“Don’t Let Them Use Your Passion Against You”

I always enjoy reading Adam Thurman’s work on Mission Paradox. Recently he posted “An Open Letter to Arts Administrators.” As an arts administrator, I felt obligated to disseminate it a bit. It contains advice that, even if you have heard it before, bears hearing again to remind you of a few things. (It’s also mirrored on Arts Blog. You may find the comments there worth reading.)

The section that particularly resonated with me was:

3. Don’t let them use your passion against you. Consider this:

Imagine you were a lawyer. What if I told you that there were some law firms (not all, but absolutely some) that didn’t get a damn about their employees? What if I told you that some firms were designed to bring in people and get as much out of them as possible before they burned out?

Would you believe me?

Of course you would. Hell, because it’s the legal profession you would expect such behavior.

Here’s da rub:

Some arts organizations are the exact same way.

Just because the end product is art and not a legal brief doesn’t mean the place automatically values their employees. Just because the place is a non-profit doesn’t automatically make it a nice place to work.

But here’s the really messed up part. At some of those arts orgs, if you complain that the hours are unreasonable, or the pay is low, or your input isn’t valued . . . they imply that your commitment to the “cause” is low. They convince you that if you really were passionate about your work, you would put up with the sub par conditions.

Don’t fall for it. It’s a trap. Remember point 1, it doesn’t have to be like that . . . you deserve better.

Been there and done that. I am ashamed to say that I am pretty sure I tacitly supported the “your commitment to the ’cause’ is low” message against other people in at least one place I worked even as I resented working under those conditions. I imagine I enjoyed the approval of my willingness to suffer for the cause and in the absence of any real remuneration, sought more praise by pressuring other people to toe the line. Though I have also declined contract renewals in places with poor work environments, too.

I was encouraged by the memory of two studies I read and blogged on last year, one by Building Movement and another commissioned by the Myer Foundation which showed that the new generation of leaders seek a greater balance between work and personal life and aren’t buying the idea that suffering is proportional to commitment.

What may be the downside for many non-profit organizations is that the leadership, recalling that they sacrificed and brought the company into being by force of will, are reluctant to groom these new leaders because of a perceived lack of commitment on the would-be protege’s part. One desirable benefit can be that the replacement won’t perpetuate a stressful environment. A board expecting the miracles of the last executive director might not make that easy.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts at Shawnee State University. Among the things I am proud to claim are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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