Zen and the art of organizational maintenance
I think it was David Parsons, the Music Officer at the Ontario Arts Council who said to me that while he used to think of arts organizations as going through processes of recovery that would end in a stable state that would remain indefinitely, he now believed that most arts organizations were constantly going through cycles of invention and re-invention if they did not wish to devolve and die.
I agree. Arts organizations that depend upon their founding energy and original creative mission as the only continuing energy in their engine will eventually meet the law of entropy and run down, engine sputtering and eventually failing.
What makes for a resilient arts organization that can recover from challenges and find new momentum?
I think of organizations as having some similarities to mechanical engines. They are propelled by the forces of varying numbers of cylinders and work at peak performance when all cylinders are firing with equal force. They can limp along when one weakens, if the opposite/complimentary cylinder is strong. Certain configurations of failures cause the engine to seize up and fail dramatically, while others just cause slow oil leaks that take years to grind the engine to a halt. In no small part I am drawing my analogy from the classic, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” , a book that talks about how the attention to the small details of systems, ensure that the whole runs trouble-free.
What propels a healthy arts organization?
- Artistic Vision/Leadership–a compelling artistic vision from artist(s) that is at the centre of everything the organization does. The heart of the organization.
- A community that is connected to and responsive to the artistic vision, supporting it as audience, donors and through word of mouth
- A Board of Directors that is engaged through buy-in to the artistic and educational vision of the artistic leadership and provides the direction and resources to realize that vision.
- Management-volunteer or paid that reports to the Board of Directors and carried forward their strategic plan in partnership with artists and community board members
- Staff & volunteers as needed who are selected for the best fit with strategic goals within the living organism of your arts organization.
ARTISTIC LEADERSHIP: It all has to start with the Art.
Artistic Visioning is not something that gets done when the organization has some down time, or as a make-work project funded by OAC’s COMPASS program or Canada Council’s Flying Squad (as is too often the attitude in organizations already in trouble). If there isn’t an Artistic reason for your organization to exist, then quit, get out of the way, give up, fold, you are wasting the audience’s time and scarce resources. There are scores of artists and artists collectives out there filled with creative projects crying out for funding so, “I don’t know, we’ve been presenting concerts for 37 years so we are just trying to keep on doing what we’ve done for those years” just isn’t going to be a compelling battle cry for anyone. If you are parched with thirst for real art, go back to the well, consult with arts visionaries and re-connect with an inspiration to carry you forward again. If your artistic leadership is not inspiring your musicians, your actors, your company, then you have a problem. You are not going to solve that problem by band-aid solutions (programming committees, artistic guidelines, etc.) although those things might help in the short-term. You need to find out what the obstacles (if any) are to the artistic process, help the leader(s) re-charge their batteries, and be prepared to replace the vision or abandon the organization. There is no point to an arts organization without an artistic voice. Does this mean you must be professional? Absolutely not. An arts organization can have at its core a mission to empower and present local amateurs, artistic creation of children and youth.
When do you know when there is a problem in Artistic Leadership?
- Do reasonably informed stakeholders give radically different answers to the question, “What is X arts organization about?
- Do Board members frequently feel that the organization has lost focus, is on the wrong track artistically (because so many discordant visions co-exist)?
- Is programming more often reactive to fundraising, marketing, educational programming rather than being a starting point for those processes.
- Do marketing and fundraising staff often have difficulty in constructing clear, convincing descriptions of artistic programming for brochures and grantwriting
- When Artistic Statements are written for grants & brochures: Do they vary wildly from year to year? Are they so generic that they say nothing about the artistic priorities of the organization?
- Is Artistic vision identified as a problem by major funding bodies?
- Are peer organizations reluctant to collaborate with you because they view your Artistic Leadership as problematic or lacking in vision?
- When you perform formal or informal exit interviews with departing contributing artists/musicians or staff, is lack of artistic vision a recurring theme?
COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS: Art has a purpose and that purpose is how it is transformative in the lives and culture of our practicing artists and the community that the arts organization serves. Finding the balance between artistic vision, serving the community and working transformative magic within the community is the ongoing role of community engagement that the arts organization must undertake as a constant. Communities change constantly and so arts organizations must change also in order to serve new constituency and/or move programs and services to areas craving their programming. A mentor of mine was fond of saying “if people don’t want to come, you can’t stop them”.
Think of two scenarios for a family that has recently arrived in a community. In the first the family gets a brochure for a subscription series to the local orchestra. One child has had an orchestra ensemble visit their school and brought home a study guide. The family saw the orchestra playing in the park during the summer, and mom attended a program at the library on music appreciation led by the orchestra’s artistic director. In the second scenario, the family gets a brochure out of the blue and has never heard of the orchestra. Which brochure will go straight in the re-cycle bin and which one will get a second look?
In two organizations that I worked in during times of economic problems for (respectively) an orchestra and an opera company, their communities were alarmed and outraged at any thought that the organizations would fail. Individuals, corporations, area businesses and civic politicians helped to find ways to restore the organizations to financial health. It is interesting to note that neither communities were terribly wealthy nor noted for culture. But in yet another organization I served in, the organization had decided to pare its programming down to cut all community outreach, made an alienating name change, and disenfranchised community participation … all in the same year. Recovery of community trust was a huge challenge for that organization despite its existence in a privileged community.
ENGAGED BOARD OF DIRECTORS: Without #1 Clear Artistic Vision and #2 Community Engagement, an organization will find it difficult to recruit and motivate a volunteer board.
Boards typically go through a development cycle as organizations grow. Take the example of a community theatre. At first the Board does everything from hanging lights, sewing costumes, selling tickets and holding fundraisers. As staff is hired to take care of production and ticket sales, the Board becomes more engaged in fundraising and community liaison. As the organization is able to afford professional grantwriting and fund-development staff, the Board role will shift to stewardship and making connections to major sponsors and donors for staff to follow-up on.
Board Executive and Nominating Committees have to set clear expectations of Board Members and recruit appropriately. When Board Members expect to be part of a “doer” Board and find that the expectation is mainly fundraising and oversight, they may feel sidelined. When Board Members expect to set policy and direction only and join the Board of a small arts organization, they may be surprised or even offended to be asked to roll up their sleeves and help with the nitty gritty. It is important that Board Members understand that their role is to help fund resources, find resources for the artistic work of the organization and work in ways that support the artistic mission of the organization. I have seen Board Members who behaved as though the arts organization was there to provide opera singers for their private parties, buy services from their clients, and that staff should shelve all artistic production work to assist Board Members with the running of gala balls or golf tournaments. While we all have to work together in arts organizations to raise funds, pulling staffing from accomplishing the core Mission, in order to facillitate Board fundraising initiatives cannibalizes artistic resources and is not sustainable.
MANAGEMENT: The role of the arts manager is to take the artistic program and the resources supplied by Board & funders and to implement the program objectives. Through expert knowledge of the industry, the manager employs best practices, allocating resources as carefully as possible to achieve optimum results.
The manager that is both under-resourced and without a clear and well-ariticulated artistic mission & strong community connections is unlikely to be able to achieve good results. If the organization also is burdened with an unfocused, non-contributing Board, the manager alone will not have the power to turn the engine of the organization single-handedly. In order to write grants, appeal to foundations or seek sponsorships, the manager will need a compelling story to tell about artistic & community arts education plans and the support that exists in the community, demonstrated by results, photos, endorsements. She or he needs the community connections of an engaged Board to gain new funding and connect with local industrial and business leaders. If there is a lack of money for marketing artistic programs, the manager will need the Board’s community connection and legwork to promote artistic programs through grassroots initiatives.
Arts managers are there because they really love the arts and they have a tragic tendency to burn out as they try to prop up failing arts organizations.
WHY DO ORGANIZATIONS FAIL? We always hear of arts organizations failing for lack of money, but I have yet to see an organization fail purely from lack of money. An organization that has less money than is needed to fulfill all it’s programming has to be flexible enough to be responsive to the reality and scale back or make economies to live within its means and simultaneously work on seeking more funds. A healthy arts organization with a clear Mission, valued by the community, with an engaged Board and adequate staffing will survive financial setbacks.
When organizations insist on not changing despite annual deficits, money becomes an issue. When artistic mission is muddy, community connections are lost, fundraising becomes extremely difficult. When Board Members are unclear on their roles, unfocused and non-contributing and sometimes caught up in their own politics, an important driving force in the organization siezes up. When managers and staff are called upon to deliver/sell/find funds programs that have no coherence, artistic energy or community connections, it is no surprise that they fail.