Is Art Dishwasher Safe?

After long correspondence (both in years and text length), I finally had an opportunity to meet with Carter Gillies over Thanksgiving weekend.  On at least one occasion I dubbed Carter “potter-philosopher,” because he has studied and practiced both disciplines.

Carter has been a big proponent of measuring the value of the arts on their own terms rather than their instrumental value to stimulate economies, raise test scores, cure cancer and bring world peace.

We spoke and debated for many hours on these ideas. However, the really challenging conversation was the one I had with myself days later. It is a conversation that millions have had and never concluded satisfactorily.

Before I left Carter’s house, he took me back to his studio and told me to pick out whatever I wanted. I grabbed a bowl that caught my eye and Carter discussed why he liked the glaze he applied to it, pointing out the subtle golden flecks that dotted different places.

A few days later he wrote me thanking me for visiting and hoping I enjoyed eating out of the bowl.

I was mortified. How could I eat out of that bowl? It was a piece of art that represented the culmination of our relationship to this point. I had it prominently displayed on a table in front of my sofa.

But then when I thought about it, I have two mugs given to me by one of the directors of the art museum back where I previously lived in Ohio. I drink out of those all the time. In fact, I am drinking out of one of them right now, totally unplanned. To leave them in the cupboard and not use them would be a small betrayal of my relationship with her, implying they were not good enough to eat out of.

I have endowed both the bowl and mugs with value derived from my relationship with the makers. My conclusions about what the appropriate treatment of each are completely opposite and pretty illogical.

I am not even sure the question here is “what is art?”

Does mundane and common use diminish an object’s identity as art while preserving it in an untouched and stationary state except to dust it impart greater identity as an object d’art?

The makers are both in my mind and heart when I see and use these objects which is part of the value for me. Does sentimentality contribute or detract to the objective value of these items?

These are questions that can be addressed forever. But this also illustrates why it is so much easier to talk about the value of art in terms of instrumentality. Instrumental measures are things people can grasp on to much easier.

The big problem, however, as Carter points out is that we never really try to introduce the conversation with policy makers about why we value the arts.  It can be really easy to talk in a passionate way about why you value the bowl on your coffee table and the mugs in your cupboard as well as the stuff hanging on your walls.

Yes, there is no facile way to empirically say the bowl is more valuable than the mug. There is a whole lot of complicated factors that contribute to record breaking auctions at Sotheby’s .

People value art and creativity in their lives for reasons that have nothing to do with what they can sell it for or enhancing their test scores.

The first step is opening your mouth to mention that the true value of a creative expression is divorced of these measures and potentially even divorced from another person’s perception of that creative expression.

Are You Persistent or Consistent In Your Pursuit of Excellence?

Seth Godin made a post earlier this week comparing Persistence with Consistent wherein he starts with the statement “Persistence is sort of annoying.”

He goes on to talk about the way in which consistent is the desirable opposite side of the coin,

Consistent with your statements, consistent in the content you create, consistent in the way you chip away at the problem you’re seeking to solve.

Persistence can be selfish, but consistency is generous.

And the best thing is that you only have to make the choice to be consistent once. After that, it’s simply a matter of keeping your promise.

In this context,  persistence seems to be about performance of a specific action whereas consistent is policy. In this sense persistence is approaching a challenge in the same way until it is worn down to the point you can pass. Whereas consistent is more about dedication to finding a way past that obstruction.

While both approaches never falter in achieving a singular goal, the latter entertains options regarding the methods by which this can be accomplished. In fact, consistent may be better equipped to recognize that surmounting the barrier isn’t the goal but rather getting to the place beyond the barrier and therefore there may be no reason to engage with this particular barrier at all.

What actually drew my attention to Godin’s post was that last line about keeping a promise. Working in the non-profit arts sector is often such a struggle that we feel like we can only survive with dogged persistence. Perhaps what is really needed is a focus on consistency.

If our promise to the community we serve is to provide a certain experience, a persistent approach may keep you locked into executing an approach and methods which have decreasing relevance. A determination to offer a consistently valuable experience can lead you to place more importance on needs of those you intend to serve rather place importance on the methods by which you accomplish it.

Think about it this way. If you want to keep a promise to provide excellent customer service do you do the same thing today as you did five years ago? Do you use the same approach for small groups as large? Kids as for elderly? Film audiences as for Broadway musical audiences? 2500 seat theater as for 150 seat theater?

Sure you will still make bad choices, but a consistent approach to great customer service is likely better able to take the differences of time, place, environment and expectations into account than a persistent approach.

If you are like me, Emerson’s line, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” might have come to mind when you first saw the term. In that context consistency has a negative connotation. After reading and pondering Godin’s post I wondered if it might have been better said as “a foolish persistence.” Though I learn toward consistency is a better word choice.

It should also be noted, Emerson never mentions what the characteristics of wise or non-foolish consistency are. Consistency is not necessarily negative in and of itself. Persistence isn’t either, but it does have implications of a single-mindedness that can quickly become problematic.

You may have noticed I didn’t make definitive claims about persistent being one thing and consistent being another. Ultimately, of course it isn’t about what word you use as much as what practice you embody.

Some Last Thoughts On Conferences For Awhile (Probably)

I know I have been harping a lot on conferences of late, but you know, ’tis the season!

Because I had been in the process of moving to a new job, I just caught up with my blog feed this weekend and read Barry Hessenius’ piece on effectively exploiting the conference experience for people at different stages in their careers. Which he wrote a few weeks before my first post on the topic, proving once again that he is at the forefront of arts management theory.

Don’t misread my previous posts about how to improve the conference attendance experience as disgruntled criticisms of any conferences I have attended or contributed to. I was approaching the topic in the same spirit as I approach arts attendance experiences: questioning what it is that conferences, like the arts orgs they serve, need to do in order to provide participants with a valuable experience.

Hessenius’ post is especially useful for first time attendees because their conference experience is going to be all about networking. He identifies common features of arts conferences and provides advice about how to exploit these dynamics to best effect.

For example, regarding the plenary luncheons:

I never sit at just any table, nor am I the first one to seat myself. I wait until the tables begin to fill, quickly identify a table occupied by people I might want to talk to and those I might want to get to know. Even if your seat mates are serendipitously determined, that’s ok, because often times you end up meeting someone who will make an excellent contact. Note too that keynote speakers are often inspiring and motivating, but few keynotes will offer you much practical advice that you can use, and thus the before, and during conversations with those at your table may be more valuable to you in the long run.

The one bit of advice I felt was valuable for people of any level of conference attendance experience was in regard to preparation:

One final piece of advice:  there is a lot of talking that goes on at conferences.  Learn to listen and listen well.  And please, if there are recommended reading materials and / or research available before the conference for a session you might want to attend, don’t put that off until you are on the plane.  Do your homework, if there is any, beforehand.  If you give yourself more time to think about the subject, you’ll get more out of the presentation, and you’ll be able to formulate good questions to raise.  Relax on the plane.

If there is one phrase I have heard at conferences over the last decade or so it is along those lines. People say they meant to review a text in advance or they downloaded the book planning to read it on the plane or listen to the audio content as they drove but didn’t get to it.

I understand that. For a whole lot of people attending a conference means cramming all the work you aren’t going to be around to do into the last few days before the conference. There is even less time than usual available to preview conference content.

But as Hessenius implies, you are carving out time to attend a conference to help yourself be better at your job. If you only have a precious few days in which to do that, it is worthwhile to prepare the soil in which this valuable content can thrive and grow.

New Perspectives From A Different Part of The Country

I mentioned last week that I was in the process of moving. Today I started a new job at the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

I am really excited by this opportunity. The Grand is a storied theater having undergone many evolutions, and renovations  over its, depending on how you count, 134 or 104 year history.

One of the other things that really excites me is that Macon is a Knight Foundation community.  Over the years I have written about the interesting programs they have initiated and supported in their chosen communities. I am looking forward to experiencing some of this first hand.  (As you might imagine, I now need to insert a disclaimer that The Grand Opera House benefits from their support.)

I will apologize in advance that my posting schedule might be a little irregular as I tackle the challenges of my new job. Not to mention, my furniture has yet to catch up with me and blogging while sitting on my living room floor presents some challenges.

Still, I anticipate having new perspectives and insights to offer readers in the coming months.

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