Do Differences Still Impede Collective Action?

I am off at the Arts Midwest conference this week, but as always have prepared some entries to cover my absence.

I thought it would be appropriate to revisit part of a report that was issued after the 2008 National Performing Arts Convention.  (I took a more extensive look at the report back in 2009. Some of the discussions are dated with the passage of time.)

The convention was attended by representatives of theatre, dance, choral and instrumental music disciplines, including those respective service organizations.  In assessing the opportunities for cross-disciplinary collective action, the report found that differences in language and culture were potential impediments.

Nearly 10 years later, I wonder if people still feel this is the case or have things developed to the point that the different disciplines can join in a more united front.

Were these really significant impediments to action at all and the will is simply lacking?

…our team observed frequent and obvious disconnects between the language and culture of each discipline. The dress and demeanor of the different service organization membership was a continual point of discussion in our evening debriefing sessions, and were often heard used as shorthand by one discipline to describe another (“take time to talk to the suits,” said one theater leader to a TCG convening, when referring to symphony professionals).

Some of the difference was in rites and rituals: from the morning sing-alongs of Chorus America to the jackets and ties of League members, to the frequent and genuine hugs among Dance/USA members, to the casual and collegial atmosphere of TCG sessions.

Other differences, which manifested in more subtle ways, shed light on the deep underlying assumptions and values held by the respective disciplines. The team noticed, for example, that the word “professional” was perceived in a variety of ways in mixed-discipline caucus sessions. For many participants, “professional” staff and leadership was an indicator of high-quality arts organizations, and an obvious goal for any arts institutions. Several members of Chorus America, however, bristled at the presumption that professional staff was a metric of artistic quality, as they held deep pride in their organizations, which were run by volunteers.


Catalysts note the need for basic fluency in the business models and challenges of other disciplines. Says one leader, “Being an executive director is an incredibly lonely job because you’re the only person in your community who has this set of challenges. You build your network. I talk a lot with the heads of other performing arts organizations here [from other disciplines], and it’s all right, but oftentimes when we talk I’m spending the whole time explaining the whole story so they can understand. As opposed to sitting with somebody who’s in a different community, you can start the sentence and oftentimes that person can finish your sentence for you.”

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 ( 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. (

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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2 thoughts on “Do Differences Still Impede Collective Action?

  1. The concluding two sentences you quote are, I think, extremely important. Why, when discussing with folks from an outside community, can we skip the background of “explaining the whole story” when it seems necessary to make those references in our own?

    I think it is complicated, and there is more at stake than ‘knowing particular things’ (or finishing sentences). One issue that seems relevant is that from within a community or a point of view the smaller differences get magnified. From the outside those differences are simply less significant. Glossed by the haze of distance, perhaps. Outsiders see what they are looking at by gathering the similarities, the rough commonalities. It is easier to see the coat of white paint than the various things painted. Insiders distinguish themselves from other insiders by becoming ever more myopic and unearthing ever more lines to draw in the sand. Insiders actually CARE about the differences. The ‘suits’ vs the ‘casuals’.

    Who hates the New York Yankees more than the fans of the Boston Red Sox? Who reviles conservatives more than liberals from the same community? The Jets and the Sharks. Men and women. Would an alien visiting our planet put as much significance into gender or cultural or in fact *any* differences as we do? I think not. They would see the squabbling human race for what it is: An ages old species perpetually investing its time into magnifying its differences at the continual expense of its ability to get important things done….. Is that a somehow more ‘objective’ or ‘true’ assessment? Is it a *better* point of view?

    From the inside of a human life this IS what we do. Somehow this gives our life meaning. Casuals wouldn’t be caught dead as suits. Vegetarians don’t eat meat. Atheists don’t pray to a god. If from the outside it looks like much to do about nothing, the question to ask is “Are they seeing more clearly? Or have they actually missed something? And if so, *what*?” If there are advantages to an outside perspective (and there obviously are) in what
    ways are they limited? Is there also something somehow *necessary* and *worth* *understanding* from the point of view of an insider?

    I ask because whenever I hear that the value of the arts is that they are instrumental, that they are ‘good’ for things like the economy, it is a perspective somehow alien to artists themselves. It is an outside perspective, and it cannot be substituted for the view from within the arts. You have not understood anything about the arts specifically AS the arts when you claim an outside significance. You can’t explain why Boston fans hate the Yankees from the outside. You can’t explain why art is NOT a luxury from outside the arts…..

    • The overarching question I have is, having met at conferences years ago; being more connected via social media and having gone through the various trials and tribulations of the interim years, have the different performing arts disciplines made any progress in finding and expressing common cause? Or are people still operating within their own disciplinary silos by and large?

      The insider and outsider of the arts world and the tension that exists certainly is a factor but that is something of a separate topic.

      Though I do think there something to consider if you are saying it is too exhausting as a choral person (for example) to talk to a theatre person because you don’t share a 100% shorthand, you probably aren’t ready to have a conversations with a complete outsider

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