"And the beat goes on......................"
Quick Note on the Dinner-vention Project: Thank you for all the positive feedback and support for the idea. We have already begun to receive a lot of suggested names for dinner guests. Please send in yours before the November 20th deadline. Given WESTAF's substantial experience in convening planning, logistics and technical recording, I am grateful for their Sponsorship of this project. Otherwise I would likely have to cook, crowd 8 or more people around a table designed for 6, try to put up a dozen people in the (only) guest bedroom, and record the event on my iPad. Fortunately they have resources I lack, so we can do this right.
WHAT 'WE' HAVE LEARNED:
I have been thinking lately about what I have learned over the past 15 years that I have been involved in the nonprofit arts field; about the lessons driven home by experience and time, and how little I really knew, or understood, when I first started in this fascinating, yet relentlessly challenging, arena. I have been wondering what are the basic lessons that I have learned that, were someone to ask, I might pass on (particularly to those coming up behind me). What might I say that would be helpful to the next generation of leaders (or to anyone really - and that might save them time and heartache)? Could I synthesize it into a couple of pieces of advice? Would it make any sense?
And that got me to thinking about how much more others across the field have probably learned over their long tenures working in our sector than I have.
So I thought I would do a blog on that. - The WHAT I HAVE LEARNED blog. I invited 24 colleagues to share the most important lessons they have learned; to pass on some of the knowledge that they might wish someone had shared with them when they were still coming up through the ranks.
Specifically, I asked:
What have you learned that you can pass on to the future leaders of our field. What one or two big pieces of advice can you give based on your experience that you think would most help our future leaders in their career development and in doing their jobs well?
There was near universal enthusiasm for this effort, and almost everyone I invited responded. I think the responses are insightful, smart and heartfelt. There are some common themes, some really sweet observations and lots and lots of good will. I am impressed with all of them, and very proud to work in a field with these people. If this is well received, I think I will do it again next year, as I have at least five times more people on my list to ask than I was able to get to.
Here then are the responses to What I Have Learned:
Randy Cohen - Vice President of Research and Policy, Americans for the Arts
1. One person can start a movement. In tough economic times, no pushback from the arts community is low-hanging fruit for budget cutters. Pack your city council chambers with supporters and incorporate our secret weapon—arts, music, and poetry. It will be a public hearing nobody will forget.
2. Great leaders are great advocates—for their industry and for themselves. Advocacy can be boiled down to three questions: What’s the message? Who gets the message? Who delivers the message?
3. Inspired audiences will take action. Be a great speaker. Data alone won’t cut it . . . add a story to bring the message alive. Practice, be yourself, use humor, and go easy on the PowerPoint text.
4. You can do a bounty of good if you are willing to share leadership and credit. Everyone wants to be on the team that is doing the right thing.
5. Change is a constant condition. When faced with multiple choices, lean towards the one you fear most—that is usually where the greatest treasure is buried. Be brave!
6. We are in the people business. Help others get what they need, and others will help you get what you need. Don’t forget what Mom told you—say please and thank you, be on time.
7. Learning never ends. Fuel your brain with industry knowledge with the vigor of a squirrel gathering nuts for winter.
8. There is much to be grateful for. Start the day writing a couple short thank you notes. Go old school…pen, paper, stamped envelope.
9. When on the road, drink lots of water, don’t eat too many cookies, and carry your presentation materials with you.
10. Folks love Top 10 lists.
Michael Alexander, Executive Director, Grand Performances
SOME OF THE LESSONS LEARNED FROM A LIFE IN THE ARTS
“When the sea rises, all ships rise with it.” Devote part of your work time and your personal life to the causes that will benefit our field and our world. Your professional life and your personal life will benefit in the process. My most important role models in the arts each practiced this providing leadership by devoting time and resources to our field. I hope I can make a fraction of the impact that they made.
“To be interesting, be interested.” Former CAC member Fred Sands said he told that to all his employees. I think it is worthwhile for all of us to listen more and talk less. And listen everywhere. Our audiences have remarkable wisdom – even the children. Ask good questions. Remember too that different communities have different ways of addressing challenges.
"Don’t sacrifice the good while waiting for the perfect." Don’t let analysis paralysis stop forward motion. Recognize that there are many right answers.
“You cannot be leader unless you challenge people to do something.” I heard that line in the animated film “Chicago 10” when one of the activists told a colleague why he was not a leader.
“Quick, cheap and good – pick two.” Mid-size non-profits don’t have the luxury of deep pockets enabling them to throw money at problems. And mid-size non-profits don’t want to settle for anything less than good. So that means we need to give ourselves adequate time to plan, prepare, recruit, manage and assess the many projects we undertake.
John R. Killacky - Executive Director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.
Right now I'm learning from a 400-pound animal with the brain of a three-year old child, as I train a Shetland pony to pull a cart. Ponies, like horses, are prey animals whose first instinct is to fight or flee, so this can be a daunting and humbling task. Anything new is suspect; a first encounter with the unfamiliar unsettling.
My CEO/Executive Director-self has no gravitas here. At the barn, I am a beginner. I'm always learning: from teenagers to one friend in her 80s who rides her 24-year old gelding every day. We never discuss one’s day job; all conversation is through and about our animals. Here I am Raindrop’s dad.
Being a novice at mid-life is rejuvenating. I love grappling with new skills that take a long time to master. Failures are almost as important as successes here. Laughter at failure and learning from mistakes propel improvement. My competitive self is satisfied with a training session well done; thrilled that Raindrop and I have done our best for that day.
In working with my pony, I must first understand the world through her eyes, her smells, her experiences, her fears, and her relationships. Equine logic is quite different from human thinking. I also try to see the world as my pony does. Human vision is focused straight ahead; horses see at 350 degrees, encompassing peripheral vision. I practice this perspective and vast horizons of fields, mountains, and clouds feathering the sky unfold.
Recently, my Shetland pony Raindrop and I went off-site to a driving clinic. Jeff Morse, who led the two-day event, encouraged us to "create the horse you want, rather than fix the horse you have." He had me drive with my eyes closed to feel the connection of my hands on the reins to the bit in her mouth. It was transformative.
Training can get mighty complicated, with up to six horses and riders simultaneously in the indoor arena during the after-school and post-work rush hours. This necessitates an interrelated choreography of awareness, patience, and generosity by equines and humans alike. We lunge, jump, trot, and walk our animals in spiraling circles and figure eights. Loose but firm hands on the reins, the animals go where your eyes go. We dance together.
My favorite time at the barn is late at night, with no one else around. I love being in the stall with Raindrop as she and her stable-mates settle down for the evening. The sounds and smells of two-dozen safe, warm, and protected equines are divine. Just being there, in sublime stillness, through her quiet eyes, I am part of the herd. It’s at these moments that I experience Rasa, a Sanskrit term indicating a profound state of empathic bliss.
Pony precepts have taught me a lot of things, some of which apply to human interactions. Beginner’s mind, meeting colleagues on their terms, starting where they are, interconnectivity, embracing the peripheral world, dancing with others, and sublime stillness all seems like good ideas to bring back into the office each morning, after I finish mucking her stall, of course!
Claire Peeps - Executive Director, Durfee Foundation
WHAT HAVE I LEARNED?
For the past 15 years, Durfee has asked its fellowship applicants two principal questions—Why do you do what you do? and What have you learned along the way.
On the occasion of Durfee’s 50th, we published a short chapbook with excerpts of their answers. I wrote in the intro:
“We ask leaders, ‘Why do you do what you do?’ What they do is usually quite easy to understand. Why they do it is often less immediately apparent, and their answers, so often, are disarming.
We ask them ‘What have you learned along the way?’ Their answers sing a whole chorus of melodies. It is people, at the end of the day, who make change. Yes, it takes money and strategy, buildings, infrastructure, and political will. But it is leaders who take up a cause and stoke an ember into a blaze. We are committed to those who tend the flame.”
So what I have learned from this work?
I’ve learned that people are our most valuable resource and that it is in our collective best interest that they be nurtured and sustained. This is true for leaders who must take care of the staff who work for them, and it is true of emerging leaders who must remember to take care of themselves.
I’ve learned that solutions are often where we least expect them, so it’s important to go outside of our usual stomping grounds on a regular basis.
I’ve learned that it’s important to listen.
I’ve learned that everything is inter-related – that education is in fact a housing issue, that housing is a transportation issue, that transportation is a green economy issue, that green economy is a jobs creation issue, and so on….and that the arts are woven into all of them.
I’ve learned that hospitality and good food are essential to candid conversations.
I’ve learned that laughter is a bridge across difficult terrain.
In the words of one of our fellows, Lisa Watson, director of the Downtown Women’s Center, “I’ve realized that putting all your life’s energy into work is highly overrated and incredibly unhealthy/unsustainable. An important part of being a successful leader is taking time outside of work to ground yourself, prioritize your overall well-being and lead by example – that time to recover is necessary to inspire progress, productivity, and passion as we tackle profound social issues and ultimately seek to build a fulfilling career for ourselves and those around us.”
And lastly, I’ve learned that kindness goes a long way. In the words of Plato, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Robert Booker - Executive Director, Arizona Commission on the Arts
Know that your work life and personal life will blend at times, and find a way to manage that mix in a healthy way. Develop a positive balance between your personal principles/goals and your professional responsibilities/challenges. Remember that all work worth doing is not worth doing well. Celebrate your successes and those of others every moment you can. Have fun every day and when you can’t find joy in your work…find another job.
Always accept new responsibilities in your current position. Don’t expect an immediate reward for expanding your work load or pitching in to cover a position. In the end, you will be more knowledgeable about your organization and will be recognized as a leader and team player. The rewards will come later in your career with your organization, others and the field.
Remember to give credit to your teammates when they have worked on a project or supported your action with their skills and send handwritten notes to folks that help you everyday along the road, Help others reach their goals when you can. Never speak ill about people you work with.
Learn the history of the non-profit and for-profit arts industry. Be familiar with the successes and the challenges our field has faced over the years. Learn from the work your colleagues are doing in other communities and countries. Serve the people you see outside your window. Treat money as if it were time and time as if it were money…you can always make more money, but time is fleeting. Try to give back as much as you get as you work in this field. Always tell the truth. Take responsibility for your actions and don’t fear failure.
Bruce Davis - Consultant
1) Don't be afraid to politely and confidentially ask advice and counsel from people who are more experienced than you are. I was an Executive Director @ 33, and this approach worked for me, especially with funders who were once in my shoes and "elder" leaders who were willing to share;
2) Politics. The dreaded but inevitable word. Rarely will you see this word in an executive director's job description. Shame on us! An executive director's job is to master the art of politics in all its realms--internal, external, financial, community and media. While you dream of being an executive director, ask yourself, do you really have the stuff and experience? What real political battles have you won or lost?
How much are you willing to give to your community with or without a paycheck?
Arni Fishbaugh, Executive Director, Montana Arts Council
1. A trusted #2 is essential in getting through nightmares involving politics, personnel, budgets and boards. (Note: our board is heavenly at this time, but we’ve had moments in the past…)
2. As organizational leaders on the staff or on the board, we will never make progress nor build our budgets if we don’t commit a serious amount of time to make sure that one-on-one relationships are built with our political leaders and other “authorizers.” Successful advocacy, just like fund-raising, is all about relationship-building done one-on-one.
3. Most legislators and members of the public want to know about one thing about government funding: return on investment. These ROIs must be in things that are compelling to them, not necessarily what we believe is compelling.
4. A “team of three” approach is best when talking to potential major funders, whether they are legislators or donors. Take a person with the facts, a person with the relationship, and a person with the story to the meeting. (Thanks to the California Arts Council for this idea.)
5. Listen and hear those opinions that make you wince. If they make you wince there may be some truth to them.
6. It is essential that artists feel valued and heard.
7. The strongest boards of directors of non-profit organizations are diverse in not only its members’ backgrounds, gender and race, but in political ideologies as well.
Closing with that favorite topic of personnel: people who create black holes in your life will probably always suck the life out of you. The problem never just goes away if it’s ignored. Deal with it now or it only gets worse.
Cora Mirikitani, President and CEO, Center for Cultural Innovation
It’s Not About the Money
One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned in a 30-year career spanning work as a funder, as an arts presenter and service provider, and now in the hybrid space between the two has to do, perhaps not surprisingly, with money. That’s because as a funder, you think a lot about how to give it away strategically, transparently and effectively. And as an arts administrator in a nonprofit organization, you obviously think a lot about how to raise more of it. And more recently, at the Center for Cultural Innovation, I’ve been exploring more innovative ways to do both.
So considering the vast amounts of time that I’ve devoted to both the grant-giving and grant-getting sides of our business, it may come as a surprise that one of my biggest arts career ‘ah-has’ is this: It’s not about the money!
Sure, money will always have a place in the transactional dimensions of our work, but when I really think about my most memorable arts experiences, what has been most personally gratifying and my best professional work, I think about these things instead:
- It’s about the power of people and relationships. I love that there are so many committed, passionate, diverse people who work in the arts and that I’ve had the joy of working with so many of them, some for many years and others who are just getting started in the field.
- It’s about remembering why we love the arts. There’s a lot to be said for things like economic impact, educational attainment and organizational sustainability, but for me, it has always been the ‘Truth and Beauty’ part of the arts that has swept me off my feet.
- It’s about the work of artists. Hey, where do we think the work comes from anyway? Artists are my heroes.
- Sometimes it’s just about hanging in there. Working in the nonprofit arts is full of challenges and sometimes victory comes from just being the last man (or woman) standing. People in the arts are pretty stubborn, and that’s a good thing. In this regard, the coda from Barry’s blog says it all: “Don’t Quit!”
Steven J. Tepper - Associate Director, Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy / Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Vanderbilt University.
Passionless Leadership? How to think like a public leader and not like an evangelist
Thank you Barry for asking a simple but profoundly important question. What have I learned from my 18 years of working and studying cultural policy and cultural management?
When I look at arts research and arts advocacy I see private interests masquerading as public interests. Let me explain. Most of us entered the arts field because we were personally inspired by an arts experience, and we are passionate about classical music, literature, theater, dance, or the visual arts. With evangelical zeal, we have embarked on careers to promote these art forms and to help others see the light. We have been convinced that excellence requires stepping outside of the commercial realm and protecting our beloved art forms from the vagaries and the banality of the marketplace. So, we find ourselves defending particular types of art that get produced and presented by particular types of organizations (nonprofits).
But there is a difference between an evangelist and a public leader in the arts. The former is an ideologue – a faithful fan that does not question the value of the thing they love. We need evangelists in the arts. I am inspired by the army of people working in the arts who want to share with others their love for classical music or painting or dance. This is a truly humanistic impulse. But a public leader in the arts must approach the world more pragmatically and seek to define the public interest apart from one’s own private interests or passions. A public leader identifies a collective problem or benefit and then works creatively to solve the problem or advance the public good.
In other words, if we want to lead in the arts, we must try to be agnostic about the specific form and content of our programming. What experiences do we want audiences to have? What does cultural vitality mean for a city or community? How can we advance artistic careers? How can we guarantee that every child has the opportunity to express his or her own creativity? When I seek answers to these questions, I don’t begin with an assumption that orchestral music performed on stage in a symphony hall will necessarily produce deep cultural engagement. Or that taking drawing lessons or learning to play the piano is the best way to help children express their creativity. I don’t assume that advancing artistic careers means increasing the number of opportunities for artists to present or perform their work in nonprofit cultural venues. I don’t assume that cultural vitality requires that a community has a local dance company, an orchestra, a museum, and a professional theater troupe. In some contexts, investing in classical music or traditional theater might be exactly what a community needs. In other cases, it might be the wrong solution, crowding out investments we might make instead in festivals, film, popular music, comics and graphic novels and the everyday practice of arts, not just the nonprofit arena.
My point is that the public interest gets served when we seek to advance cultural vitality by any and all possible means. Good leaders bring a broad tool kit to their work. They get beyond special interest advocacy. They question their own assumptions. And, importantly, they realize that if they are to be public leaders and not evangelists, they must be willing to subordinate their own personal passions to the policies and practices that advance a shared notion of cultural vitality.
For example, let’s say my goal is to help children develop a meaningful and deep creative practice. I should not care whether that practice involves painting, playing traditional instruments, creating dance beats on a computer, designing a video game, making a film, doing origami, sewing costumes, or writing poetry. I do care that the engagement is creative, requires craft and involves personal reflection. If I don’t limit myself to the art forms I love, I have many more alternatives for reaching my goal.
In addition to my work in the arts, I am also a sociologist who teaches in a university setting. Were I in a leadership position to improve undergraduate education, I certainly would not limit myself to advocating for more sociology classes. In fact, perhaps we teach enough sociology… maybe what we really need is more foreign language instruction. Likewise, if our collective goal was to build tolerance and respect for group norms, teaching and reading more sociology might be one tool. But surely there are other ways that have nothing to do with the discipline of sociology that might better achieve this goal.
We need evangelists. We need people who want to share their faith. But we also need strong cultural leaders who will look beyond their own interests and passions and work on behalf of the public rather than on behalf of a particular art form.
Frances Phillips - Program Director, Arts and the Creative Work Fund, Walter and Elise Haas Fund
I was taught that items on a list ought to be written so they are parallel with one another, but my lessons occurred to me in constellations of ideas.
A Rude Awakening
When I directed a nonprofit organization, we fought on behalf of emerging artists, freedom of expression, and challenging work. When I came to a foundation, at one year into my job I was shocked to recognize that foundation leaders were struggling with the need to articulate and fight on behalf of the value of any art, of any artists. In spite of many thoughtful, eloquent people putting their minds to this effort, the need has not changed.
A challenge in supporting policy change is that achieving meaningful results can take many years. This is a problem for organizations trying to report on results of their policy work from year-to-year and to foundation staff members trying to report to trustees about measurable outcomes achieved. The frustration can lead the nonprofit to pursue easier, near term results. Hence, we may distract ourselves from work toward the most meaningful goals.
When exciting policy change has taken place, often it has been achieved because the arts have not fought for it alone but have aligned our interests with others.
Fear inspires bad policy and bad legislation.
In a time of scarcity, some fight for stand-alone art and music classes and some for integrating the arts into the teaching of other subjects. Both can be valuable. I challenge those working on arts integration to make certain that the arts teaching and learning is as rigorous as the learning in the other subject with which it is being integrated.
Artists are trained to manage ambiguity and to be self-critical. These are invaluable life and leadership skills that often are under-valued.
Modest grants have the greatest effect if they are spent directly on supporting artists.
Helping artists expand their networks greatly enhances the value of a financial award.
Communication with Grantseekers
The nature of a grant seeker’s communication with me at our first interaction is indicative of how all communications will continue. Those who call with haphazard questions and ignore guidelines also will ignore final report questions. Those who are clear about who they are and what they want to accomplish and have taken time to understand the Haas Fund will be a pleasure to work with.
I most admire organization leaders who are honest and forthcoming when things go wrong.
Good grant proposals vary widely, but many bad grant proposals have the same weakness: the narrative and the budget don’t tell the same story.
In London, arts organizations are unafraid to say that their remit is to achieve “highest artistic quality.” The belief we share in the United States that we need to make a cogent argument for the value of the arts makes us timid about announcing that intention.
Philip Horn - Executive Director, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts
Mentors and coaches. You can always use them. It is useful to make a formal ask to someone to be your mentor.
At some point you should be a mentor or a coach. Keep on the lookout for someone you can help along. Give those people opportunities.
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness it is a sign of wisdom.. Being asked to help is the highest compliment.
Don’t try to impress people with your intelligence; impress them with you inquisitiveness. It is almost always appropriate to ask when you don’t know something.
If you stop being nervous, push yourself into an unfamiliar place.
Spend as much time as you can outside your office and outside your comfort zone. You’ll grow that way.
Don’t be an impediment to your staff. If they need something from you, get it for them as quickly as you can and they should do the same.
Who can afford to be wrong? Sometimes it makes sense to take responsibility for something that isn’t your fault.
What does it look like from the other person’s window?
One of my favorite books to read and re-read is Reframing Organizations. It takes the different approaches to organizational behavior and presents them in four frames; Structural, Symbolic, Human Resource and Political. I like to think of them as lenses. One of these lenses is more likely to give you clarity than another. Trying to solve one kind of problem one a different kind of approach can be problematic if not disastrous. I like this because it reminds me that one of my chief responsibilities is to always be asking, “What is really going on here?” http://www.josseybass.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-078797255X.html
One of my favorite articles is from the Harvard Business Review. “Why Transformation Efforts Fail.” Too bad it is cast in such a negative context but the lessons are invaluable. http://hbr.org/2007/01/leading-change-why-transformation-efforts-fail/ar/1
Leadership is more of a responsibility than it is a privilege. Leadership is situational. If you want to be a leader, start leading.
Finally, we approve of someone in power by saying, “he gets it” or more likely “she gets it” and wonder why more people don’t “get” us. But what is it that we don’t get about people who don’t “get it?” And isn’t it more important for us to understand what it is that we don’t “get” so we know how to move forward?
The arts are strange and forbidding to many but anyone can understand our work this way: We help people in our communities build and sustain programs that are important to them. We don’t create these programs; our fellow citizens do. Clearly these things are important to enough to them to make the considerable effort every year to sustain their favorite theatre or dance company or gallery or museum or poetry series. And there are a lot of those folks out there who do this to whom we are too weakly connected.
If these programs are important to them shouldn’t they be worthy of public investment? I think most politicians or “authorizers” (I hate that expression – sounds like part of a 12-step program) can appreciate that much more quickly than anything we like to say about the arts. We provide endorsement and encouragement and some measure of financial support for the good work of our fellow citizens in making their communities more rich, vibrant, lively, economically viable, diverse and interesting.
It is often better to just take “the arts” out of the conversation to begin the conversation.
Justin Laing - Program Officer, Arts and Culture, The Heinz Endowments
If I were to offer a lesson I have learned in my time in the arts it would be the importance of "arts mining". By this I mean finding distinctive qualities of an art form or issue that will allow it to resonate with a new and maybe unlikely set of participants. Not coincidentally, this interest reflects a sensibility that comes from my prior art practice: Capoeira, an art form that defies categorization ("obrigado" to Mistre Nego Gato). Whether it was Capoeira's attraction to lovers of acrobatic performance and Afro-Brazilian culture, it ability to amplify the mission of an African Centered school, or its value as a form of exercise in a fitness center, this kind of flexibility allowed Nego Gato Inc. to have a broad base of support and most importantly, to invest in the art form being the best it could possibly be in Pittsburgh, PA.
Today, I do my best to employ this practice in my job as a foundation program officer. When successful it allows me to highlight the unique capacities of skilled teaching artists in out-of-school time programs, the ways quality arts practice can meet the singular challenges of African American men and boys or the role an empowering arts pedagogy can play in positive community transformation. My hope is that this interest in mining has facilitated fruitful relationships with colleagues within and outside of my foundation and that it has supported quality arts practice of varied forms.
Betty Plumb, Executive Director, South Carolina Arts Alliances
Be bold. If your cause is not worth putting yourself on the line, find one that is.
Don't let others define you, your issues or your efforts. When they do, take it as a compliment because they see you as a threat; then set them straight.
Never forget that we live in a democracy. Don’t let others define for you the proper role of government. The proper role of government is what the people think it should be. It’s your responsibility to help people understand that.
Know what’s at stake, including the issues, the political climate and the players who can make change happen.
Never forget that meaningful change must benefit everyone, even those whose lack of enlightenment causes them to disregard interests other than their own.
Don’t demonize those who oppose your cause. Issues and players change. Today’s opponent could be your next most valuable ally.
If you lose the battle, don’t despair. The war is never ending; your day will come.
No matter what the stakes, no matter how passionately you believe in something, never do anything you would be ashamed to have your mother – or your child – learn about.
Brad Erickson - Executive Director, Theatre Bay Area
One: Stay connected to your passion. What made you want a career in the arts in the first place? Are you an artist yourself? Was it an unbelievably moving performance you saw as a kid? A teacher or parent or mentor who showed you a new way of looking at the world through the arts? What does it take for you to be personally on fire for the arts? Write a play? Act? Sing? Paint? Teach? Produce? Inspire? Make sure, no matter what your arts day job may be, that you make time, plenty of time, to do that.
Two: Take care of yourself. In my first executive director job, my board chair told me to make sure I was taking care of myself. Taking care of me was taking of the organization. What is that for you? Do it.
Ben Cameron - Program Director, Arts, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation
What you want to do with your life is far less important than why you want to do it, what your core values are, what you wish your life to stand for. Jobs will come and go; professions will come and go. Values endure.
In reaching that clarity, declarations of “I believe” can be seductive. “How I live”—a rigorous self-appraisal and analysis of those experiences that have been truly, deeply nourishing—reveals one’s values in startling ways. The best situations are those in which one’s values and the values of the organization where one works are in harmony—and a life worth living occurs when “I believe” and “How I live” are in alignment.
Physical exhaustion? Get some sleep. Burnout? You’ve disconnected from your core values. Make a change.
And do everything in your power to meet and work with Ronnie Brooks.
Three Short Stories by Tommer Peterson, deputy director, Grantmakers in the Arts
The culture of an organization, or a group, or an artistic company is more powerful and a more critical component of its life and work than any mission statement, by-laws, charter or statement. The culture of a group is an aggregate expression of the shared values of the participants, rarely recognized or explicitly addressed, but always present and informing every aspect of the work. It is often unspoken, but shared and recognized by all. In some ways it is akin to personality…intangible and not easily measured or defined. It is less what the group or organization does, than it is the way things are done. The culture of a group deserves close attention.
2. Food Stamps
Decades ago there were two major Federal Food Stamp Offices in Seattle. One was largely successful with well-served clients, staff happy, and services provided. The other was plagued by constituent complaints, personnel difficulties, employee turnover, and uneven service. To make a long story short, a study was conducted. In the end it boiled down to the fact that one director described her job as “getting food assistance to those in need as easily as possible.” The other described her job as “keeping people from getting food stamps who really don't deserve them.”
3. Two Versions
A number of blind men came to an elephant, and someone told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: 'It is like a pillar.' This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently.
In the same way, a person who seeks understanding in only a particular way is limited to that which can be known in that way, and misses the complete picture.
A number of blind elephants were discussing what men were like. After arguing among themselves, they decided to find one and determine what it was like by direct experience. The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, “Men are flat.” After all the rest of the blind elephants felt the man, they all agreed.
Robert Lynch - President and CEO, Americans for the Arts
At some point in their lives about a third of the population by accident or design have an encounter with the arts , a moment through music or theater or film or dance that changes how they see the world. If those people go on to become philanthropists or legislators or just good participatory citizens, they need little more argument to support or embrace the arts. They get it. My unscientific observation tells me this. Experience has shown me that the other two thirds of the population that didn't have this epiphany often need some persuasion, need practical arguments, need more arts education, need advocacy to get there.
I have learned that one plus one does equal three; collaboration works. There is indeed big efficiency, strengthened action, and real clout as payoff. But to get to that payoff is far more difficult than it sounds, which is why so many people give up. And in a sector like the arts where individual vision and creative doggedness are so valued, it can be even more difficult to bring us all together. Nonetheless, when that collaboration and determination can be harnessed as a united team, the effect is unbeatable.
I have learned that today's support base for the arts is very mercurial (much like yesterday's support base) and all too often influenced by the slogan of the moment, sometimes at the expense of the long-term vision of the artists and arts organizations. As that support model inches more and more toward earned income as sixty percent or more of revenue, marketing skills become critical. Learn how to sell stuff.
I have learned that against all odds, predictions, calls for limiting numbers, challenged support bases, negative headlines, predictions of audience attrition, this non-profit arts sector keeps growing. Organizational growth keeps defying the odds. Individuals keep gathering together ideas and resources and each other, forming groups armed with an idea or two and a lot of hope and taking their shot. What wonderful, hope filled, entrepreneurial, and very American spirit.
Olive Mosier - Director, Arts and Culture, William Penn Foundation
I have learned just how much of a turning point the 2008 Independent Sector conference was in shaping my thinking as a funder. Clara Miller, who at the time was CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, said that the country was at a change point and too many nonprofits were trying to simply hold on and come out on the other side rather than reinventing themselves. I learned that, not only did this apply to the cultural nonprofits with which we as funders were working, but it applied to us funders even more. And it’s not over yet. We need to continue to be responsive, flexible, and cognizant of the ever-changing environment that is challenging the cultural sector. We need to allow for the testing of new ideas, recognizing that they won’t always succeed. We need to support the redesigning of business models, recognizing that this, too, often requires some trial and error. And we need to ensure that cultural engagement opportunities are available not only downtown but throughout our cities.
As a regional funder, we at the William Penn Foundation probably have a greater luxury in trying to work this way. To this end, the leadership of the Foundation is taking the needs of the local cultural sector out of the arts and culture funding silo by creating new, cross-sector funding programs that advance creative placemaking in Philadelphia neighborhoods, transform outdated business models, support new solutions, and find new ways of strengthening the field and engaging the public in the arts. We are pursuing an approach that allows for cross-sector learning by both the organizations and the Foundation, which I am also learning is a necessary aspect to all of us succeeding.
Marion Godfrey - Cultural Advisor to the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.
The most important lesson I have learned in 33 years as an arts administrator and grant maker is to ask for help. The worst mistakes I have made resulted from pride and embarrassment that kept me from asking for help to fix or improve something; the very worst mistake got me fired from a good consulting job when a problem turned into a disaster because I didn’t ask for help. The best programs I designed as a grant maker were all, every one, developed based on extensive advice and information from the people I was hoping to support; the most successful benefited from advice and tough critique from my executive and my board. When I didn’t listen to them, the programs weren’t so good.
It is especially important to cultivate your ability to hear people (not just listen politely) when you are on the up side of the power equation, as grant makers often are. I have learned how easy it is, from the safety and security of my perch, to be incurious, and to gloss over the urgency of mission, communicated in telling detail, being offered up by someone on the other side of the table. People who are not empowered are hyper-vigilant, and command a far more richly concrete understanding of their situation and their objectives than those of us who listen by choice rather than necessity. So if you want to do well, and to do good, honor your constituencies by making your listening a necessity.
Ramona Baker - Consultant
It’s always advantageous to have a clear and strategic plan of action, but change happens. Funding can disappear overnight, leaders can come and go quickly, and unexpected opportunities can suddenly appear. If you think of your plans as guides rather than steel walls you stand a better chance of not only surviving but also being able to take advantage of new possibilities. Try not to let your need for control get in your way (I’m still a work-in-progress on that one myself). Remaining flexible will allow you and your organization to keep your footing whether the path suddenly goes up or down. Staying agile and being willing to let your plans change will allow you to respond, adjust, and alter as needed. People and organizations that lock their knees and fight change usually stumble and fall, but I’ve found that organizations that acknowledge the inevitability of change and the importance of flexibility have a much better chance of staying strong and moving forward.
2.Include all voices
It’s tempting to surround yourself with people who are like you. It’s human nature to want to work with staff and board members who share your artistic, political, social, and economic points of view. Reaching agreement with a homogeneous group is easier because you already understand each other. Bringing dissimilar voices into the mix is more challenging but ultimately diverse opinions from different people and backgrounds will make your organization and your leadership much stronger. Including all voices takes more time but being inclusive opens you to a vast array of new ideas, new possibilities, new leadership opportunities, and art that you hadn’t previously considered. I’ve learned that it is easier to accept differences if you first respect those differences. No one group of people has all the keys to fabulous ideas.
Anne Katz - Executive Director - Arts Wisconsin
I’ve learned about humans and human nature. I’ve learned about myself, what matters to me, my strengths and weaknesses (boy, have I learned about my weaknesses), and what I am capable of. I’ve learned about politics, relationships, inspiration, dedication, global forces that affect peoples’ lives, the intricacies of community engagement, trust. I’m learning lessons every day. The reason I still enjoy the job, and what keeps me in this field, is the passion, the challenge, the volatility, the feeling that if I keep exploring, I’ll get it right, someday. In addition, what keeps me in this job and so dedicated to the work are the people and their capacity for greatness.
To elaborate – here are bullet points about what I’ve learned:
- There is astonishing creativity, overt and unseen, in the most unlikely places - well, unlikely to some, but obvious to me in my work in every corner of the state.
- People are dedicated to their families, friends and community.
- People will put superhuman effort into a cause they believe in.
- Humans will stick to their habits and mindsets and work against their own best interests.
- They will also open up their minds, learn new things, seek new directions, at every turn.
- Patience is a virtue, maybe THE virtue needed in this work and in life. Real change happens slowly, much too slowly. And I am so impatient by nature.
- Patience’s partner is persistence. It’s ok to understand that real change happens slowly, but the only way things change is if you keep pushing them to change. My daily mantra is Winston Churchill’s quote: “Never, never, never, never give up.”
- Having a sense of humor in the face of absurdity goes a long, long way.
- Volatility and uncertainty are part of the job. On every level, we can try to control people and situations, as much as possible, but in many ways, we can’t control anything.
- Personalities and politics are the forces that shape a project, an organization and communities.
- The more I am involved in the arts, the more I know that I don’t understand anything about art. I appreciate it, greatly, but understanding…that’s a whole different thing.
Dalouge Smith - President and CEO, San Diego Youth Symphony
Artists stretch and strive. It is inherent in supporting artists that arts organizations, the people running them, and the people working for them regularly extend themselves beyond reason or health. I discovered early that I didn’t always have a choice regarding when and how far I’d have to push myself during moments of production and creation. However, I also discovered that if I didn’t take control of the times when such effort wasn’t required and simply tried to keep up the same pace at all times no one else would guide me to slow down.
Letting art be all encompassing of your identity is often viewed as the route to the heights of achievement. I’ve seen and heard too often of relationships and families that don’t survive the artistic life because the art becomes so dominant. This is probably comfortable for some. I had the good fortune of realizing what was most important to me and what was secondary before reaching such a crisis. Ultimately, choosing to care for myself and having a relationship with my family was what I chose as primary. Even still, I’ve been able to achieve nationally recognized work for my arts nonprofit but within the boundaries I set, not to the dictates or expectations of others at my own expense. I’ve learned that I have to take care of myself and hope others will learn the same.
Barry: And finally here is some of what I have learned (and I say some, because one thing I have learned is that learning is a never ending process. But the process helps keep you involved and engaged, relevant and interested and your mind active. Good return for the investment.
Like many other fields, in our sector, who you know is as important as what you know. That's not to say that we echo a 'good old boy" network and do not value experience, intelligence and knowledge. We do. But it does recognize that much of success has always been built on personal relationships. So network as much as you can. Build relationships - ones that will last over time. And keep them. Ours is also a very generous field, and people are not just open, but quick, to respond to pleas for help. Ask when you need help, guidance, tutoring, mentoring or whatever. You will not very often get turned down.
Remember though, that to have friends, you have to be a friend. Relationships are take and give.
You can learn a lot more by listening than talking.
There will always be people who will tell you why something won't work; people who will tell you why your idea should be forgotten. Listen to legitimate criticism, but don't let the naysayers keep you from moving ahead with your ideas and dreams. The whole world has been continuously changed by one person at a time, a single person who saw something that needed to be done, and then did it. Stick to your guns, believe in yourself, and follow your dreams. Never let them go, never wait for a more opportune time. The time is always now. Believe in yourself. Your job is to figure out how to get the NO people out of your way. Remember that reward often entails risk. And try hard never to step on someone else's dreams.
Most accomplishments are realized by working with other people. Very few things get done all by yourself. Share the credit. Don't worry too much that people will know your contributions to something. You can afford to be generous. And being generous as a mantra will get you farther than being recognized.
Always do your best to produce exemplary work of which you can be proud.
Fluidity will be the byword of the next decade.
When you get to a position of leadership, there is one axiom to remember -- hire the absolute smartest people you can find (smarter than you) and then do your very best to get the hell out of their way and let them do their thing. At the very top of the heap, a leader is two things: a visionary and a cheerleader.
Do not always be too impatient with people, but be very impatient with incompetence. Champion people who report to you in public, criticize only in private.
Like Ringo said in Yellow Submarine in reference to the Nowhere Man: "The first time I met that Nowhere Man, I knew he was somebody". For all of you out there, there are lots of people who know you are somebody too.
So when times are tough, and things aren't going so well. When you are discouraged and life is seemingly relentlessly against you. Don't quit. Just don't, ok? Stay in there and fight -- for your own sense of integrity and worth. Like the wise people know: Dance like no one's watching; Love like you've never been hurt; Sing like you're part of the choir, and somehow let that little kid inside of you back out before it's too late.
If you would like, please feel free to share what you have learned by entering a comment.
Thank you very much to all the participants. You are all the best.
Have a GREAT week.