An Open-Source Arts Field

Posted by Mr. Ian David Moss, Oct 26, 2009 0 comments

I want to express my appreciation to my fellow Salon bloggers last week and everyone who has commented—you’ve given me a lot to think about. Before I go, though, I want to make what seems to me like an essential point. We’ve spent a lot of time in this salon so far talking about problems, but solutions have been somewhat elusive. I think part of the reason is contained within a comment I wrote earlier last week on my Generation Y and the Problem of “Entitlement” post but didn’t realize the true significance of until later:

I think the generational shifts are a related, but separate phenomenon from the concentration of power in our field at the top and the frustration that many feel as a result of it, regardless of generation.

There are really two separate issues we’re talking about here, and that’s why our wires keep getting crossed. On the one hand, we have genuine ways in which Generation Y is different from all the generations that came before, particularly with regard to how technology has impacted our communications habits, our work ethic, our social norms, and most importantly, our expectations for ourselves and others. However, this is NOT the same thing as the second issue: the concentration of power in a few individuals that pushes out other voices, both at an organization level and in the wider field. THAT is not new at all, and in fact is probably in a better place now than it ever has been.

However, the combination of the increased expectations of Generation Y, improved communication technology, and obvious examples of “crowdsourcing,” social media, and open architecture leading to superior performance or outcomes at drastically reduced cost, have conspired to bring this issue to the forefront in a way that has never been possible before. They are related only insofar as Generation Y (and to some extent X), which has the highest expectations and also the greatest familiarity with the possibilities of both technology and open-source architecture, is disproportionately excluded from the ranks of the powerful few. It’s an important relationship, but not, I think, the central one.

In order to move forward, I think we need to focus on the second issue, not the first. The message of Emerging Leaders in the arts or any other field should not be, “get out of the way, we are the future, it’s time for us to take over.” If that’s what it sounds like, then that’s a miscalculation on our part. Our collective mission should be to make our organizations and our field more open, more meritocratic, more adaptable, and more inclusive regardless of generation. To borrow a phraseology from Fractured Atlas’s Adam Forest Huttler, we need to make our field more open-source.

What will this look like in practice? There are many possible directions this could go, but here are a few practical suggestions to get us started in no particular order:

•    Include and solicit the voices of junior staffers in staff meetings, board meetings, and strategy discussions. Not only will they benefit from learning more about how their organization works, you’ll benefit from their “on-the-ground” perspective from their direct work with constituents, donors, and vendors.
•   Diversify boards in ways beyond race and gender. Obviously, those two are still important, but try to also have a healthy representation of different ages, occupations, social circles, and socioeconomic history. Look for smart, capable people who play well together, no matter who they are. Consider forming an advisory board of non-moneyed constituents if you want to reserve Board spots for people who can pull their weight financially, since they are likely to be older and overrepresent a particular perspective.
•    Invite more than the usual suspects to participate in panels, convenings, focus groups, and interviews. Does it always have to be the Executive Director who speaks at these things? Does the Executive Director always have to accept the invitation? Consider sending out junior staffers, especially the ones who you know have lots of great ideas from working with them but aren’t very visible to the broader world, as a professional development opportunity. Not only will they get valuable public speaking experience, but they’ll meet likeminded individuals as well and may make new connections for your organization. Similarly…
•    Send junior staffers to conferences. You don’t have to send everyone to everything, but you’ll be able to get better coverage if you send lower-cost employees to more events than if you send yourself to fewer. This is an especially good idea if there is a business development or advocacy aspect to what you do as an organization.
•    Share in the grunt work. One point that kept getting brought up in the Generation Y discussion was that someone has to do the menial tasks. Well, if I know I don’t want to do them, and you know I don’t want to do them, and I know you don’t want to do them, and yet you make me do all of them anyway, do you really expect me to enjoy my job? It makes a huge symbolic statement if the leader or senior staff or even the boss takes time out from their Very Important Day and joins an envelope stuffing party or helps get the tables set at the event, etc. Not all day—it’s understood that the primary responsibility remains with the entry-level people—but just for an hour, perhaps. A cameo appearance, if you will. While you’re there, take the opportunity to ask about their time at the organization, about their lives more generally, and whether they have any suggestions for improving how things get done around here. Consider it a very cheap investment in staff morale on your part—and hey, you might even get a very valuable idea or two out of it.
•   Consider what grunt work really needs to be performed by staff members. Is it necessary to have intimate knowledge of the contemporary dance world to manage your books or design your donor database? If not, consider contracting out some of that work to organizations that specialize in it, like, say, Easy Office or Annkissam. Alternatively, you could pursue shared-back-office arrangements with other nonprofits in your area. Every time you do this, you potentially avoid hiring some eager beaver who really wants to be involved on the program side but is just pretending to like spreadsheets to get in the front door.
•    Don’t overvalue seniority in the hiring process. Experience is great for a lot of things. But it’s not the only, or even the most important qualifier for many jobs. Ricky Henderson has more experience playing major league baseball than just about anyone. But is he qualified to play in the major leagues today? Absolutely not. Obviously things are a little different for desk captains than for athletes, but the reality is that it’s possible to have an impeccable resume and still be terrible at what you do—or terrible for a particular job. The litany of people who have accomplished extraordinary things without the benefit of experience is endless. I like to point out often than Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook as a college student at Harvard. How many employers would have turned him down because he didn’t have enough experience? How many wouldn’t have extended an interview to George Steel, who transformed Columbia University’s Miller Theater into a new music powerhouse as its executive director after just two years in arts administration? To continue the baseball analogy, how many wouldn’t have given a chance to Theo Epstein, who won Boston’s first World Series in 86 years shortly after becoming the youngest general manager of a baseball team ever hired at 28, and then won another one three years later? Stop looking so hard for a record of accomplishment and start giving great people a chance to accomplish things.
•    Design organizations around people instead of hiring people around the organization. If you really want to get talented employees and retain them for the long term, you have to have some flexibility around the organization itself and think hard about where the alignment makes sense for both parties. Maybe each department (marketing, development, programming, etc.) has only a leader and then a crew of associates who trade and divide up specific responsibilities according to their strengths and preferences. Maybe you have a rotational program where entry-level types can work in one area for six months, another for three months, etc. until they find where they really fit. Whatever you do, make sure you solicit feedback at all times and track what happens, so you can go back later and analyze what was most effective. Incorporate ongoing learning into your HR systems and you will be unstoppable.

For more thoughts on dealing with entry-level employees on a one-on-one basis, please see Ten Strategies for Engaging Generation Y in the Nonprofit Workplace. (Apologies for the title, I wrote it before I had the particular “two-issue” insight I mentioned up top. However, the principles should hold true for entry-level employees of any generation.)

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