionally and nationally, opportunities for artists and administrators to interface and talk about what artists might bring to the table for these efforts and how we might integrate these two camps – a conscious effort to begin a real conversation.

I think we need – at the very least - the artist’s perspective, new directional thought, and their energy and numbers to help us jumpstart the telling of our stories, making of our case, designing our policies, advocating and lobbying and to spur further involvement of the public, and I think the artificial and false separation of artists and administrators is hurting both groups. It’s like we’re trying to fight the common enemy with one hand tied behind our backs. If you want to design a car, it seems logical to somehow involve drivers in the process.  Let’s mobilize and integrate one of our greatest assets – the working artist community - and stop trying to do everything on our own. My own experience suggests artists are more than willing to get involved. Nobody ever asks them. 

Have a good week.
Sé4A 2012

Don’t Quit.


  1. Barry, I agree wholeheartedly, and wish to add this one further thought. Artists are not automatically successful in the roles you have suggested we bring them into. Some are, those who have natural capacities like people skills, good systems thinking, charisma, etc. But I have also seen (too often) artists invited into administrative and planning processes who have not been successful or happy because they didn't know how, they weren't prepared--or the natural skills they brought weren't a good match for the challenges of the work. Charisma can become a liability if the individual can't deliver the goods in a planning process. I would add to your suggestion that we make sure we fully prepare artists to succeed in the extended roles Barry suggests we invite them into. And not perfunctory preparation, but thoughtful and thorough preparation, so we can help them shine their distinctive light on these opportunities and change everyone's view about the broad value of artists. I am haunted by that LINC research finding of some years ago that only 27% of Americans think artists make a significant contribution to our society. To turn that around, we need to prepare artists well and give them highly visible ways to contribute.

    And the inverse is also true. I have seen more than a few administrators flail to be successful working inside artistic processes--what does that training look like?

    Eric Booth

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with you Eric. Both Artists and Administrators can benefit immeasurably by screening and training before they take their places at tables of discussion. Somehow we have to build the bridges from one sector to the other so that we might have intelligent and meaningful discussions and dialogue and figure out ways to work together for the benefit of all of us -and like anything else prior preparation will help to make those efforts work.

  3. Thank you for this blog post. I run a non profit arts education organization and recently I have asked our partner artists to help us capture and tell our impact stories; partner with the development office in developing and implementing different fund development activities; view their peer's work and help refine it; and help us think through how we should restructure the contractual relationship between the organization and artists. Not all of our artists want to participate, and that is fine. Nor have I asked all of them to participate and I think that is fine as well. Some of our artists want to be a part of the collaborative community we are creating and some prefer to maintain a relatively distant but supportive, contractual relationship. Both types of relationships work for the organization. I have tried to identify those artists that have an aptitude and interest in whatever area we need help with, but I agree with Eric, training needs to be provided for some of these activities. When I have involved artists the process is richer and the outcome is significantly better. I also personally find the experience much more satisfying. By the way, I just discovered this blog and am so pleased that I did. I look forward to reading many more posts. Stacie Sanders