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Author Archive | Joe Patti

Would The 18 Year Old You Listen To Career Advice From 40 Year Old You?

Yesterday Thomas Cott tweeted two articles taking a Pro and Con view of the value of arts degrees. The first talked about how you don’t have to appear on Broadway to have derived value from your theater degree. The second wondered if BFA and MFA programs in dance aren’t part of a pyramid scheme.

My criticism of both articles is that they overlook just how important self-motivation and the influence of social dynamics are as factors in your success.

The piece about theater degrees rehashes lists I have seen in multiple places about how many key life and business skills you pick up by studying theater. These lists ignore the simple fact that you only acquire these skills by applying yourself diligently — something you can accomplish by working in construction, catering, and auto repair while pursuing any number of humanities degrees.

Theater doesn’t enjoy some special lock on the cultivation of creativity and marketable skills.

In the piece about dance degrees, I agree that too many training programs in the performing arts, including dance, don’t emphasize the need to develop career skills nearly as much as they should. I have done a lot of tongue biting over the years when I have wanted to scream in protest.

To some degree it is difficult to communicate the importance of acquiring these skills to young adults who just want to perform. In theater, it is hard enough to get actors to seriously apply themselves to learning technical theater skills even knowing the skills make them more employable.

The thing is, training in higher education is expensive across the board. If you think you can acquire the knowledge and skills on your own either through a series of employment opportunities or by independent or online study, that is great.

But for most people, going to school is the only way to raise your abilities to the standard required or the only way to keep yourself motivated and focused on acquiring those skills.

While I probably could have picked up the same abilities I acquired while pursuing my MFA in Arts Management through jobs and studying, I don’t know if I would have been motivated enough to do so at the time I enrolled. It probably would have been a number of years later before I was together enough to do so on my own.

In some respects, I use the audience for this blog as a substitute for the formal school environment to keep me motivated to constantly read, research and think about arts management.

That brings me to the other factor I mentioned earlier, social dynamics. This is something that exists in every arts training program, that no school can honestly represent the quality of.

How you interact with other students, faculty, members of the general public can have an enormous influence on you. This can determine how driven you are, how culturally omnivorous you are and what opportunities you avail yourself of.

I say that no training program can honestly make claims about how supportive the environment that their school is because these dynamics are constantly shifting and changing. Numbers of students, faculty and performance opportunities printed in a brochure have nothing to do with it.

I worked in places with a large number of undergraduate and graduate students who were involved with a good number of projects. Except, as mentioned in the article about dance programs, they were all associated with the academic program and few people worked on independent projects.

I have worked at a community college that didn’t even have a minor in a performing arts discipline and students were involved with creating their own performances on campus, forming performance groups with people from the community, involved with other established performance groups and picking up cross-disciplinary skills in the process.

Some of this was facilitated by efforts the academic departments made, but by and large it was the result of a cohort of students who kept each other motivated and managed to sustain their energy even after graduations. None of it was part of some long range plan. It just happened.

I can’t say who has the better chance of being employed as artists over the long term. Formal training programs have the imprimatur of a degree, the cachet of their name and the network contacts of alumni and faculty.

People who have been omnivorous in their pursuits may develop a following and recognition that their creativity, range of knowledge and skills and entrepreneurship are well suited to the current arts environment.

The truth is, it isn’t too long after you graduate that what you have done and what you can do right now becomes more important than where you studied. (Though certainly there are places whose name recognition is still impressive 20 years after you graduated.)

But as anyone who reads this blog can tell you, working in the arts is really hard.

Admittedly, when you are 18-20 years old, it is extremely difficult to know what education and career path you should be pursuing to bring the most success. The same is pretty much true at 40.

When you are looking at a career in the performing arts, the cost of attending a training program or forgoing it is not as real to you as it is four years or so later and you look back in regret at choices made or not made.

Let’s also be honest that training programs want to sell you on attending them. As an aspiring artist, you are going looking for them. It may actually be to the credit of BFA & MFA programs moreso than many other academic disciplines that they reject a lot of people. This may be the biggest favor they do for many.

Yes, they need to do a much better job in respect to preparing people for careers and should be working harder to discourage people who aren’t exhibiting the discipline and skill at that time that they need to succeed.

But it really is not in their best interest to dissuade people too strongly.

The benefit students today have over students from 10-15 years ago is that so much about the reality of an arts career is discussed online now. It is possible to make a much more informed decision today.

Think back though. Even if you sought out or were given links to articles like the one about dance programs being a pyramid scheme, would the 18 year old you have been dissuaded?

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Can Fundraising Be Inspirational To All Involved?

Last Thursday I attended an art show opening at the shop of a wood furniture maker. The owner of the shop invited some college kids in to festoon his walls with their work which leans heavily toward graffiti.

A couple things struck me while I was there.

First, the owner of the shop sells his furniture starting at about $2500 and going up. Except for a handful of people, few attendees at the opening could likely afford to buy his work because they were mostly college students.

Likewise, the fact the artists worked in a graffiti style, the art work isn’t likely to attract the type of people who will spend $2500+ to his store while the art show is up.

Clearly, the store owner was motivated by a desire to support local artists and not by a desire to grow his customer base.

I was impressed by the work the students had put into the installation. There were a few hundred hours worth of effort invested.

What I valued more was the opportunity this offered the artists to talk about their work with people they had never met. This is an important skill for an artist to acquire and be comfortable with as they work to advance their career.

These guys were really well organized. They had prints, tshirts and stickers for sale. They also had a laptop with a slide show of their work so you could order tshirts.

On the whole, they were doing a really good job of promoting themselves with the help of this business owner.

You may take inspiration from this story or it may give you ideas for a program you can cultivate among businesses in your community.

Much about this story is exactly what occurs when a non-profit organization asks a person or business for support in some fashion.

People give, and even though the organization may offer different levels of recognition, unless the donor/sponsor is giving a major amount or your organization is a focus of social and business activity in the community, there may not really be any direct benefit to their company in the form of goodwill or increased business.

As I thought about it, I realized when it happened to someone else, it was inspiring and exciting. When you have to solicit support for yourself in order to secure fiscal stability, it is business and somewhat burdensome.

When I tell you, look at this case, the gesture this business owner made enabled these artists to hone their communication skills and promote their work, it sounds so exciting and inspirational.

Telling a donor or granting entity that their support will enable fledgling artists to improve their ability to discuss and promote their work, it doesn’t feel as exciting. Maybe because you know this is only a small part of what the money will be used for or perhaps because the solicitation doesn’t have an immediate and direct connection to the result.

I have been wonder since last Thursday if there were any way to instill more of a sense of excitement and inspiration into the solicitation process but I can’t really think of any.

The artists who showcased on Thursday got their opportunity because they met the business owner at a similar opening that occurred in December. The person who is rumored to be doing the next show met the owner in much the same way.

But by and large, no one will know you need support unless you tell them so you need to go through the solicitation process. There is a certain degree of scrutiny and follow up reporting that is involved with any significant transfer of monetary and material support.

As much time, inconvenience and effort the business owner has spent by allowing different artists to showcase in his store, the expense hasn’t been terribly large for him at this point.

The only time the process isn’t going to require bothersome and boring effort that I can see is if you happen upon a comedy movie ending where you inherit an enormous sum from an unknown admirer.

For all my doubts, I still wonder if it might be possible to make fund raising/solicitation an enjoyable experience for everyone involved. I would love it if the experience I had last Thursday was scalable so I am especially curious to learn if anyone out there has managed to design such an experience.

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Recent Trends In Non Profit Governance

Last month Non-Profit Quarterly (NPQ) published a summary of BoardSource’s governance index, Leading With Intent.

The summary is encouraging in that it shows a vast majority of non-profit boards engage in good governance practices. (Although NPQ notes that the results may be slightly skewed given most people on BoardSource’s survey mailing list tend to be people who have contacted them due to interest in good governance.)

The disappointing, though not surprising, finding is that most board and executive leaders are Caucasian and over 40.

“But the lack of inclusion of younger people and people of color on boards and as executive directors seems to point to an unwillingness to join in and make best use of the current societal disruption.

Young people have a different experience base in the political and social uses of networks, which relates to the ability to approach big questions. Additionally, smaller boards can best work for the good of a larger community if those boards have an understanding of how to interact effectively with a larger, more diverse, and unbounded governance system of stakeholders. This cutting edge of governance requires cultural wisdom and the wisdom of younger leadership.”

I was interested to learn that board size has shrunk by 20% between 1994 and 2014 and there is a de-emphasis on people with connections to money. (my emphasis)

The thought that boards must be packed with influential connectors seems to be going the way of the dodo, at least for many organizations. This fits well with the idea that boards should know how to interact effectively with larger systems of governance and support. “Interacting effectively” in these times means that board members are connected enough to the organization and its stakeholder environment to ensure proper communication with stakeholders. Board members should be capable of listening with an educated ear for the tremors and trends in the organization’s environment. A lack of diversity on the board interferes with the capacity to accurately “listen.”

Although NPQ was generally optimistic about it, I had mixed feelings about the news that executive directors have remained in their jobs rather than making a mass exodus as was once feared. My feelings are the same as they were back in 2007/2008 when the concern about mass retirement of executive directors was first expressed.

At that time there weren’t many organizations with succession plans in place or an active efforts to cultivate people to assume those positions and according to the current NPQ article, there still aren’t. While NPQ acknowledges the lack of succession planning is a problem, my focus is more on the cultivation of new leaders.

My fear is that if potential leaders don’t feel like they are being challenged and provided with significant responsibility and decision making opportunities, they may choose to shift their careers elsewhere. The result may be a new generation of leaders with very shallow experience with non-profit work.

I often encourage people to read the full text of a report and that is especially true for this one since NPQ is soliciting articles that make use of the compiled data. If this is a topic which interests you, consider writing about it.

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Info You Can Use: Talking To Strangers

The recent NEA report on why people don’t attend arts and cultural event mentioned not having someone to attend with was a barrier to entry. Daniel Pink recently tweeted a story that gave me an idea for alleviating that issue.

Seats on buses in Brazil are being reserved for “making new friends.” You sit in the seat if you are open to having a conversation with strangers. There are Post-It notes attached to the Reserved Seating signs with conversation starters provided.

Even though the content of this video is in Portuguese, I am pretty sure no translation is necessary-

The application for arts organizations is probably pretty evident. Reserve some really great seats at an attractive price for people who are open to having conversations with strangers.

You would want to sell them individually so friends couldn’t grab them themselves or at least sell them in odd numbers if you think you can trust two people who are acquainted to include the individual sitting next to them in a conversation.

The museum version might be having stickers people can wear or a bench at which people can wait in order to pair/group with like minded strangers and wander the galleries together.

Like the bus program, you can provide conversational prompts that are both generic ice breakers as well as specific to the event people were attending.

But don’t hand the ice breakers out to participants at the box office. Having little signs and Post It prompts attached to the backs of the seats in front of the participants is a good way of promoting the program and it gives other passersby an opportunity to grab some questions for themselves.

If you can provide an after event socialization opportunity in the lobby, local restaurant or bar, so much the better.

And if you can provide discounted tickets for a year to anyone who participated in your “Make New Friends” program, even if they only come back alone, that would be really great!

Having to increase the number of seats available to your “Make New Friends” program because former participants kept returning in order to extend their year of discounts wouldn’t be the worst problem to have.

Having them return with their newly made friends is no problem at all.

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