Sunday, July 17, 2016

Lessons Learned from the Rising Stars in the Field

Good morning
"And the beat goes on………………"

This post was meant to be up some time ago.  My intent was good, but my follow-through not so.  I even missed by own June deadline; June because that's graduation month and Commencement Speaker time.  And these contributions below are like mini-Commencement speeches.  My sincerest apologies to the contributors for its delay.  Fortunately, the content of these contributions is timeless. 


For the past several years I have invited senior leaders in the field to share what they have learned over their years - both professionally as arts administrators, and personally -- lessons learned about work and life.

This time, rather than invite the same cohort of leaders with long histories nearing the end of their tenures, I thought it might be interesting to the readers to hear from leaders whose stars are still ascending; younger (but not necessarily young) leaders who have already made major contributions to our field, but whose careers are still moving upward.  My feeling was these people had a lot of lessons learned and wisdom and insight to share.

Eighteen of these leaders accepted the invitation, and here are their contributions.

Devon Smith:

Managing internal change is ridiculously hard. It’s more likely to kill a good idea than any logistical, budgetary, or artistic issue. In any project that requires someone within your organization to change their behavior, spend nearly as much time figuring out how to bring everybody on board with you, incorporating their ideas, addressing their concerns, as you do actually implementing the great idea.

Apply for jobs slightly beyond your skill set, and work your ass off to prove your value. Once you start that new job, take time to build relationships with co-workers - in the long term, those relationships matter just as much as your work product. My instinct is always to buckle down and show how hard I’m working. Resist. Take your colleagues out for coffee, chat for a minute in the hallway with your boss about the show you saw last night, join the committee planning the holiday party. Meet all your deadlines, but spend some time at work “not working.”

Nothing beats working for yourself. The vacation policy is fantastic.

Give away all the knowledge you have. People will pay you to create even more. Regularly blogging/writing for public consumption is enormously time consuming and often fear-inducing, but it will make you a better thinker. Coherently explaining your ideas is half the battle to get ahead in your career. And writing is a great excuse to talk to people, and put yourself in situations, you wouldn’t otherwise get access to.

Best insights come from related fields. If you want to address an issue in the arts, study what they’re doing in economics, or healthcare, or the military, etc. Look for artistic inspiration everywhere - from Instagram to a haberdashery, IKEA to a burlesque show.

Speaking at conferences builds momentum for your career. At most conferences, you won’t learn that much, you won’t meet that many new people, you won’t develop that many new business opportunities. But seemingly insignificant moments, nuggets of information, offhand comments by new friends, will come around and pay off in the long term. Conference organizers attend other conferences - get noticed at one, and you’ll get asked to another.

Fake it until you make it. Have a few facts in your hip pocket, and a thoughtful point of view, but say it with confidence and they’ll actually believe you.

Most people secretly like getting asked to do stuff, or at least don’t mind as much as you fear. If you want to talk to someone, no matter how famous or important they seem, get in touch and ask for a quick phonecall or a casual coffee; more often than not they’ll happily agree and feel honored you want to hear their insights. I’ve never not been able to find, or figure out, contact info for someone just by Googling them.

Don’t let them tell you to be less emotional. Don’t let them guilt you for occasionally breaking down in tears when you are overwhelmed, whether by anger or frustration or grief or confusion or whatever it is that’s making you a little crazy today. It’s a stereotype, but in heated situations some people yell, and some people cry. Neither is more/less a show of strength.

No one knows how to measure their impact, ROI, or KPI. You’re not alone.


Jaime Dempsey:

Thank you for inviting me to participate, Barry, I’m honored.

May I reframe the prompt question a bit? Hoping you’ll instead accept what I’m thinking about right now, drawn from experience and observation, things that I’m chewing on as part of my work in the arts.

Starting with new-millennium lessons.

For my generational cohort of Old Millennials or Young Gen X-ers (depending on the math), marks left by the 21st century’s first decade-and-a-half should not be minimized or dismissed.

I graduated from college with an arts degree 4 months before 9/11. Then there was war. Then another war. Katrina. The long and bruising Great Recession. Countless climactic acts of violence and discrimination.

For so many of us, these events, and the inequities they illuminated and intensified, marked the total disruption and dissolution of narratives we’d learned about our individual potential and the idealized American Dream – just as we stepped out into the universe to make our own way.

Some essential truths were made manifest: hard work and investment might only take you so far, guarantees are largely illusory, and in many cases, a safety net simply doesn’t exist.

As a result, creativity, adaptability, empathy, and resourcefulness are not just buzzword traits desired by corporate CEOs. For us, these traits might mean survival.

Artists and creatives are well-equipped to lead amidst the chaos of this rapid change.

Which is why I’ve never been able to grasp what I observe to be a fundamental insecurity in arts leadership at many levels, as well as in the national rhetoric around arts support, manifesting in a myopic focus on substantiating our relevance, often at the expense of actually developing our capacity for relevance. There’s a difference. Relevance isn’t a status to be achieved, it’s a process.

As a process, relevance requires ongoing dialogue, risk and experimentation, comfort with ambiguity, openness and humility in the face of inspiration. It’s creative practice. It’s what the arts sector does and it is essential and I think we should be more assertive about it.

Because while the arts indisputably complement and enhance other-sector and multi-sector interests, creativity and creative practice are not decorations to be sprinkled cautiously over community challenges while pleading a case with “authorizers.” Creativity is a foundation. We should lead with it.

There’s a Ronald Reagan quote I come back to all the time, from a National Medal of Arts luncheon in 1987. Join me for a moment, as we travel back in time:

“We honor the arts not because we want monuments to our own civilization but because we are a free people. The arts are among our nation's finest creations and the reflection of freedom's light.”

Now. I remember most of the 80s, and I haven’t forgotten all of the ways the arts were exploited as a cultural cudgel, or how the deliberate use of the arts for that purpose was a particularly rich betrayal. More importantly, not everyone living in our nation feels, or is, truly free.

Still I come back to that quote again and again because it resonates with the way I value the arts as a potential extension – a realization! – of freedom, and the way-down-deep responsibility I feel to advance creativity as a principal element of our individual human capacity and our collective humanity.

So what I’m thinking about, moreover, what I feel, is that arts leaders and policymakers and those working with authority in systems meant to support the arts – at our model best, we are champions of imagination and ideas. We have tremendous capital with which to experiment, and because of that we have great responsibility. We should not be timid.

We should be impassioned evangelists for our nation’s creative potential. The cause is certainly worthy of bold leadership.

If we are to be “a free people,”

We must start acting like it.



Heather Ikemire:

I am a just-under-40 mother of three (ages 6 and under) with a mortgage, dog, husband, and a challenging and inspiring career in arts education. Not to mention a community of quirky, bold, and intelligent friends that I don’t see often enough. My work gives me a great sense of purpose but often keeps me up at night—along with my 1 ½-year-old son. Almost as if they’re working together on that . . .
But besides partnering with my son to keep me awake, working in the arts has given me an incredible professional education. I’ve learned that it’s important to do things that scare you. I try to do one terrifying thing at least once a year. In the past decade, I’ve moved from the Midwest to the desert to New York City to New Orleans, traveled to a country where I didn’t speak the language, given birth, completed a dissertation, accepted a major promotion while swaddling a newborn, and climbed up the side of a temple in Tikal (conquering a major fear of heights). When you step out of your comfort zone (or become completely unmoored), you’re forced to lean on others, use different muscles, and slow down. Those are the moments of growth for me. I’ve learned that when I’m scared or nervous it means I care lot.

I’ve also learned it’s not a race. There is no finish line. So it’s important to live your life now. Don’t put off taking that class, calling your friends, learning a second language, having children (if you want them), seeing art, making art, or taking that vacation because you’re too busy with work.

Use all of your vacation time. And when you do, unplug. Completely. I travel a lot for work and I never wear headphones. I’m continually amazed and inspired by the people I meet and the insights I gain from their stories and interactions. There are lessons everywhere but you have to look up from your screen to see and hear, or invite in, many of the subtle and unexpected ones.

I’ve learned there is no such thing as a life/work balance. If you care deeply about your work, you can’t just switch it off at the end of the day or vice versa. Reflect on what you’re passionate about, where you want to grow, and how you want to make an impact in the world—“lean into” that and find ways for your life and work to feed each other.

Don’t be constrained by your job title and description. Ask to participate in, and listen in on, meetings or play a part (even if it’s just a small one) in challenging projects. Ask questions and remain curious, and seek out mentors and professional development. Trust that you have something to contribute. A strong work ethic and a spirit of inquiry will be recognized and open up opportunities for you (many of which you can’t plan for but can be ready to say ‘yes’ to). And if you find you’re not growing, personally and professionally, in your job, seek another.

I’ve learned how much the arts and arts education matter—to individuals, to communities, and to our humanity. It’s how we dream, innovate, heal, and hope. I’ve learned that we, as arts leaders, can make the biggest impact when our programs are responsive to the needs and interests of our communities and what is happening in the world. It’s important to listen deeply and continuously to the people we serve in order to stay relevant, and to look outside the arts (to other fields) for inspiration and connections.
Make time to acknowledge the contributions of others. Fostering communities is a big part of what we do at the National Guild, and supporting the community of our staff is also important. That means sharing your good moments and working together through tough times. Asking for help when you need it. And helping staff and coworkers feel like an integral part of the work your organization does—like an integral member of the community.

And finally, at the end of the day, find the time to get some sleep.



Talia Gibas:

Earlier this year, I was invited to moderate a panel discussion following a keynote address by my former graduate school advisor, Steve Seidel. Steve is one of three or four of those teachers I’ve had in my life. The Teachers. The capital T, “made your head explode while modeling how to be an awesome human being” kind.

Facilitating a coherent public conversation between a group of opinionated individuals is challenging under any circumstance, let alone one in which you have to share the stage with your mentor. I fretted about holding the audience’s attention and keeping the panelists on track. Shortly before the event began, Steve and I sat down for coffee and a private chat - our first in about a year and a half. We talked about work, life, the state of the world. I told him I was nervous about moderating the panel. He paused before responding.

That pause struck me. He pauses a lot, creating space in dialogue, a beat or two between a statement and a reply. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember that in that pause I felt better, not because of great words of wisdom but because I was aware, in that moment, that I was being heard. Acknowledged.

Good god, I thought. He is a really good listener.

A few hours later, I was on stage fiddling with a lapel mic, readying to kick off the panel. During Steve’s keynote I’d resolved that my only two goals as facilitator were to listen as intently as possible, and to allow space between the words. It was my own private game of “What Would Steve Do?” courtesy of stage fright.

The result? I can’t speak to the audience’s experience of the panel, but I can speak to my own “a-has.” Listening, it turns out, is exhausting. It’s requires much more energy than simply not talking while someone else is speaking. It’s also liberating. In training all of my attention toward what others were saying, my internal dialogue (“What should the next question be? How much time do we have left? Why does my nose itch?”) started to melt away. I found a place of stillness, and the space it provided allowed me to absorb much more than I had anticipated.

I’m realizing that deep learning requires time and space  - like the time and space in Steve’s pause, and the time and space that I found tiring but exhilarating on stage. It requires listening. Listening, however, isn’t something many of us are explicitly taught to do. Throughout school and most of my professional life I honed and was rewarded for wit and analysis. I was taught to process information quickly. To debate, scrutinize, rebut, problematize, frame, reframe, and connect. These skills have helped me to churn out articles, conference presentations, and harebrained ideas, many of which I’m really proud of. I realize now, though, that not all of them are products of deep learning.

All of the Teachers in my life -- the educators and colleagues who I consider to be ninja rock stars -- have been extraordinarily good listeners. Their ability to listen allows them to absorb large quantities of information and to approach their day to day work with compassion and kindness. They are able to make connections and advance their causes because they are tuned in to the overt, big picture challenges as well as the low rumblings that seem far away. They make the people who work for and with them feel validated, acknowledged, and heard.

So what have I learned?  I’m learning to stop thinking about how I’m going to respond when someone else is speaking. I’m learning to not be afraid of pauses. I’m learning to listen to  myself, to acknowledge what’s going on inside and how it impacts my ability to be present and listen to others. I’m learning to not fill every waking moment with stories, anecdotes, articles, or ideas to process.


I’ve learned I need to be a great listener to be the leader I’d like to be. I’ve learned I’m not a great listener - yet. But I’m learning.


Matty Wilder:

As a writer (or as an artist?) I am always aware, always observing, always making connections in my head, linking ideas or people, eager to tell some kind of old story. Ever since I was asked to share something for this post, almost daily it seems I’ve thought: “maybe this is what I’ve learned.” Or “this is certainly a ‘teachable moment.’” Or “hey, won’t this make me sound wise.” It could be anything from a clever little nugget shared on a panel by an admired leader in the field, to a swift resolution to what seemed at first like an escalating argument with my husband, to a time I didn’t swear at someone who cut me off but considered where they might be going in such a hurry. Regardless of the size or scope, often what these moments offered felt urgent, or at the very least felt of some value. 

The title thing is funny because it’s shifted through the years—I went through high school thinking I was a writer, thanks to a wonderful creative writing teacher who introduced me to Kerouac and the possibilities of the road. Then at Bennington I started to consider myself an actor, only to start writing plays and begin calling myself a playwright. By the time I was nearing graduation I had discovered something in dance and was (secretly) calling myself a dancer. After school I began my professional life as an arts administrator, while in the evenings I was back to being a writer. After years of working closely with artists, and studying photography in the evenings, and continuing to write here and there, I began calling myself an artist. This was a striking development. I was on to something, I had ideas, I had the seeds of photo projects that needed nourishment and time to grow, as well as nascent sketches for conceptual works that were about our daily pains and joys. Thinking as an artist was in how I was approaching every situation, both on the job and in the darkroom. But what did it all mean? 

Joan Didion asks in ‘Goodbye To All That,’ one of my favorite essays, “was anyone ever so young?” Like Didion, I am here to tell you that someone was. We all were. I’ve had countless conversations—some very recently since I’ve begun graduate school, in a program that attracts a high number of students just out of college—in which I share some story or make some reference and then add with self-deprecation, “that’s a bit before your time.” Apparently my new title is sage, wise old man, is grandpa, here to regale you with his tales from before there were cars, or Facebook. 

What strikes me about this newfound wisdom in my late thirties is that I’m not terribly far from my twenties, and really just a few steps away from my early thirties. I guess the point is you keep learning. What I thought was truly profound yesterday may just seem silly today, based on what I’ve discovered since then. Knowledge comes from all over, from experience, from hardship, from the best experiences. I’ve learned things from mentors who have been at it for decades—and I’ve been extremely fortunate in the mentor department. (If you don’t have one, find a mentor.) I’ve also learned things from kids in elementary school or high school on site visits. This can be where real learning happens, for all of us. 

The poet Howard Nemerov once said that he liked teaching because he could do all of his explaining in class, and that allowed him to write poetry with no explanations. So if you take nothing else away from this gathering of words, think about this: be whoever you are without explanation. Make no excuses. Stop apologizing. Don’t get wrapped up in titles. Politeness is not the truth (but has its place). Build real relationships, not a network of people with whom you talk about the weather. Read a lot. Reread. Organize. Go to school when you’re old (I’ll let you decide how old old is.) And whether in a classroom, a meeting, or a book signing: ask the question, it’s stupid not to. 


John Carnwath:

Navigating Your Career
“What are you going to be when you grow up?” is an outdated question. It leads to false expectations about professions, careers, and identity. Increasingly, we’re defined by our skill sets and the variety of activities we pursue (some of which we’re passionate about, others less so), and, if you’re lucky, you derive some form of income at the intersection of the two. 

You will almost certainly have multiple sources of income over the course of your working life, and, more likely than not, you’ll be piecing together your livelihood from several different sources at any given time (e.g., perhaps a leadership position along with some teaching, some consulting, and some artistic work). In addition, you’ll likely have multiple unpaid engagements, that may be equally or more important to you personally (board memberships, volunteer work, creative hobbies, etc.). It may not always be clear, which activities are paying the rent, which are avocations that provide necessary diversion, and which are forms of professional development that may be queuing up your next career move.

For me, the important thing hasn’t been figuring out what I want to be, but figuring out which conversations I want to be a part of. 

The Value of Art
One of the biggest challenges in our field lies in articulating the value of art to those who don’t already believe in its value. Art can be valuable for many different reasons and in many different ways. Art can be valued for its beauty, for its creativity, for challenging us, for teaching us about ourselves, for forging social and cultural connections, for celebrating humanity, for fostering public dialog, etc. – not to mention a wide range of so-called “instrumental” benefits. One of the greatest fallacies, however, is believing that art has a monopoly on any of those forms of value. 

Nature provides much that is beautiful. Journalism is often at the center of public dialog. History is able to teach us many valuable lessons about humanity (and the consequences of its absence). Arguably, the nature of creativity and creative processes have been studied with greater rigor and cultivated with more intentionality in the advertising industry and various design fields than in the arts, where the myth of the creative genius still persists. It is therefore not sufficient to state that art is valuable for any one of these reasons. One must either demonstrate that it is of greater value than other enterprises in one or more of these areas, be specific about the ways in which the value of art differs from that achieved by other means, or argue that the particular combination of values that are created through art set it apart from other endeavors. Alternatively, we could give up the concept of “art” and the millennia of discursive baggage that comes with it and articulate what it is we do using other terms. 



Clay Lord:

There's an essay by David Sedaris called "Laugh, Kookaburra." In it, Sedaris lays out the metaphor of your life as being a stove with four burners: work, family, friends, and health. And he then argues you can only really ever be successfully minding two burners at once. What I've learned in 2015 is what is right and wrong about that metaphor. It's been a lesson of frustration and the chronic grace of others, and a realization of what we do to ourselves in this industry for passion.

On a professional level, I've spent much of the year hearing variations on this story, wrapped inside some of the most amazing and inspiring conversations about the future of our country. At Americans for the Arts, we held four New Community Visions Forums throughout the country this past fall. In amidst dreams for healthier, more vibrant, more equitable communities, there is a strain of "but where to find the time?" One woman, frustrated, said to me, "We are in a field where everyone has agreed it's fine, desirable, for someone to get a Masters for $40,000 or $60,000 a year, and then to pay them $30,000 and tell them to live on passion." Another person said, "We unfortunately live in a time when you can't eat passion. You can't spend passion."

I've learned this past year that we are a field anxious to transform ourselves into something more relevant and more balanced--and also that the innovation required to do that is practically impossible to consider. I co-authored a report this year called The Necessary Challenge, on fostering innovation in the non-profit sector, and when we asked people what got in the way it was "time" and "money." The spirit is strong, but the body is tired.

This reflects back to me, and I am tired, too.

It feels important to say here that I'm in love with my life. I have my dream job, making true change in communities and helping passionate people pass on that passion so that everyone can live a rich, full cultural life. I have an incredible husband and beautiful, intelligent, joyful child--role model parents and in-laws--a crop of amazing friends who inspire and challenge me.  I have bosses and colleagues who believe strongly in this work, and who care about me deeply, and who I care about deeply, too. My candle is a glorious candle, and the fact that it is burning at both ends and in the middle means that if I am chronically tired, it is the satisfied tiredness of a man too full and ready for more. 
That's what passion is, I think. That's why it can be dangerous. It's like the Wendigo from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, compelling my feet to dance and dance until I feel like I could just burn up.
What I've learned this year is the danger and necessity of that. It is a danger of caring deeply, leaping fully into everything, atomizing myself to be in all the places. It is a danger that eventually compels you to anxiety, a constant fear that in wanting to do everything, you are doing well at nothing, you are disappointing everyone. 

I have very rarely in my life felt at capacity, but I have felt it this year. And I have heard the story told over and over, at hotel bars and across my office desk, in emails and phone calls and when I'm nearly asleep in bed. And when I breathe and own my accomplishments for the year, I am proud. But amidst that pride I also am hard on myself for the misses -- for the fact that I saw my family for five days in October, that I didn't catch that crisis at work until it had become a thing, that I have lost, in my pace and distraction and tiredness, a layer of civility that has meant inadvertently offending colleagues.
We are all doing amazing things in this field, and mostly we don't get paid what we're worth, and we work on passion, and we lift up this world on tired backs. And for me, my natural state is to work hard and overcommit and be all to all. And this year, amidst a glorious pile of successes, I find myself a little too hunched over for my taste. And I find, or perceive at least, the patience of those who have to experience the thinness of my attention wearing thin.

What I've learned is that I want more hands to operate those burners. But setting that possibility aside, what I've learned--okay, what I am learning--is to do things like not feel too terribly guilty about cancelling a work trip to get home and see my daughter sing in her recital, and also to try and not feel terribly guilty when that situation swings the other way. 

I've been reminded to thank my husband, Seth, out loud and often, who has held our life together over a year when I was gone for a cumulative two months, and who is a wonder. 

I've learned to express my gratitude, because I've also learned I don't always do that, especially when I am doing a million things--because I am surrounded by colleagues and friends who deserve constant gratitude. I have learned to celebrate the wonderful vibrancy of this field.

I have learned to try and forgive myself, and to trust that dropping a ball won't make the world crack. 
I have learned that a lot of other people are feeling all these feelings too, and that if we can be gentle with ourselves we'll all survive.

The world is getting a little dark these days. We need our strength. We need to share our strength, and care for ourselves, and keep our burners in good working order. We are needed. We cannot burn out. 
Take care.


Michael Killeen:

My reflections are based on more than 20 years of experience working in local arts agencies and observing trends and best practices nationwide, first as a member and officer of the US Urban Arts Federation and most recently as the director of the Local Arts Agencies program at the NEA.  

Provide opportunity:  To paraphrase Kevin Spacey, ‘those who have made it to the top have a responsibility to send the elevator back down.’  There were many points in my career when someone gave me an opportunity.  It’s important for current leaders to provide opportunity for the next generation. Sometimes you just have to take a chance and believe in someone.

Perspiration.  Opportunity is one thing; making the most of that opportunity is taking it to the next level.  That means demonstrating a willingness to work hard, take on a variety of tasks in order to learn the job, and absorb as much as you possibly can about how things work in the organization.  If it’s a good fit, you’ll find joy in the work and have fun along the way, and hopefully end up in a position to send that elevator back down.

All arts is local (to paraphrase Tip O’Neill).  The most important (yet least talked about) skill required to successfully run a local arts agency is political management – both the small “p” and capital “P”.  Local arts agency leaders must also develop and fine tune their “translation” skills to represent arts and culture interests to various non-arts interests.  A passion for the arts and knowledge of the arts are essential for an LAA leader.  Add political management skills to the mix, and hopefully, the resulting alignment can yield greater support for arts and culture in a community.

“No” isn’t “no” until it’s “yes.”

Sweat the small stuff.  In the local public policy arena at least, gains are usually incremental.  But over time, small gains are cumulative and can ultimately lead to a tipping point -- or big changes.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but sometimes change (seems like it) happens overnight.

Sometimes change is initiated in the form of a simple, galvanizing concept or idea, like pursuing a dedicated revenue stream.  This idea is accompanied by a singular and relentless focus.  Perseverance and patience (over what may turn out to be many years), coupled with sound, focused strategy – and voila! change – even systemic change, is possible.  

I once observed a successful community development corporation (CDC) director being asked to share the secret of his success.  His answer was two words: “thirty years.”

And speaking of change, everyone loves change, right?  Change is always easy -- for the person making the change.  If you are that person, think hard about the intended consequences, and think even harder about the unintended consequences.  The best way to do this is to go beyond the security of your inner circle to invite other points of view.

It’s about artists and the arts: never forget that.  Don’t take it personally.  It can be draining to work on the administrative side of things, especially in systems that often seem to be designed to say “no” at every turn.  Get thee to a gallery, museum, concert, performance or community arts event on a regular basis to stay in touch and in tune with what energizes you about the arts!  

Don’t be afraid to hire people who are smarter and more knowledgeable than you.  Let them help you navigate the way to “yes.”  Give them everything they need to thrive, and get out of their way.

Arts and culture are bridges of understanding among people.  The demographics of this country are changing, and diversity and inclusion are top priorities in most all arts disciplines and in many local communities.  Know and reflect the community you serve.  Always be aware of who is at the table -- and who isn’t at the table.  Never stop thinking of ways to be more mindful of the gaps and more inclusive of the community you serve.  Be present, and listen.

Thursday’s newspaper wraps Friday’s fish.  I’m not sure how to express this old-school chestnut in the digital age, but know that good leadership will attract both praise and criticism (see change, above).  During those tough spots, just remember that this too shall pass.  Eventually.  (Unless you really screwed up.)  And if you did, own it, and never publicly denigrate anyone.

Let others take ownership. As the arts guy, everyone would expect me to speak out in support of the arts.  But when the transportation director or the chief of police would make statements in support of the arts at a mayor’s cabinet meeting – well, that was ten-times more powerful.

Know when to step forward and know when to step back. Sometimes, it can be more effective to work quietly behind the scenes.  At other times, being bold, front and center is the best position.  Regardless, give credit to everyone who deserves recognition – but especially to those folks who aren’t usually in the limelight.  And be willing to give up your personal ownership in success altogether -- no matter where the idea originated – if it advances the goal.

Finally, be humble and maintain a healthy sense of humor.  Humor can cut through to the real issues and dynamics, and can also help diffuse tension. It’s also a good sign of balance, because you can’t be too serious or too intense all of the time.  A good network of trusted confidants will also help keep you balanced and in check.  

Good luck, have fun, and carry on!


Kiley K. Arroyo:

I love to hear others talk about what they’ve learned, be it over the course of a day or a lifetime. To me, a commitment to learning suggests an admirable kind of open-mindedness – to new ideas, perspectives, ways of seeing and navigating life. I’m fortunate to work in ways that invite me to learn everyday. Looking back, that practice of active inquiry has been a consistent force, whether expressed in my personal or professional life. I’m grateful for this opportunity to share a few reflections on what’s stuck and continues to stimulate my curiosity looking ahead.  

I began my first “job” in the wonderful world of the arts in the winter of 1996, as the manager of a contemporary art gallery. In ways it seems like a million years ago and in others, yesterday. Three particular themes emerge as I reflect on what I’ve learned in the space between: Mindfulness, Fluency, and Travel.  

Mindfulness
When I was 19 I broke my back. Severe as the injury was, it could have been worse. I was encouraged to practice yoga as part of my rehabilitation, which would unfold over the course of several years. Yoga became and remains, a fundamental part of my day. As a former athlete, I love the way it allows me to explore the physical limits of my body, but it’s the conscious development of mindfulness that truly fuels my practice. The stillness this space provides allows me to check in with myself and refine my sense of purpose.  The complex nature of everyday life and word demands a great deal of us, challenging our ability to be present with each other and ourselves. I’ve learned the value to stepping out of the noise and taking time for the kind of self-care that is not only personally beneficial, but encourages others to do the same, whatever the manifestation, so that we can bring our best selves forward. 

Fluency
I am naturally drawn to intersections and the spaces where multiple worlds meet. My professional experiences exemplify this well, particularly the interdisciplinary character of many of my collaborations. I have learned the value of becoming fluent, be it in the language of a foreign discipline, culture, or even country. My life has been deeply enriched by the norms and customs of others, who have exposed me to new ways of seeing, knowing, and experiencing the world. While our differences are at times striking, it’s our commonalities that often surprise and excite me more. As the arts, culture, and creative practices mix with an ever expanding pool of partners and applications, there’s no better time to learn the language of others – if only the basics. It’s been my experience that this enhances one’s life in unimaginable ways. I’ve learned that a commitment to reading regularly and diversely supports the development of new fluencies, excites the imagination, and creates space for greater empathy. 

Travel 
If reading is like traveling from home, then perhaps traveling is like writing a book. It’s been said that travel is like a truth serum. It makes us porous to the new. As psychologist Dr. Robert Fuller once said, “I can't think of a better vaccine against dogmatism or a quicker cure for self-satisfaction. As we struggle to reconcile what we're experiencing with what we take for granted, we strip away what's arbitrary in cultural practice and approach what is universal.” I couldn’t have said it better. 

Whether you explore previously unknown parts of your neighborhood, country, or a completely different part of the planet – I’ve learned, like so many others, that there is no substitute for the personal growth and learning that travel promotes. Venture out into this mad world; who and what you find might surprise you. 

In closing, I’d like to share some wise words from Robert Krulwich, co-producer of WNYC’s Radiolab, which remind me to learn from the incredible people who surround me, every single day.   
“You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back… The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength… If you can fall in love with the work, with people you work with, with your dreams and their dreams… Believe in your friends. Believe that what you and your friends have to say is something new in the world.”


Jason Tseng:

“Be Bold, Be Daring, Be Brave
This was the mantra of one of my theatre professors during my undergrad. She would always say it, almost like a blessing, right before calling “action” on a rehearsal.  She invoked these words to encourage us as performers to reach outside the boundaries of our comfort, in order to achieve our creative potential. I never realized how much those words would speak to me outside the theatre and into my professional life.
Fear and uncertainty are constant companions of innovation and change. The seminal moments in my professional career have always been preceded by that crippling feeling of fear—fear of failure, fear of being branded a troublemaker, fear of being fired or damaging future prospects. 
But each time, I have been amazed by how much those moments have allowed me to grow, personally and professionally. And more often than not, people respect you more for speaking the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable or unpopular.

You are your own gatekeeper
I grew up a “good Chinese kid.” My parents taught me to have a strong work ethic, to be honest, and always to have deference for authority—sort of the Confucian version of the American Dream: work hard, excel, be recognized by your superior, and be rewarded for your actions. I always thought that my path to professional success would be through the approval of others. While that certainly can be the case, I’ve also learned how important it is to open your own doors.
With the extent to which technology has transformed our sector, gatekeepers are becoming obsolete. We are the masters of our own destiny. We can’t wait around for someone to come and pluck us out of obscurity, or miraculously fund our project, or allow us to follow our dreams. If you have a great idea, do it. No one can give you permission to matter.

Know Your Privilege, and Use it for Good
I’ve often joked in social justice circles that I attribute much of my career success to my ability to talk to white people. But in all seriousness, I know that my middle-class childhood in a majority white school system where I was more likely to socialize with the children of elected officials and foreign royalty (I kid you not) than with a poor person has imbued me with a valuable set of skills: how to navigate white culture. And that’s not to say I haven’t experienced oppression in my life, because I certainly have. But I also recognize that because of my ethnicity, or my gender, or my class, or any number of factors… I can resist oppression in ways that many people are not able to.

Most people that I know who work in arts and culture come to the table with a certain amount of privilege. We know that our field is disproportionately white, wealthy, college educated—or otherwise privileged (especially at the leadership level). But many of us are either too uncomfortable or too afraid to A) confront that privilege, B) own it, and C) use it to undo that system of privilege.
The process of coming to terms with your privilege is not an easy one. It is a journey that is rife with guilt, shame, and anger—emotions that many well-meaning privileged folks don’t want or enjoy experiencing. But I challenge you to push through that discomfort, because on the other side of that wall of negativity is community, solidarity, and love.



Karina Mangu-Ward:

Don’t aim for expertise, aim for continuous learning:  When I went to grad school fresh out of college, I (naively) figured I’d finish my program in Theatre Management and Producing at Columbia, get a job as a General Manager, feel good about myself, and settle into a nice stable existence. It turns out that being an expert is boring to me. Learning is what drives me, so I’ve crafted a career where I’m on a huge learning curve every two years and that’s been tremendously satisfying (if somewhat exhausting!).

If learning is what drives you, embrace the curve. 
Stick around, build relationships, and a good opportunity will find you:  I’ve had two real jobs during my 10 years in the arts.  In both, the first few years were a little tedious, and then things got interesting because a big opportunity presented itself.  In my first job as a General Manager at a small theater, it took three years of budgets, contracts, and logistics before a creative opportunity arose for me to produce a documentary series about performing artists in NYC.  If I’d jumped ship, I never would have built enough trust to play a key role in this project, which led to my next job opportunity. 
For the past 5 years, I’ve been at EmcArts.  I started out making media for our website and slowly I’ve taken on work as a facilitator in our programs.  Last year, when we received funding to develop a new program using arts-based facilitation to lead cross-sector social change efforts, I’d built enough social capital in the organization to take on a large role in the project.  It’s been the highlight of my professional career.

Early in your career, the first year or two of a job can be tough.  If you’re working with interesting people, the goods will come if you can wait.

Accept your limitations (for now):  I don’t like public speaking.  It makes me anxious and uncomfortable.  I don’t like being a salesman.  It makes me feel icky.  I’m more comfortable listening than speaking.  It can be challenging for me to advocate even when I feel quite strongly.   I’m a young-ish, visibly queer woman working in spaces with a lot of older straight white men.  I often struggle to be/feel authoritative.

There was a time when I thought these were fixed qualities – things that would simply never change.  I learned to be forgiving of myself, and partner myself with people with complementary strengths.  But in the last few years I’ve proven myself wrong.  I can feel my boundaries slowly shifting with time and practice. So, for now, I’m working on accepting my limits while continuing to push up against them.
Everyone has limits, accept yours and remember that you’re a work in progress.

Accept offers of support, even if it makes you feel vulnerable:  Early in my work at EmcArts, a more experienced colleague of mine approached me and said that if I was ever interested in developing my practice as a facilitator he’d be willing to mentor me.  I brushed it off at the time, unsure of how to accept the support.  But I kept in the back of my mind.  Four years I later, when I was in a difficult moment of growth, I called him up and asked him if he’d be willing to to set aside two hours a month to talk with me about the big questions I was wrestling with.  Now, he’s one of the most important people in my professional life.

Vulnerability is the key to life, lean into it and allow others to hold you up.

With power comes moral ambiguity: The more I step into leadership, the more confounded I am by how much compromise, imperfection, tension, paradox, politics, power are a part of the gig. There are so few easy answers.  But if you avoid leadership because you can’t get everything right, someone else will take the reigns.  I’ve been thinking about this line from Hamilton a lot lately: “Winning is easy, young man, governing is harder.” As a young leader, it was easier for me to see things in black and white.  Now, as I step into a more mature role in the field, I’m living in the grey zone. 
Leading is hard, it means living in the grey.

Race, class, gender, and power matter:  I’m still at the beginning of my journey to understand how oppression operates in the world, in the arts, and in my life.  But I know it matters deeply that I dedicate myself to continuing this journey and making a commitment in my personal and professional life to dismantle oppression where and when I can.
Don’t turn a blind eye to difficult conversations about race, class, gender and power.

Say thank you:  An honest, hearty thank you goes a long way.  Even if someone is doing their job exactly as they should be, I try to be grateful that they’ve chosen to be here with me doing it and say thank you from a deep, real place. 
Just say it.  Thanks.  


Randy Engstrom:

Change is constant.
Coming into the nonprofits arts field 20 years ago, conventional wisdom was that we were on the cusp of effectively addressing issues of diversity in the arts and exciting things would happen as leadership changed, shifting from baby boomers to a younger generation. But more has been done to advance equity in the arts in the last three years than at any time I can remember. Arts and culture is no longer viewed in isolation. It has a broader impact and affects more communities than ever before. In addition, our field is embracing ever-evolving technology and we are seeing a greater creativity in how we utilize and produce culture.

Partnership is everything.
One of my favorite quotes is by Anne Corbett, formerly of the Cultural Development Corporation of DC:  “Adopt collaboration as a way of life,” and I take these words to heart. Whether it is partnering with every city department to bring an arts and cultural lens into all aspects of the city or if it’s working with our peers locally and nationally around the issues of arts education, placemaking, affordability and civic impact, I believe we can achieve significant change through partnerships and collaboration at all levels.

Racial equity and social justice are not acts of compliance, they’re acts of strategy.
Whether you focus your race and social justice work on Manuel Pastor’s changing demographics lens or through recognizing the historic privilege of specific art forms/organizations over others, both speak to the urgency of addressing inequalities in the field. Most importantly though, both roads require active participation and planning to address deep divisions in our society. I believe our whole field and our entire community will be better served by taking on issues of equity and social justice.
As local arts agencies we need to get beyond the ATM.

Funding and grants programs alone can’t solve the challenges facing our field and our cities. We have to put more energy and emphasis on exploring policies and programs that can move the needle and create vibrant cultural communities. 

This is a change moment and we are living in an unprecedented and exciting time. A confluence of events, people and movements are coming together providing the fuel we need to make effective change. I am honored to be at the table and wrestling with these issues along with my peers at the United States Urban Arts Federation, Grantmakers in the Arts, Americans for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. These challenges and opportunities aren’t unique to Seattle, but it’s exciting to be at the forefront working on them.


Loie Fecteau:

When I started my job as executive director of New Mexico Arts, I asked a friend of mine who was a long-time vice president of a hospital if she had any management tips for me, as at the job I was leaving I did not supervise any staff, and she said: “Find out why they do things the way they do them, before you try to change them.” And that was very useful advice, except, of course, when I discovered that the reasons we did some things a certain way at my agency was because that was the way we had always done them.

It’s also really important to seize the moment for change -- whether that be months into your leadership role – or sometimes, especially in state government bureaucracies, it can take years for the right moment to come, but you have to be ready to act. Be daring.

Use your peer networks – I have found the ED networks of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and the Western States Arts Federation, which includes the 13 state arts agencies in the western states, to be invaluable. It’s helpful sometimes just to know that you are not alone and that someone else understands what you are going through and peer colleagues often can provide helpful counsel.

If you are a boss, be sure to empower your people and build our field. Celebrate diversity and strive to be inclusive – we all need to do a better job in recognizing and recruiting our emerging leaders and helping them be all they can be.

Keep learning and be open to new technologies and better ways of doing things.
If you do have a problem, don’t ignore it – it will just fester and probably get worse – so deal with it sooner rather than later.

I also like Barry’s end-line of his blog – don’t quit! This work is worth doing and can be truly transformational.


Joe Patti:

As I was thinking about what I wanted to highlight as lessons learned, I realized what I have learned generally involves taking a broad, flexible interdisciplinary approach to my career and life. (In the arts and culture field, it can be difficult to separate the two.)

My feeling is that people in the arts and cultural sector need to be omnivorous outside their own practice and discipline. Not that they have to consume everything that comes along, but rather be open to doing so. I know a great number of people already embrace this attitude. I primarily direct this lesson learned toward young people just starting their career paths.  I fully admit that I am being hypocritical, or at least inconsistent, by advocating this in light of my own past practice.

I will mutter, why aren’t  there any dance students at this theater performance, why aren’t there any theater students at this gallery opening, why aren’t their professors making them attend, etc, given how the exposure and interactions can inform their careers.

I say I am hypocritical because when I was an undergradate and graduate student, I didn’t really participate in events sponsored by other arts disciplines and I was never really pushed by my instructors to do so. But I and my age cohort could get away with it. These days the need for interdisciplinary awareness and collaboration has become more important as arts and cultural practitioners struggle to find new ways to frame what they do to the expectations of potential participants.

While technology enables us to learn so much more today than when I was a student, it also allows us to reinforce the silos in which we operate.  The musical tastes of my college roommates and dorm mates   introduced and cultivated an appreciation of at least five distinct musical genres because everyone ‘s stereos were audible. Now that listening experience is more self-contained, I suspect roommates influence each other much less.

While there is definitely benefit in pursuing specialized knowledge and mastering it, it can’t be done with an egotistical exclusion of all else. I see movement toward a more open view, but when I first started pursuing my career path, that wasn’t the case. (And regardless of what you young whippersnappers may think, it wasn’t that long ago!)

For arts administrators, broad knowledge and flexibility can make one that much more employable. Since 2000, I have gone from an organization in an urban environment that produced plays and musicals to a rural arts and music center that offered arts and music summer camp and afterschool class and had a presenting series focused on singer-song writers. 

From there I went to Honolulu where I presented a wide range of international programming, plus worked with cultural practitioners to produce an opera entirely in Hawaiian, a dance drama based on the myth of Hawaii’s snow goddess, and a show that excerpted Balinese temple ceremonies. Now I am in rural Ohio at a performing arts center presenting, what is by comparison, a rather conventional mix of Broadway musicals, classical concerts and varied plays and concerts.

Believe me, none of that resembles the career arc I envisioned for myself when I was starting out.
That provides a good segue to my next lesson learned which is to bring your knowledge and experience, but leave your expectations and preconceived notions behind.  We all hate the new employee who seems to begin every other sentence mentioning how they did things at a previous workplace.  Even if are smart enough not to say it aloud, we all have an internal voice urging us to bring the stability of what we know to our new work environment.

I will readily admit when I was first approached about partnering to produce a Hawaiian opera I agreed with reservations.  Two years later when it was time to look at setting a date for the performance I was hoping the artist forgot about it. 

He didn’t.  While the show had some small problems, it was still a landmark production and the lessons learned informed our later partnerships.

Since moving to Ohio, I have kept my eyes open for similar partnering opportunities. I also understand where I am now has a different dynamic than where I have been before.  I feel like I am still in the process of identifying what characteristic of the local community I can emphasize and turn into a signature program of my time here. 

One of the things that can help identify potential areas for partnering is to talk about all the arts resources in the community, not just your own.  The opportunity to start to do this will automatically present itself in the year or two after you move to a community because people will ask how you like the area. You can enumerate all the things you enjoy. Whenever I am asked to talk to groups, I focus on the arts ecology of the community –why we are great because the community includes the others, rather than just why we are great.

At different points in my career I have gone to meetings where all the arts organizations in a community try to think about how to improve the arts and cultural environment. I suspect that little got done because few people really focus on the question except during the short time before and after the meeting. Talking about the entire arts ecology and keeping your eyes open for new things to mention creates a habit that helps to identify new opportunities. Not to mention, when an art leader sings the praises of a “competing” organization, it probably makes a deeper impression about the vitality of the community’s arts and cultural assets .

Part of the lesson of leaving preconceived notions behind also applies to choosing a place to work. At this point in my career, idealism does not immediately trump appropriate remuneration anymore. The salary generally being reflective of your abilities, one should be willing to entertain opportunities outside of the coastal cultural centers because they can provide access to experiences that are not immediately apparent.

Since you really don’t know what your future career path will encompass, embrace the annoying jobs. (Note I don’t say the no/low pay “for the exposure” jobs.) Tasks I grumbled over and resented having to do have had an annoying habit of turning into a useful skill to have acquired.  Even worse, things I have ended up presenting prominently on resumes and job interviews as if it had all been part of my master plan.

One final observation I wanted to make in terms of work environment that I don’t really think gets discussed frequently enough.  Perpetual crisis mode thinking in tough economic times can be damaging to the long term lives of individuals and organizations. Obviously, it can deter people from wanting to continue in a career in the arts, but it can also create a bunker mentality to protect the resources in your little corner of the organization rather than collaborate with other departments for the good of the whole.
This didn’t really become apparent to me until I worked for an organization that wasn’t operating in brian isis mode. Their outlook was that the economic situation was good. There was no need for people to worry. Whatever help people needed, there was time and resources for other people to help them reach that goal.

That wasn’t the mindset I was operating under though.  Even though I had a good time working there, in that environment I am pretty sure I came off as a jerk and that was why I was not invited back. Unfortunately, I didn’t really recognize what the dynamics had been until 5 years later after I had been re-immersed in high stress work environments again.

Certainly, part of the problem is the baggage one brings to the job. I have seen people make job environments more difficult than they need to be, just as I did.  It is not entirely the fault of the individual. In tough economic times, choices are made in relation to planning and communications that determine whether the situation will be traumatic or cooperative. 


Ian David Moss:

These days, I find myself thinking a lot about power. I spent most of my life not having much, and so the experience of feeling that I have any at all is a new and interesting one.
Power is like a precious, poisonous metal: it requires care and professionalism in handling or people are going to get hurt. I suppose my career to date has been motivated at some level by a belief that the people who have power in our field and in the world more broadly are not always handling it in the most careful and professional way. That shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us, because the truth is that no one really teaches you how to handle power. You need to figure it out for yourself.
From the outside, the most obvious critique to make about power is what not to do with it. Don’t waste resources. Don’t abuse or take advantage of your fellow human beings. Don’t be negligent. As obvious as these admonitions are, we need to remind ourselves of them constantly. Because when you’re the one in the driver’s seat, it’s no longer as easy to see what you’re leaving in your wake.

That said, what I’m finding most interesting to think about these days is what you can do with power. And that focus has helped me to see that I actually had a lot more power earlier in my career than I realized. I just didn’t know how to use it.

So here is my advice to future leaders and decision-makers: know your power. Know that speaking up is always, always an exercise of power – no matter who you are. Know that asking uncomfortable questions is a way to change the course of a meeting, a policy discussion, a decision. Know that sharing your experience in a forum where it will be heard is an exercise of power. Know that doing so again and again is more powerful than doing so once, as tedious as that may seem to you.
Know that doing your job well, maybe even better than anyone else, is an exercise of power. Know that understanding what you’re good at is an exercise of power. Know that vacuums of leadership mean more power for you. You never need to let your title and salary have the final say on what you’re capable of.

Know that knowledge is power, and that you probably have more of it on many topics than people who ostensibly have power over you. It’s hard to be well informed about everything, after all. Know that charging yourself to gain more knowledge, particularly knowledge that most people around you don’t have, is one of the most valuable and impressive forms of power you can exercise. And absolutely no one is stopping you from exercising that particular power starting right now.

Know that asking forgiveness rather than permission is an exercise of power – and that often people will thank you for it.

Know that having clear goals and a strategy to achieve them is a dramatic exercise of power. It’s contagious too.

Know that cultural norms are malleable and created by the people who are a part of that culture. And that if you are a part of any culture at all, no matter how peripherally, you have the power to help shape it.

Know that sometimes your power comes from powerful allies. Every group has people who are held in higher or lower regard by members of that group. It’s usually not hard to figure out who those people are. If you find that you are not getting the traction you want from whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish, perhaps there are people who share your goals who can be partners to you.

If you are an extraordinarily ambitious person (and it’s fine if you’re not), know that starting out with a broad frame is an exercise of power. A narrow vision might be a tempting crutch early on, but you may find that it limits you in the end.

Know that the people who came before you, who are where you want to be, who determine the circumstances that shape your life, might have been a lot like you earlier in their careers. Regardless of how they treat you, know that it’s probably not that hard for them to imagine themselves in your position. And know that there is power there as well.

Finally, know that taking risks is an exercise of power, because most people don’t take enough. Last year, I reflected on my life to date and realized that the decisions I’ve regretted the most are all ones where I chose the safe and easy path over the risky and hard one.

Know that with power comes responsibility, and I trust you will take that responsibility seriously. The health of the arts ecosystem depends on it – today as much as tomorrow.


Edwin Torres:

First of all, I am humbled to have been asked by Barry Hessenius what I have learned. I am still learning and look forward to remaining a student of my peers for the rest of my life. My main learnings fall into a few key themes:

1.       Pick power up off the floor.

I have been lucky enough to have worked with colleagues who set goals but who left the structures to achieve those goals loose.  I have been allowed to define the parameters of those goals, how they’ll be achieved and how we’ll know they’ve been achieved.  This causes some people anxiety, frustration, even anger.  But others use that lack of structure to explore and learn.

A supervisor once said to me, “Sometimes you have to pick power up off the floor.”  I believe this.  This is how you get things done.  Jump-start the process of iteration by developing a prototype and presenting it for others to critique.

When I began to run the cultural grants program at The Rockefeller Foundation, my first attempt to improve the application made it even longer and more cumbersome.  A bold and intelligent development director emailed me to say, “I hate to bring this up but…” I invited her and another development director to critique the application and tell me how to secure the information we wanted while making the application shorter and easier to fill out.  Likewise, when we developed the diversity survey and programming at the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, we invited critique from a cross-section of the field from the start.  We plan to learn from our field throughout our time with the agency.

2.       Prepare to have been wrong.

When you pick power up off the floor and present the work you’ve done, you are inviting critique.  Embrace that critique.  It’s the way your idea will be developed into something better. 

And don’t just embrace being told your wrong.  Embrace having been wrong.  It’s the only way to improve and to achieve your goals.  Unhappy people defend their old ideas. Happy people give credit to those that improve them or replace their ideas. What you’re trying to achieve had better be more important to you than getting credit.  If not, what you’re trying to achieve is not really worth your time.  

Further – embrace having been wrong when it comes to achieving large, social change goals.  For instance, when it comes to social justice, I have two role models – my father and Richard Pryor. 

My father was not a politically or socially engaged young man when he was drafted to fight in Vietnam.  He served a year and a half and won medals for his service.  He also returned to civilian life politicized.  He went to college on the G.I. bill and eventually became a federal investigator, focusing in discrimination in the work place.  He believed that both the public and independent sectors could be forces for good.  He taught me these things through his words and through his life’s work.  My father was also capable of embracing dichotomy, ambiguity and complexity.  He did not demonize those he disagreed with.  He did not moralize or see the world in black and white.  Further, his ability to see the world in shades of gray did not degenerate into cynicism or passive resignation.  He remained passionate in his convictions.  He just wasn’t obnoxious about it.

I am occasionally criticized for being just as warm towards those with whom I disagree as towards those with whom I agree.  This is not disingenuous on my part.  And there’s a specific reason why.

One day, as a child, I sat watching a Disney cartoon on television.  I began to draw an image I saw that had given me aesthetic pleasure.  The image was of two Mexican men, lying on the ground on either side of a palm tree, sombreros covering their faces as they snored in unison.  I began to draw the image, enjoying its symmetry.  My father saw the image on the screen and my drawing.  “Do you know what that image is communicating about those people?” my father asked me.  He then explained the stereotype of Latinos as lazy and how that stereotype was being reinforced by that image.  He assured me that my aesthetic enjoyment of that image was not simple and should not be unaccompanied by critique.  I initially resisted his critique of the cartoon’s message.  I’d simply wanted to experience aesthetic delight. 

It took me years to internalize my father’s message. I eventually did internalize my father’s lesson because my father did not draw a dichotomy between wrong aesthetic delight and correct cultural critique.  My father did not tell me to never watch a Disney cartoon again or to shame people who did.  He taught me that you can enjoy media and critique media.  My father taught me that having the ability to critique the world around you did not mean you had to greet the world with sneering contempt or bitter suspicion.  He simply taught me that pleasure does not need to be simple to be genuine.  You can experience delight while seeing on many levels at once.  Critique does not need to negate pleasure.

Complementary to my father’s example was that of Richard Pryor. I grew up in a community of African Americans and Latinos.  I have spent my life hearing and engaging in frank discussions about race.  Culturally, one of our touchstones was Richard Pryor.  Needless to say, Pryor’s discussions of race were not delicate and included statements that even some supporters may regard as tactless, outrageous and even insensitive.  That didn’t cost him the support of his admirers. 

Richard Pryor’s embracing of being inappropriate and both the critic and the fool at once undercut the paralysis of those that fear being wrong and undercut the obnoxiousness of those that need to be right. I know many decent people who fear frank discussions of race and other sensitive topics as they don’t wish to say something wrong.  The willingness to be told you’re wrong, and the confidence that being wrong will allow you to grow is one of the greatest lessons I have learned. 

3.       There need not be an end-state.

When you embrace being proven wrong as an opportunity for growth, the idea that change is constant is good news.  And change is constant. 

I was privileged to work with the Resilience team at The Rockefeller Foundation.  One of the lessons they taught me was that resilience is not an end-state.  There is no such state as 100% resilient.  There is only more or less resilient than before.  I believe this to be true in most realms. 

I am lucky to be happier than I was before and doing work I consider more important and more satisfying than before.  But I know my life and my career and my field will change. Change is often painful for us.  But if having been wrong is not the end of the world, change will certainly not destroy us.  Our life and work – and ourselves – could become even better with change.

4.       Thank god for role models.

I have been lucky enough to have such mentors as Bill Aguado, Roberta Uno, Joan Shigekawa, Darren Walker, Nadine Bourgeois, Lydia Matthews, Nick Turner, John Irons and Tom Finkelpearl, among many others.  These people have shown me what it is to act with principle, courage and generosity.  I am blessed to have their counsel and occasionally wise enough to take it. 

But they’ve shown me something more.  When someone gives me advice, my mentors have taught me to ask myself one question: Is the person advising me happy?  Happy people are my positive role models.  When making choices, I model myself on them. 

But when making choices, I am also grateful to have unhappy people around me.  They are my negative role models.  Unhappy people often have good advice and I am occasionally wise enough to take their good advice.  But when it comes to making the most important choices about what to do, I often look to the unhappy people in my life and do the opposite of what they’ve done.  And I am happy. 

5.       Be grateful.

I’m lucky enough to work with intelligent, principled people.  I hope to someday be good enough to deserve that privilege.  And I’m grateful for the opportunity to try.


San San Wong:

Deconstruct your fears, and systematically address them.

In my early 30s, I was diagnosed with glaucoma. This upsetting news was made worse by an insensitive doctor who dilated my eyes, told me glaucoma was the leading cause of blindness, then sat me in the waiting room alone, unable to see, for what seemed like hours. Luckily, after leaving the doctor's office, I stumbled upon the Glaucoma Research Foundation (GRF) a few floors below, and began learning everything I could about glaucoma.

My research was informative, but it didn't alleviate that early overwhelming and irrational sense of paralysis. It took a while, but when I was finally bored with feeling helpless, I dug deep to peel back what exactly I was afraid of. As an artist and arts administrator, I feared the inability to paint, or to produce and present dance. I dreaded losing my independence and the ability to travel globally. I feared isolation. Once my fears were named, I had to separate the rational from the irrational, and own both. Then, I formulated a plan to confront and dispel my fears through action: learning Braille; making a list of travel destinations; searching until I found a doctor who had the same thirst to understand glaucoma; and recruiting friends to accompany me on doctor's visits.  They could ask questions when I became too distracted, and toast drinks when I had a good test result. The first doctor’s callous neglect had pissed me off, and fired up the activist in me, making me determined that no one else should go through this. I participated in a GRF film to train doctors how to treat patients more sensitively. 

Fast-forward 20 years. My glaucoma is under control, and constant vigilance is a normal part of my life. I now reflect the elements of process of discovery and action as:

• understanding what fears (and explicit or hidden motivations) might be driving actions; 
• breaking down the challenge into manageable pieces, and systematically addressing with appropriate actions; 
• finding allies who have the same passion but different knowledge sets; 
• recruiting and deploying your support system; and 
• celebrating when good things happen.

This process has served me well in my career in San Francisco and now at the Barr Foundation in Boston.  Big challenges and tough decision-making junctures are inevitable, but also manageable if we confront our fears and take positive action.


Dr. Kristin Greer-Puglia:

My first year as CEO of a nonprofit, I learned that values, purpose, and hard work go a long way, but true systemic change also involves discomfort. With twenty years of experience as an arts educator and advocate, I somehow imagined that I, my staff, and our trustees, would make our mission the center of daily life, and contribute sweat equity, and equity equity, to the limits of our capacity without hesitation or resentment. Then, reality hit, and I found myself feeling more angry and discouraged at the head of an organization, than I ever had at the head of a classroom, project, or program. Thankfully, there were fewer moments of irritation and disappointment than inspiration and gratitude, but more than I was prepared for. It occurred to me one day when I was feeling especially low, sick with the flu and calling people to ask again to help raise the last $75K of a $1M matching gift challenge, that it was time to draw on an almost forgotten bit of understanding I held close as a young artist and teacher. That is, spreading new ideas, changing perspectives, and driving social progress is hard, slow work, and often means taking some heat. So, as I registered the annoyance of the taxed donor on the phone, and asked myself how this ended up being my job, it hit me that this is how leadership is supposed to feel. So, whether it is my own discomfort asking for money and help, or making others uncomfortable because every single time I will put the benefit to our service population over the needs of the person standing in front of me, I am learning to tolerate this feeling of discomfort that goes hand and hand with transformation. I hope to learn to relish it. 


I am deeply indebted to all of these individuals for taking time from their hectic schedules to share some of what they have learned with all the rest of us.  And again, my apologies for the delay in posting.

Don't Quit
Barry






















1 comment:

  1. In response to Jaime...

    We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Arts in the Small Community (www.GardFoundation.org). I think you'll appreciate his words from back then, still very much true today.

    "...In terms of American democracy, the arts are for everyone. They are not reserved for the wealthy, or for the well-endowed museum, the gallery, or the ever-subsidized regional professional theater. As America emerges into a different understanding of her strength, it becomes clear that her strength is in the people and in the places where the people live. The people, if shown the way, can create art in and of themselves.

    The springs of the American spirit are at the grass roots. Opportunities must exist in places where they never have existed before. A consciousness of the people, a knowledge of their power to generate and nourish art, and a provision of ways in which they may do so are essential for our time.

    If we are seeking in America, let it be a seeking for the reality of democracy in art..." - Robert E. Gard

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