Sunday, September 22, 2013

WHAT I HAVE LEARNED Blog - 2013 Edition

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

Last year I invited leaders from various sectors of the nonprofit arts from all over the country to share some of what they have learned.  I asked a simple question:  "What Have You Learned? - either in the profession of arts administration, or in life generally -- advice you can pass on to others.

It was the second most popular and widely disseminated blog I have written.  Both those willing to share some knowledge and the readers seem to delight in the assignment.  So I thought it worth repeating, and invited a new group of leaders to share their thoughts this year.

Here then is the 2013 version of the What I Have Learned Blog:

Alex Aldrich:  Executive Director, Vermont Arts Council

One of my early mentors hired me as a business manager for a performing arts center.  Each morning at 10 o’clock he’d come by my office and say “I’m going for some coffee.  Wanna come?” And for a full two months I demurred (I didn’t drink coffee and I had a lot of work to do every day!)  One morning, he stayed in my office doorway after I said no. I looked up a second time.  He said “No, I think you want to come have some coffee today.”  At the coffee shop at the end of the block his coffee and Danish were waiting for him at his usual table. His acolytes were at tables nearby waiting for the day’s lesson, but I had the coveted spot at his table. And thus commenced one of the most productive working relationships of my career.  Lesson: work is always about so much more than work, and coffee is always about so much more than coffee.  Since that day, I have always made time for my staff, for my board, for my family, and for my coffee.  It’s worked so far…

Mara Walker:  Chief Operating Officer, Americans for the Arts:

I have been working with and among humans for quite some time now and am focusing my advice in that direction rather than on advancing arts policy which is at once challenging, rewarding and thankless.  To survive it all here are a few tips:

Say yes to every opportunity (even though I am known as the “no” girl at Americans for the Arts). You will experience and learn things you never imagined.

Everyone has something to offer, even the people you want to strangle in their sleep. Learn from others and seek guidance and input. Don’t form your opinion of anyone based on someone else’s.

Always hire brilliant people who are smarter than you and who you would like to get stuck in an elevator with. You may feel compelled to rush to fill a position, but don't.  Take the time to hire right and you will love coming to work every day.

Profound moments of clarity come when you are not checking email, Face Book, twitter, voicemail, or playing Plants Vs. Zombies or Candy Crush. Give your mind the time and space to wander.
Get outside your comfort zone.  I will never zipline or eat exotic foods but I like exchanging ideas with people whose are different than mine and learning from them.

Your greatness comes from the value of the important work you do. Don't seek affirmation by asking for applause. If you are good at what you do people will recognize and respect you for it. And give others the credit.  Authority comes from sharing power, not holding it.

Lead by example and you can create change no matter what your position is within an organization. Don’t whine about a problem, take responsibility for fixing it.  And never complain about something without bringing forth a solution.

Be bold and take knowledgeable risks. Be OK with failure.  Don’t let others stop you from trying something smart and great.

Laugh. Laugh hard every day. Good hard belly laughs. You work hard. Enjoy it.

As I have said to my daughter, “I don’t care what you do as long as you change the world” (I must be a tiresome mother). Spend every day working at something that matters to you, the ones you love and your community.

Arlene Goldbard:  Author, Blogger

(1) Do what gives you pleasure, engages you fully, uses you to capacity, and enables you to feel a sense of alignment and agency. That will feed and sustain you, blurring the line between work and play and inspiring others.

Even one who has taken this advice as often as I have dished it out knows that someone has to clean the toilet, empty the garbage, and perform their administrative equivalent. But a healthy dose of work that feels good and right can lubricate quite a few less pleasant tasks.

The way we shape our stories shapes our lives. When I meet a young person who is already resigned, who sees work as doing what you hate in the hope of someday doing well, my heart breaks. It's not the task but the way you see it: if you regard your work as dues or drudgery, you're choosing a story that's unworthy of your life.

(2) Question conventional wisdom; don't assume the done thing is the right thing.

When you're new in a field, you naturally want to absorb the common wisdom. But you run the risk of repeating past mistakes simply because others are loyal to them. Many arts organizations are in the grip of a superstition, for example: if artists and their advocates look really businesslike while they rattle off economic multiplier effects and metrics, they will lull devotees of the corporate gospel into supporting them. That this loyalty is misplaced can be seen from the public and private budget cuts multiplying every year that this strategy has held sway.

Being guided by past assumptions is like navigating via the rearview mirror. What has stood the test of time—and what just seems that way because people don't question it? Learn everything, but don't be afraid to ask why something is worth learning. For anyone with maturity and wisdom, questioning in the service of understanding—rather than just memorizing and repeating what "everybody knows"—is what you hope to encounter in a young person. If honest inquiry is discouraged, move on.

Diane Sanchez:  Director of Community Investment, East Bay Community Foundation

I have always felt the need to take my work very seriously and perhaps to do too much of it at the expense of other parts of my life. On the flipside I don’t take myself too seriously & anytime I begin to feel important or clever I either try to master my garden or pay a visit to the ocean. It’s great to work like everything depends on you but to really understand that in truth little does, but keep at it anyway.

Work from values, mind your manners but know sometimes you need to take a stand that will make others uncomfortable, try to do this with grace.

If you plan to work in the arts trust artists and try to get out of their way.

I have also learned, somewhat late in life, to pause in conversation, in writing and in thinking to allow for there to be space for something unexpected to happen, for others to find room for their voice and sometimes  to even hear my own heart.

Randy Rosenbaum:  Executive Director, Rhode Island State Council on the Arts

In the movie The Graduate (1967) there’s this great scene at a cocktail party where some business guy leans in close to Dustin Hoffman (“The Graduate”) and reveals to him the secret to his future.  “Plastics!” he says.  If it was me, and Dustin Hoffman was silly enough to consider a career in Arts Administration, I would lean in to him and say “Circles!


Circles, and the consideration of circles, have been the focus of my professional life.  Circles help me define the important people in my life and the value I receive from each in return.  Properly defined, circles can suggest the important work that needs to be done, and can warn you when danger approaches.

Aside from family (the most significant circle of all), my key circle is the people that I work with on a daily basis.  I have no innate talent, but my one skill is being able to hire really great people.  I put them in place, give them a general idea what is expected of them, and then trust them to do the best job possible.

Circles define my job.  At the Arts Council we all relate to one another within the circle of our staff.  This circle is happy and healthy when everyone connects with one another on a regular basis, when we share what everyone is doing, when we collectively contribute to tasks and problem-solving.  I’m responsible for seeing that this relationship is hale and hearty, and that we’re sharing our “joys and concerns” on a regular basis.  In this my title is “Executive Director of Circles”

The issues that come up as part of this exchange help to define – in some small or significant way – my work.  Because I rely on staff to build and maintain their own circles, their relationship with their own assigned communities – arts organizations, individual artists, schools and educators and so on - filter back into our staff circle and help to define what we collectively do as an agency.  Most times this is codified as part of our strategic plan (in a very focused, OCD-sort of process).  But many times it is this exchange of information that helps “drive the bus” of our agency’s work.

Circles can be large (like our individual artist community) or small (like our community of poets and writers).  In the best cases these circles can interact, so you have the classic design of part of one circle overlapping onto another.  During our planning sessions and regular meetings I encourage staff to think about ways to overlap circles in deliberate ways.  For example, we try to encourage arts organizations to reach out – beyond their comfort zone – to communities of color.  We look for ways that artists can collaborate with agencies that support people with disabilities.  Staff helps to make those constructs possible, and the collaboration between staff members – and their circles – is some of the most rewarding stuff we do.

When all is working well these circles are humming along in a calm and pleasing way.  But all too often a circle (or a number of circles) will start to turn an alarming color.  That indicates that something is going wrong, and requires immediate attention.  One of our responsibilities is to monitor our circles, and when a relationship is becoming troubled or dysfunctional, take whatever action is necessary to address the problem.

As director of the agency I have a number of circles all to myself.  I have a circle for the Governor and his senior staff.  The General Assembly has its own circle, as does the leadership of the General Assembly.  My board (the Council) is an important circle, as are important figures in the arts, media and higher education in our state, as well as my peers at other state agencies and at state arts agencies in other states.

All of these circles are important.  Some take more effort than others, but not a day goes by when I don’t think about (and mentally assess) the status of each circle.  I try hard to a tranquil color palette of circles floating overhead.  A good day is when there are no red flashing circles in my universe.
I know we caution people not to "think in circles", but I really believe if you "think OF circles" you have an advantage over most.

Diane  Mattaraza: Consultant

After spending 30 years in and around the arts, especially with those on the front lines creating art and striving to better connect the arts with their communities, I’m very grateful for lessons learned.  Thanks for the opportunity to share them.

1.       I’ve learned best from artists, no matter what path we may choose, staying true to our passion, beliefs, and values matters most.  It keeps life joyful, meaningful, and provides the light, energy, balance, and resilience to get through just about anything.

2.       Organizations with highest levels of relevance have reached into their communities and built strong relationships. When offerings are  informed by research and authentic community connectivity,  it’s a sure strategy for success.

3.       When collective wisdom is prominent in organizations, a closer look will usually reveal there also is a culture of keeping everyone - from creatives, administrators, and board members to volunteers - well-informed, guided, enabled, and empowered. These are the organizations most facile in pursuing opportunities, navigating challenges, and achieving success.

4.       Organizations that are clearest about the strengths, expertise, and skills needed to fulfill their missions and who recruit personnel (paid and volunteer) accordingly fare best.  It’s always curious how organizations with imbalanced board representation or large gaps in staff capacity wonder why they’re struggling.

5.       Good communication doesn’t end with hitting “send.”   The truest measure of clear communication is in the comprehension. Was there follow up to ensure communication was received and understood? Was the desired end achieved?

6.       I once worked with a client whose deliberate decision making could be best described as measuring three times before cutting.  Though the uber cautiousness made me crazy, it taught me always to consider unintended consequences. Better to anticipate and switch gears than stick to the  game plan  and cause harm.

      Generosity of spirit goes a long, long way.   Always err on the side of kindness.

Roberto Bedoya:  Executive Director, Tucson-Pima Arts Council

What have I learned?

A lot… As an arts professional with some 30 plus years in the cultural sector, as a writer, presenter, curator, Executive Director, policy maker, audience member, and gadfly here are a few thoughts:

I often reflect on this quote by the poet Robin Blasé as a touchstone for what I do:

“Cultural conditions always approach what we mean by the word ‘world’ or the process of composing one… The world is never separately - by simplicity’s trick-social, political, artistic or scared but rather, it is made up of entanglement of discourses having to do with men, women, earth and heaven.”

In the entanglement of discourses that is life, I am profoundly lucky to be involved in the process of composing the world with artists, arts leaders, scholars, elected officials, community folks… troublemakers and angels. My story of composing is in many ways linked to three behaviors:

  • Ask difficult questions
  • Listen
  • Care

When I was a kid my older sister would have her girlfriends over for dance parties in the living room and I recall one of their favorite song was Little Anthony and the Imperials and “I’m on the outside looking in”- why do they love those words? Maybe because they were women, brown and poor and the laments of being outside they knew . Years later when I was working at Intersection for the Arts (SF), Patty Smith’s “Outside is the side I take” played in my head as a curatorial reference point as a counter-point to my sister’s beloved song.  And in the 90’s when I was working at the Getty Research Institute where I worked on public programs produced in collaboration with LA community- based arts organization my outside experience was along the lines that some artists and community activists saw me as an outsider cuz I worked in the Big House (the Getty) and for the some of the Getty leadership and staffers I was outside cuz I didn’t have a PHD in Arts History and was too colored for their sensibilities. These snapshots of my outside/outsider experiences is where I learned to ask difficult questions in response to them prompted by my curiosities and probably even more than that my allergic reactions to complicity. I learned to ask questions that disrupted, pushed and expanded the givens. Do it and know the importance of questions to the actions of composing of the world.

Coupled with asking difficult questions is the charge to listen. One must listen with integrity, with compassion, listen to what not being spoken, listen to the interstices. Listening is not a passive activity… it demands concentration, it leads to moments when you encounter what you don’t know, it opens doors and it invites in the good, bad and ugly. From elders, peers and young bloods I’ve benefited from listing to their passions, love, frustrations, intelligence their ways of composing of the world. By listening to these voices I’ve listen to what I don’t know, I listen to what’s outside my frame of experiences, I listen so as to discovery.

To question, to listen, is also to care. It is to care for the entanglements in our life as central to understanding the composing of the world. It is to care for the expressive life of a community. It is to be careful of the talents we work with and our human capacities. At this moment in my career I found myself thinking of care and its embeddedness to belonging and how to understand the work that many of us do as a social movement of belonging that weaves ethics and aesthetics into civic life.  We care and in doing so engage with personal memories, cultural histories, imagination and feelings to enliven the sense of “belonging” through relationships, that composes the world, that animates the plural.

So what have I learned about this sector I work in….  it’s fun work, it’s where you confront barriers, you haves success, you have failures, you learn by asking difficult questions, by listening, by being of care.

Kris Tucker:  Executive Director, Washington State Arts Commission

I’ve had to learn how to show up in a big state, with elected officials who have Bigger Fish to Fry and arts organizations who need bigger grants than ours. Showing up means being in the room, at the table, in the conversation, on the radar. Showing up is being genuinely present.

This means visiting the little all-volunteer arts organization 400 miles from my office and 30 miles from about anywhere. It also means getting out of bed for monthly early morning meetings with Seattle arts leaders to talk about arts advocacy – to think together, share news, be part of the conversation. It means meeting with the aide for the legislator who has voted against state or federal funding for the arts, and knowing when to ask about her arts experience and finding out she was a dancer, an actor, the best friend of someone whose life was saved by the arts. She hasn’t talked about it for a while, but she’s thinking about it now.  It means phone calls and emails when I can’t make it to the meeting or to keep the conversation going or to keep in touch or because I am thinking of someone.

Showing up means I have questions that remain unasked because  there just isn’t enough time to talk it all through. I am still learning to pay attention and figure out what needs to be said when, what needs to be done now, who can move things forward.

I’ve learned that every meeting needs an agenda so people think it’s worth it to show up. That my facts must be accurate because someone might be paying attention. That my publications must be clear and compelling and worth keeping around. That leadership really is about relationships – and that relationships are built by showing up.

Bill Ivey: Author; Former Founding Director, The Curb Center; Former Chair National Endowment for the Arts

What I’ve Learned:

In the early 1970s, at age 27, I became the first full-time director of a Nashville nonprofit, the Country Music Foundation.  Featuring a Hall of Fame, research library, supported mostly by earned income, the CMF was scarcely a typical arts organization.  But the NEA’s then-new Folk Arts Program was casting about for institutional partners, and since the US had almost no folk-arts nonprofits, country music’s legitimate folk roots enabled the CMF and its director to slip into America’s rarified, intellectually-charged, NEA-based, mostly-fine-arts cultural scene.  (There were a few sidelong glances.)

Glamour and excitement!  The Old Post Office!  Application review and arts policy debate with the likes of Harold Prince, Pete Seeger, and John Lewis!  And we’ve learned this was just the beginning; over the next half century museums, orchestras, dance and theater companies were launched, foundations and corporations joined in, every level of government formalized support.  This rising tide ultimately grew our sector from a few thousand big-city-clustered institutions into the 100,000-plus nonprofits that define the arts world today.

Growth like this required captains of industry.  We attracted a remarkable cohort of institution-builders: Nat Leventhal, Michael Kaiser, Nancy Hanks, Bob Lynch, Carter Brown, Speight Jenkins, Molly Smith, Jonathan Katz, Sy Rosen, Roger Mandle, Gordon Davidson, Peter Gelb.  Artists infected with the institution-building gene also kicked in: think Redford, Sills, Jamison, Keillor, Stern, Baryshnikov. Whew!  A woefully incomplete listing, to be sure, but enough to confirm the capacity of our world to find the right people for the right job at the right time.

It made for an exciting half-century: a few got rich, some did very well; many seized the opportunity to advance personal vision, enlivening the scene with improvisational management and quirky professional personalities.

But I’ve learned that nothing is forever; today our rising tide recedes.  STEM standards push arts from schools; foundations abandon culture for education, global health, the environment; museums feature Punk Rock, David Bowie, and Friday-evening “do-you-come-here-often” mixers; the NEA drifts without confirmed leadership under the cloud of a miserable committee budget number; orchestras are plagued by shortfalls and labor disputes.  I could go on.

And our first cohort of leaders is exiting; that’s ok.  Of necessity, they were masters of process.  Their accumulated understanding of board-building, development, endowments, community outreach is appropriately enshrined in the offerings of arts management programs.

So I’ve learned that we need a new generation of leaders – not entrepreneurial managers but visionaries who can engage the concerns of mainstream public policy thinkers.  Here’s truth: art making and cultural heritage offer Americans our best and most-affordable antidote to the dehumanizing social effects of technology and globalization.  But I’ve learned that this 21st-century “Arts Advantage” will only be made real if new leadership crafts and advances foundational ideas that reach beyond the worries of our sector to address challenges facing American democracy.

Jamie Bennett:  Chief of Staff, National Endowment for the Arts
I was trained as a fundraiser, and I used to worry about organizations that would fall prey to "chasing the money," organizations that would, for example, disingenuously starts an arts education program with a public school just to have pictures of smiling (preferably racially diverse) children to include with grant applications.

I now worry much more about organizations that are "chasing the audience."  The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott and the League of American Orchestras' Jesse Rosen discussed this issue recently in the New Republic.

Absolutely arts organizations need to change and adapt, but they also need to remember why they exist in the first place.

I think Cleveland’s Ensemble HD has gotten it exactly right.  They are a sort of offshoot of the Cleveland Orchestra that performs at the Happy Dog, a local bar that offers “live music, good food, cocktails.”   HD recently released their first recording – on vinyl and funded through Kickstarter.

They have drawn a bright line around what is sacred to them: the quality of their repertory and the excellence of their musicianship.  These two things will never change.  But everything else is on the table: where they perform, when they perform, the behavior that they expect from their audiences, the fact that Monday night football might be playing silently behind them – because they have decided that none of these things changes their reason for existing in the first place: to excellently perform works from the chamber repertory.

Don Randel, former president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, once worried to me that arts organizations too often fall into the trap that many cathedrals do – doing the same thing, at the same time, in the same way week after week no matter if there are 100 people in attendance or 1.

The best cathedrals, like the best arts organizations, have learned to protect the sacred, if you’ll pardon the adverb, religiously, but to consider everything else.  A friend of mine recently presided over a blessing of the bicycles at St. John the Divine in New York City – scripture is largely silent on bicycles, and it invited in a lot of New Yorkers who might not otherwise have attended.

If you are part of an arts organization, make sure you know why you exist.  Never stray from that.  And then set to work questioning everything else.

Jonathan Glus:  CEO Houston Arts Alliance

Sometimes leading means being at the front line, pushing forth an initiative in a very public way. It can be exciting work that can be rewarding through professional development and public impact.  However, the most powerful, and ultimately the most rewarding work is accomplished through leading from behind. That is often about deeper engagement and empowering others, which will bring far greater sustainability.

Many years ago Janet Carl Smith, a long time Chicago arts administrator who was extraordinary at leading by empowering others, told me that this may be life work, but balance is the only way to achieve longevity. Of course, I didn't believe it then, but I do now. Leadership means knowing one's limits and finding a balance between challenging one's self and those with whom you work and respecting other's needs. Sometimes the best approach is a few hours off.

Not everyone is a Bill Gates, but  everyone has their own Bill Gates to tap inside. Everyone's measure of achievement is different. We are good leaders when we help others achieve their own Bill Gates, not our own.

Listen to those first few words people say when you arrive in a new city or organization. "It's all about the people here," or "you learn to love this city in small bites" - it's true. Every place is wholly unique. A community's shared story or mythology is powerful whether or not it appears so at first glance.

Creating partnerships and collaborations is hard work. Set clear expectations. Don't over expect. Resources and expertise vary tremendously, even among the largest organizations. Partnering with non-arts organizations can bring great results, but be clear on the goals. They will differ and that is ok.

The artist is at the core of our work. It doesn't happen without him or her.

Always say thank you.

Andrew Taylor: Assistant Professor of Arts Management, American University; author of 'The Artful Manager' blog

I have learned that a question is almost always the best approach: to begin something, to welcome someone, to unlock a stubborn problem, to enlist enduring support, to launch a difficult conversation, or to become a part of a community rather than standing apart.

In a world of declarations that define boundaries, a question is an invitation to cross boundaries. In a room full of strong opinions, a question is a disarming force that can open minds. When I've found the courage to ask a question -- especially when every impulse in me wants to judge, accuse, dismiss, instruct, conclude, correct, or just disappear -- I've been grateful for it. And yet, I'm still learning my own advice.

In the spectrum of possible questions, though, not all are created equal. Among the lower forms to avoid are:

* the 'look how smart I am' question, a common preening behavior at conferences, where the point is to boast a personal victory rather than build a conversation;

* the 'look how dumb you are' question, intended to be cruel, embarrassing, or belittling;

* the loaded question, piled high with narrow facts and fancy rhetoric to defend your current opinion.

The best questions (like the best leaders) are genuine, generous, and courageous. Genuine, in that they signal a true interest in learning from the response. Generous, in that they offer focused space for someone else to speak. Courageous, because bold questions make you vulnerable -- to attention, dismissal, or the frightening insight that you don't know everything.

Most of all, ask questions of yourself. When tempted to blame or belittle yourself, or something you've done, or something you can't bring yourself to do, ask a genuine, generous, and courageous question instead. And invite yourself into a useful conversation.

We all deserve that kind of respect.

Douglas McLennan:  Founder and Editor, Arts Journal; Digital Projects Architect USC Annenberg School of Communication / Getty Arts Journalism Program

I’d like to think I learn something everyday. I’d like to think that learning makes me smarter. I’d like to think that being smarter makes me happy.

All these things are true in a way. And yet, you won’t be surprised to know, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Learning is like money; it doesn’t start to realize its value until you spend it. This can be more problematic than you might think.

Learning things is not the same as knowing things. Learning how to use something you know can be hard. I’d love if there were some kind of formula that produced great ideas. Something like:

                   Inspiration  x   _knowledge       =   Great Idea
                                         Learning x work

Ain’t gonna happen.

Great ideas aren’t usually all that great until you roll them around in your hands a while and try them out on people. Nothing deflates faster than a great idea you can’t explain.

Here’s something: When something is hard, there’s usually a really good reason. Try to listen harder.

Something else: Doing something by yourself because you’re brilliantly talented guarantees your own limitations. A little less talent and a lot more sharing unlocks greater potential.

Give people something brilliant you’ve made and they’ll celebrate your brilliance. Give them something they can use to make themselves more brilliant and they’ll invest in your mutual success (there’s a difference).

All this might sound great. I’ve learned a lot. But just because I’m learning doesn’t mean I can do it. Learning, it turns out, might be the easy part. Doing it, well that’s a work in progress.

Janet Brown:  President and CEO, Grantmakers in the Arts
What I’ve Learned – A lot but here are Two Big Things

1. Leadership is an art, everyone wants it, not everyone understands it.

Boards of directors and staff want leadership.  The role of an effective nonprofit leader places us in the creamy filling of the Oreo cookie…sandwiched between the board (our bosses) and the staff (our subordinates.)  Making everyone happy is an art in itself. Leadership, unlike management, is transformational and isn’t neatly outlined in rules, best practices or procedural manuals.  For the most part, it is instinctive. But I’ve learned there are some traits from great leaders that we can attempt to emulate.  Good leaders are honest, trustworthy, passionate, role models, energetic, selfless, principled, confident, inclusive knowledge gatherers and responsible decision-makers, well-spoken and ethical.  This is the short list.

Good leaders also have what I call “interpersonal strategic skills.”  This is the magic. This is Henry V inspiring his army to follow him as a “band of brothers” to certain death.  This is not taking credit for everything but allowing a co-worker or board member to get the glory. This is understanding that we are humans first, (despite who is right or wrong or what is written in the by-laws) and appealing to the better natures in all of us.  Leaders think strategically about consequences and about how others will act and react to decisions and actions.  They prepare themselves and others in advance for change or uncertainty. They instill courage through their own confidence that problems can be solved with good work and honest communication. Leadership has power but it’s not about power.  It’s about inspiring people to understand a vision and to feel safe in their attempt to achieve it.

2. Standing for something always wins over being very popular
Principles mean something. Mission means something.  Staying true to your organization’s mission and values is critically more important than pleasing a criticizing politician, disappointed artist, angry board member or aspiring donor.  Great case in point is what happened to the Corcoran Museum during the cultural wars in the 90s. Long story short, they closed a show that was controversial because of Congressional and media pressure thereby causing their base (arts patrons and artists) to denounce the museum.  Management resigns, most of the board resigns, the organization loses financial support. They betrayed the very people they were founded to support. When we stand by our values, the answers are clear.  Will everyone be happy? No. Will you lose some support?  Maybe. But the organization and you, as a leader and manager, will have stood for something you can defend with those who believe in you most. The rest don’t really matter.

Margot Knight:  Executive Director, Djerassi Resident ArtistsProgram
Eight Things I've Learned the Hard Way in 35 years and 300 words

1)  It's a mistake to confuse professional and personal relationships.  e.g. the staff who report to you are not your friends (which doesn't mean you can't be friendly) and you are agent and educator of your board, not their friends.

2)  All of life is knowing when to throw your shoe.  BEFORE drawing a line in the sand or throwing a controlled (or not) hissy fit, ask yourself, "Does my life (and/or the direction of the organization) have a clear enough settled purpose that this extreme response is NOT just a random act but critical to my and the organization's success.

3)  When in doubt, go for honesty and transparency.  Non-profits are community-owned--neither the staff nor the board owns them.  The more inclusive you are, the stronger you'll be.  Secrecy is the refuge of cowardly, controlling dictators, not non-profits in a pluralistic democracy whose currency is the community's trust.

4)  The most important relationship in a non-profit organization is that between the executive leader and the board chair (I've had 20 chairs in 23 years!).  It sets the tone and strategic direction for the organization and its work.

5)  There can be no full communication among people with unequal power.  Whether the power differential exists due to money, class or position, keeping this rule in mind as you deal with funders, board members, staff, etc is useful.  There is always more you don't know than you know because status can interfere with people's ability  to be authentic with you.

6)  Believe in the generalized theory of exchange.  Sometimes you get credit for things you didn't do.  Other times you don't get credit for things you did.  It all works out.  Share credit generously.

7)  Never give up.  HOGWASH.  I'd rather go down 100 idea-roads and give up on 10 in fast-failure mode than slog away at 10 with minimal pretend-success.

8)  Admit when you're wrong, make amends and move on.  A little contrition goes a long way.  Arrogance is the refuge of cowardly, etc. etc. (see point 3).

Jonathan Katz:  Executive Director, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies

I have learned that all politics is personal and there are layers of meaning to this principle.  One layer is that different decisions affecting different policies and different resource allocations exist at the federal, state and local levels.  It takes expert advice to identify the programs, people and decisions one has to influence in order to maintain public support for any cause, including the broadening and deepening of public participation in the arts. Another way in which all politics is personal is that the vast majority of political decision makers are available for a meaningful conversation about a cause, including the arts, if approached by a constituent.  Political decision makers are interested in increasing their power and resources, pleasing people they care about, and improving the way things work. The more personal the relationship, the more what they care about can be understood, and the more effectively a cause can be presented. Multiply the human and financial resources invested in a cause and a constituency is created. The constituency for the arts has demonstrated enormous resiliency during this past decade of recessions. It can be broader, more purposeful, and even more effective in the future.

Anita Walker:  Executive Director, Massachusetts Cultural Council

It’s been a nice ride, but this train is not taking us where we want to go.  I’m talking about the “creative economy” train that barreled across the country turning the arts into economic development at every stop and crossing.

In 2000, I was an excited new state arts agency director in Iowa trying to get the attention of my governor.  It’s always all about the economystupid, so when I read Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class offering a real, live economist’s case for the arts as economic driver and community revitalizer, in compelling tasty fashion, I not only ate it up, I served it up on a silver platter.

We brought Florida, the groovy guy in a leather jacket, to Des Moines, threw the first unconference (no seats, no white linen table cloths on 8-seat rounds…cool, huh?) Legislators swooned at Florida’s grooviness and the way he said it was possible for the most backward, rural SLTs (Iowan for shitty little towns) to become a magnet for young entrepreneurs. The Governor read Florida’s book and “got it.”
We marched a thousand strong to the state capitol on advocacy day, lime green hats on our heads, the “creative economy” on our lips.  We were all about attracting workforce, creating jobs, stimulating the economy.

The legislators listened.  They increased our funding.

And thus it has been ever since.  State arts agencies across America creating new arts-as-economic-development programs, collecting economic impact data, casting the power of the arts in economic terms.  Look at the jobs we create.  Look at the taxes we collect.  We’re part of  tourism, one of our state’s largest industries.  We hitched a ride on the economy train on our way to more funding for the arts, but we’re being taken to a very different destination.
Today, fewer than half of our state arts agencies are independent agencies.  Twenty-three are divisions of multi-agency departments and eight are firmly planted in economic development agencies.  And as measurement and accountability increasingly become drivers in government, state arts agencies embedded in other departments are increasingly required to align their goals with those of their parents.  In government, the North Star is the economy and everyone wants to win the race to become its most powerful engine.

Ever try to talk to a legislator about the arts and not mention the economy?  When’s the last time you talked about the intrinsic value of the arts?  That would virtually guarantee a budget cut.

Once you’re on the economy train, it’s virtually impossible to get off.  You know the song about Charlie and the MTA…did he ever return, no he never returned…he may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston, he’s the man who never returned.

It’s time to return…to remind ourselves of what is truly the transforming power of this work.  That is creativity, human expression, human engagement, excellent art.
And it’s really hard to measure. The economy’s easy…hey, it’s made up of numbers.  Art…not so much.

In the kind of economics I do, I aggressively try to help people understand that we ought not be pricing some things,” said David Swenson, Iowa State University economist. “Arts and culture have a value to a community that is way beyond what I write on Table 8. They’re part of the core, part of the bundle of amenities that constitute a livable place.

You can’t quantify that.

This is not to say that the arts are not relevant in a conversation about the economy…or education…or youth violence…or health care…or aging…or diversity…or international diplomacy…or even climate change.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council is not an economic development agency, but when we do arts well, tourists visit and spend money, communities become destinations and better places to live, jobs are supported and created, innovators want to live here and build new businesses.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council is not an education agency, but when children have a quality experience participating in the arts…in school, and out of school…they exercise their creative minds, learn to think critically, are better observers and team players, get a better education.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council is not a human service agency, but when some of our most troubled youth participate in arts programs that give them a productive outlet for their fears and anger, provide a supportive community, build self esteem and teach skills that will last a lifetime…these young people are saved from gangs, prison, even death.

I can write about impact and outcomes, but when it comes to the arts, the heart is more articulate:

“It is a remarkable experience to witness a high school student watching a young adult with down's syndrome or cerebral palsy offer a sonnet, and think to himself, ‘I want to do that.  I want to have that kind of courage, that kind of conviction.’  Or to be a man or a woman of any age and watch someone you have typecast in your heart of hearts as somehow less than, stand in the center of a crowd and speak a truth about what it is like to dream of being seen for all of what you offer and know that a wall has just fallen...and through that kind of honest performance, know that you have been changed for the better,” writes Maria Sirois about Community Access to the Arts in Great Barrington.

John McGuirk:  Program Director, Performing Arts Program, Hewlett Foundation

At Hewlett Foundation, we’ve been exploring the critical questions: who participates in the arts, and who benefits directly from the Performing Arts Program’s financial support? This past year, we conducted a pilot study with WolfBrown and 21 grantees using various survey methods (paper, online, on-site interviews) to collect standardized demographic information and feedback from audiences and participants.

We learned that:

  • collecting comprehensive data is expensive and time-consuming, and ultimately will not deliver the scale and specificity to assess impact over time,
  • response rates varied generally from 25-50%, and there were several biases—women were over-represented by 5-10%; slighter differences were observed in regard to age and race/ethnicity,
  • there are specific barriers to collecting information from young people (under the age of 18). With large numbers of arts education programs and the diverse demographics of those served, the full story of arts participation is incomplete,
  • it takes nuanced cultural competencies to survey diverse communities, and standardized race/ethnicity categories used by the US Census are ineffective,
  • non-profit performing arts organizations need training to conduct rigorous audience research and analysis, then to apply the results.

Based on what we learned during the pilot, we recently launched a two-year initiative, Audience Research Collaborative, with the primary purpose of building the capacity of 50 grantees. This initiative will develop our grantees’ skills to collect, interpret, and utilize audience feedback to strengthen strategic planning and measure progress toward institutional and programmatic goals.

Richard Kessler:  Dean, Mannes College

What I Have Learned?

People hate change.

It’s a job, not your life.

Give credit; don’t take it.

No matter how many times I have been involved with changing an organization, I am always amazed by the apparently instinctive negative response to change. Thus, developing a set of tools to effectively manage change and in particular the fear of change is something that I have worked on for a long time. Particularly considering our volatile times, which are likely not to quiet down anytime soon, I think that any time spent learning how to help facilitate, cajole, position, find partners, find surrogates, escape straight jackets, and for that matter study Houdini’s tricks of the trade will be time more than well spent.

Okay, I struggle with the issue of work-life balance. Funny thing, I can see it clearly when colleagues come to me for advice and I end up urging them to not get lost in their work. What I tell them is that in retrospect, once you leave the organization, you realize that it was just a job. These gigs can eat your alive if you let them, but hey, if you leave, you’re gone and you might just wonder why you put your life on hold for that job. Take it from me, it’s a job, don’t let it hold you back from having the life you deserve, which after all, takes its own sort of work and attention.

I deeply believe in distributed leadership and find it to be the hallmark of the healthiest of enterprises. It helps to ensure smooth transitions as staff members come and go, it recognizes that leadership occurs across the strata of an organization, it helps people to grow in their jobs, and rewards people for their good work. In order for this sort of approach to flourish, you’ve got to be committed to giving credit and by giving credit you will in turn receive beautiful rewards for being a good leader among leaders.

Barry:  One thing I have learned that I find helpful:  Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. And sometimes, the journey actually is the destination.

Thank you to all of those who took the time to share some of what they have learned.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit