Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Greatest Sacrifice Arts Workers Make for the Arts

With all the financial challenges arts workers are facing these days - struggling to balance the budgets of their organizations, or dealing with salary and benefit cuts on compensation that was modest to begin with - it is easy to view the sacrifices people make to work in this field as being entirely financial.

Not to minimize the financial sacrifices - they ARE significant - but I would argue they are probably no more significant than a wide array of professions where people choose to devote themselves to the pursuit of "making the world a better place". This includes early childhood workers, teachers, social workers, the whole world of NGOs working in challenged communities, both domestically and abroad. And the sacrifices all these workers make are also not just financial. We all work long hours, and often under trying and unglamorous circumstances (though to outsiders arts work can seem glamorous).

No, I think the more significant - and unique - sacrifice arts workers make is that we lose the capacity for full, innocent and glorious enjoyment of the very art that our passion for drove us to make our life's work in the first place.  What do I mean by this?  Think about your earliest experiences with the arts, your first encounter with Matisse, or Chuck Close; your first time in the audience for Sondheim, or Verdi; that time you first saw Baryshnikov on stage, or Judith Jamison. Remember that childlike joy - even if you were not a child - that total immersion in the art where the whole world disappeared and you were unaware of time, of the person chewing gum next to you? Now tell, me when was the last time you felt that?  Sure, you are still passionate about the art form or all art forms, you still go to museums, or opera, or theatre, but something has been lost. Admit it.

You watch the other people in the museum, or audience members in the house, and a part of you is jealous of them, jealous of the fact that they can spend a day of doing SOMETHING ELSE - trading stocks, managing a supermarket, teaching 5th grade science - and come into the arts experience and be able to give themselves over to it, over and over, for their entire life.

And if you are honest, if you are a museum professional, you know every museum experience is now clouded by your inability to hold back that piece of your brain that is evaluating the exhibition installation, the lighting, the security guards, the signage, the curatorial decisions. And if you are a theatre professional, you are assessing the box office customer service, the curtain speech, the blocking, the casting. Fill in the blanks for your art form of  choice. If you do this for long enough, that piece of your brain is almost impossible to shut off; only the most truly transcendent arts experience is capable of silencing it, and even then maybe not entirely. Sadly, as one whose work crosses over into all art forms, this affliction haunts virtually EVERY cultural experience for me.

I am reminded of this phenomenon whenever I encounter any of those most passionate arts attenders and patrons - every community is filled with them. You know who I am talking about, that couple, perhaps in their fifties or sixties, who are not wealthy, but comfortable enough that they support many organizations in town at a reasonable - albeit modest - level. You see them at almost every opening night, or exhibition opening. They are passionate and knowledgeable about the arts, or maybe just the one or two art forms that really thrill them. They make their money doing something else, and derive great joy not just from experiencing the arts, but also from using their resources to help enable the arts. Perhaps sometimes their enthusiasm or eagerness seems a little naive or even annoying to you as a professional.

Well, I must admit, I increasingly wonder if I would not have been happier going into business or some other profession, and channeling my passion for the arts to being an avid attender/participant, a patron, a board member. I pine for the lost innocence of the cultural experience unsullied by the incessant yap of my "arts manager" brain. I feel like, relatively speaking, I have been able to make a difference in this profession, and am still energized about my work every day (and for that I am most grateful), but I wonder sometimes if the sacrifice has been too great. Do you?

I talked about this issue to a group of several hundred arts managers in NYC quite a few years ago, and of all the talks I have given over the years on a wide range of topics, this topic seemed to strike a powerful and painful chord. It has repeatedly come up since then in conversations with colleagues, so I thought it was time to write about it here.


  1. Hey Gary, that was a great blog. I remember when one of my most gifted friends from art school went into the framing business. On a trip to the Met Museum some time later, he commented that he now often found he was more absorbed in the distinctions of the framing of the masterpieces than the painting itself.

  2. I hate to sound naive, but after more than 15 years in the arts, and more when the art school time is taken into account, I still love going to the theatre, still love going to exhibitions, to concerts and all. I may be judging the marketing, the box office, the curtain speech etc., but once the experience is underway, I'm still transported. Good art or bad, I'm open to the experience, and willing to let it work on me--does this make me an outlier?

  3. James, if this makes you an outlier, you are a very lucky one!

  4. hi Gary - I so know what you're saying. I remember going to Disneyland with a group of arts managers years ago and all we could do was speculate on the budget of the nightly extravaganza. Not that Disney is the highest form of art, but we do tend to get mired down in those kinds of details vs letting that experience of that particular moment just take us away...

    You're right in that it takes an exceptional piece of art for us to have that transcendent experience. But that's OK; it's a higher standard perhaps, and less common than it use to be, but I continue to hope for it and SO very much appreciate it when I get it. Which I did this year watching Interact Center's latest piece (www.interactcenter.com) or Kneehigh Theater's "Brief Encounter." (That's pretty darn good to get it twice in a year!)

    But where I experience that transcendence more often is not at theaters or galleries, but at music clubs, seeing some amazing R&B singer or indie rock band play. I can totally lose myself in that experience. So maybe the key is to seek out art forms that you don't work in?

  5. As an artist/ educator, I have taught elementary art for 18 years. I understand what you are speaking about, as it is difficult to leave the teaching role behind as I approach my art studio each day.

    Some days are more successful than others. I have found it very effective to shed my teaching role as I embrace my creative impulse.

    I do this by acknowledging that I teach what I need to know, therefore teaching allows me the opportunity to explore and study art the way I might never find the time to do on my own. I work daily at my art. My role as an artist is my major focus,and the teaching is an essential part of my artistic growth. I learn a lot from the awesomeness of my students.

    Our perception of who we are is essential. The same circumstances can produce very different results based on that self-perception.
    Thank you, for helping me to articulate this!

  6. I just happened upon this post and I am glad that I did. I have been feeling this way for sometime and you were able to articulate it beautifully. My favorite part about being an arts manager is watching young people experience a Broadway performance for the first time. Bearing witness to their excitement and wonder makes it all worthwhile.

  7. I saw a show with a non-theatre friend a few years ago and after we left I was dissecting it in the context of theatre history and production values etc etc. She stopped me and asked, Do you ever just enjoy going to see a play? That simple question opened my eyes up to the fact that I didn't. I try now to turn off the work part of my brain and just be an audience member as much as possible. It's definitely made going to the theatre more enjoyable.

  8. This is a really poignant blog, and it raises some additional issues. For me, I have been a presenter, a museum marketer, a collegiate marketer and now I'm marketing children's theatre. I do find my potential for pure enjoyment of the art itself suffers greatly, and my thinking is that it's the unadulterated commodification of the art that is the underlying factor. I do not shy from sales goals, but in 2010, amidst a changing world that doesn't rest long enough for analysis yet alone strategy shifts, the pressure of having to sell sell sell has changed my ability to enjoy the art. The constant pursuit of new audience that once felt like a challenge of noble cause (after all, we're introducing people to things that will BETTER them and their lives, right?) now feels like a survival effort. And in many ways it is. If we as arts advocates and workers grow fatigued, what does this mean for the fields we're promoting? I see this as yet another reason for a massive paradigm shift in how we engage in, and ultimately fund the arts. It cannot survive as a commodity, it's too precious and delicate in some ways. And if it does survive as a commodity, can it do so in a manner that preserves the integrity of the artist's vision in a world of focus groups, surveys and commercialism?

  9. Hi Gary,

    As an Executive Artistic Director I here you loud and clear. Not only that, it sort of gives me a small sense of peace - as awful as it sounds - to find out I'm not the only one. I was recently talking to a coworker and remarked that I had very little joy for the arts despite have a tremendous passion for it. I think part of this mentality is developed from the idea that we want to 'advance' the art form and make the expereince even better while still making it financially viable.

    -Adam Adolfo

  10. It's timely that you've chosen to talk about this. I'm a stage manager, and I often speak of how I can never sit in an audience and just watch a production. We call it 'the switch.' As in, as I'm telling my husband or friend what should have gone differently during the performance, they'll ask, "Can you please flip the switch?"

    You can say that it takes away your original awe and love of the art form, and you are right - only if you allow it. I don't mourn the fact that the 'original' passion that drove me to theatre is gone, I embrace the fact that it has changed, matured and grown. I still feel that original child-like passion when I see a production that exceeds my expectations, and I'm happy to feel that same excitement, just as when I saw my first Broadway show. But my other passion still wants to dissect it, know why certain choices were made, how they did their effects, etc. I'm in the pursuit of it!

    In the end, it comes down to your perception.

  11. I've been working at various arts organizations for the last 7 years or so, and my significant other (of 5 years) will seldom attend arts events with me anymore. I can't help but dissect work at other orgs or go in to "work mode" when I try to see a show at my org.

    I also shamefully admit that as someone who has worked in a regional theatre scene (DC) for many years, I have gotten a bit spoiled. I honestly don't remember the last time I attended a performance of a show that wasn't a comp ticket from a friend/past colleague or a "Pay What You Can" or "Invited Dress" performance.

  12. Thank you for your insight, Gary. Reposting. As an actor/playwright/author and founder of the Thriving Artist Alliance, these are themes which constantly circulate in my sphere. We are the professions of passion, though it would be nice if there were more balance.

  13. It seems to me, 40 odd years into the business, that I could not possibly have been nearly as happy at anything other than this work in the arts. Somewhere along the way, I recognized that the willing suspension of disbelief is the first step in choosing to enjoy any experience: here at the office, the museum, or the theater, I get to choose to have fun, or not. I remember discovering the persona that I'd cultivated and was shared by so many colleagues of the "busy, or maybe, overworked, arts administrator at the barricades." This guy never rested and was always in pursuit of the magic bullet of management—analyze each moment of each experience to glean what works and what doesn't. Suddenly, I realized that in many ways, I was playing a role I thought required of me to seem the successful administrator. That character still shows up, in fact, I use him when the situation calls for it, but I know him to be a thief of joy if he's not relegated to the rare cameo appearance. Fortunately, I don't need him much, having tumbled head long into a great job about 20 years ago that I've been lucky enough to keep. Now, when I go to things, I enjoy them, or I don't and just move on. And if I'm not enjoying the time at the office, I know I can change that in the blink of an eye. Enjoy!

  14. Very well put! I miss the joy I used to have walking into a theatre not knowing what was in store for me.

  15. I love working in the theatre; I love going to the theatre. And I'm very easily drawn in to the event--I try to let my experience drive my opinion, rather than vice versa.

    In Jonah Lehrer's HOW WE DECIDE, there is a powerful discussion of how we sometimes need to let ourselves react intuitively. A potent example is golf. Beginning putters do better if they concentrate on the specifics of technique. Established pros get messed up if they think about a particular aspect of technique, and do better when they adopt a more wholistic watch word, like "smooth." At some points, you have to get your prefrontal cortex out of the game, and let your natural emotional connection lead you.

    Also, as an artistic director, I find letting myself have the closest thing to the audience's experience is among the highest value contributions I have to offer to the whole. It's one thing to try to anticipate a critic's response, and/or the response of the professional community, and those are legitimate duties. It's another very important thing to experience what is communicated kinesthetically to the vast majority of the people in the room, and to put yourself in the shoes of the audience member who isn't a pro.

  16. Gary, you hit the ball outta the park. The best reaquaintances I had with the arts was working at McCarter Theater when the entire staff was invited to the first day of rehearsal...box office, devo, probably even custodial staff. Hearing Athol Fugard, Edward Albee, Nilo Cruz, Stephen Wadsworth, and the likes talk about what they wanted to make happen on stage made it all worth it, and reminded me about what I love. It's easy to lose when you're in the thick of it, trying to remind everyone else why this is great stuff. Thanks for a truly thoughtful post!

  17. We just had this very conversation with our Barrymore voters last night. These folks have actually chosen to take their audience hats off to objectively evaluate the performance. It’s actually a painful experience in some ways. I on the otherhand work very hard to just be an audience and enjoy the performance for its own sake regardless of its quality. Sometimes I succeed, but its hard work.

  18. The volume of comments this post has already generated is pretty extraordinary. Clearly I have touched a nerve. At the Americans for the Arts session on blogging one of the issues that came up is the dramatic decline in people posting comments on blogs, so they have become more one-way than interactive. Perhaps this is because too many blog posts target our intellectual needs, not our passions, our aspirations, (our nightmares?). It seems that when something hits a nerve, people are fully capable of weighing in for an online conversation. Please feel free to continue to circulate this post and to continue the dialogue. And my admiration to those that have commented that they have fully preserved their "arts enjoyment innocence" despite a career in the field. I did not mean to imply this negative effect was universal, only that it seems to be pretty widespread.

  19. I agree that working in theatre as a stage manager, a technician, and an administrator at different parts of my career has made it much harder for me to lose myself completely in any performance I go to whether it be theatre, dance, or music. But when I find something that is able to completely transport me; that shuts that part of my brain off; I know I've experienced something truly remarkable. And that's the time when I say to myself "THIS is why I do what I do" with a huge, giddy grin on my face. And that's also when I feel like the luckiest person in the audience because I've gotten a whole other level of enjoyment out of the experience.

  20. Gary, this was such an intriguing topic. I have to say though, I don't agree with your conclusion. When I worked at Pennsylvania Ballet and watched a performance, I felt a part of it all and like the friend in the audience watching her friends shine. It was a stronger attachment than I felt as an observer.

    At Pacific Science Center, I got to relive the memories of a childhood full of experimenting but also got to observe amazing family interactions. I will never forget Stephen Hawking coming to do a lecture for severely handicapped children letting them know what was possible. His 20something son worked for Microsoft and stood quietly in the background. Until they got ready to leave and his son yelled "Dad look! Remember this?" It was a simply gravity well but father and son played for a few moments like parents and children everywhere.

    I see these memories as I see exhibits and performances these days. When I worked at the Philadelphia Zoo, I'd watch the happy families and know that no matter what happened down the road to their parents, siblings, etc., THESE would be the memories they would keep.

    Now with a young son of my own who had his first Zoo trip a few months ago and his first Please Touch Museum visit just yesterday, I feel I've recaptured that "first time," immersive experience feel because I see it through his eyes, not through my marketing glasses.

    I feel my work in and for the arts has made me appreciate these experiences even more. And I'm thankful for it.


    Fran Feldman Walish

  21. It may be that what we're all suffering from is an evolution to our experience and knowledge of art - a realization or revelation echoed by Captain Willard from Apocalypse Now: "Never get off the boat...Absolutely God damn right...unless you're going all the way."

    But if we are talking about a loss of innocence and original love for art, this can also be mirrored in the creative process itself and not just the sole propriety of arts administrators. Once you've bitten the fruit, you may never be able to go back - all of western speculative philosophy's attempts to define or reconnect with "immediacy" and the language route to truth runs parallel with the artist's action - the empirics of painting or whatever medium or form of art you're engaged in. Having vision is a blessing, but also a curse. To understand planar analysis, color theories or the dilemna of subject - object relationships means that you can never look at a Cezanne in the same way again.

    Once you've been locked in a structure of thinking or being, is it ever possible to go back? I think not. So the obvious thing is to move forward, and what pops up now and then is the question of whether or not we can restructure the way we think about what we do, what we see or how we feel...with all our prior experiences, prior knowledge?

    Picasso evolved from Cezanne. De Kooning - in my humble opinion - took it to the next level, and I am often reminded by what he used to say: "Never have a comfortable chair."

    Perhaps it's a sacrifice to be deferred from innocence, but perhaps it's also progress?

  22. Eloquently said Tu! Useful to think of this phenomenon that clearly afflicts so many - and as you note, not just arts managers, but artists (and arts educators) as well - as not something lost but something gained...

  23. Your comment about being "locked in a structure of thinking or being" reminds me of what Robert Redford said the other day at the Arts and Business council event at the PTC- If you want to shake something up in business and find a fresh approach, seat an artist at the table. I think Art and Artists are the shamans for a sick society.

  24. Very interesting post and comments, Gary. I hear you loud and clear. It has been established in various studies that our professional lives move through seven year cycles. This is why many institutions have sabbaticals built into certain professions. I worked at Dance Theater Workshop for 10 years and watched literally thousands of hours of performances. By the end, the dimming of house lights sent me into a panic attack.
    So I stopped. Honestly, I thought I would never work in the arts again.
    But now I am back working at another performing arts organization here in Philadelphia. I feel utterly refreshed. I am once again an active and willing participant in the community of artists. My curiosity has been restored and my respect for the work of artists has renewed passion and vitality.
    If you can... take a break, cease and desist, change the scenery for a period. Not only will your work prosper but those who work with you will benefit as well.
    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  25. Hope that some of you who posted comments on the blog will consider re-posting your comments on my new Huffington Post blog, where I re-posted this entry: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-p-steuer/the-greatest-challenge-ar_b_667212.html.

    Thanks for being a part of this conversation!

  26. Hi Gary et al,
    Just wanted to let you know that many months later I have responded to this at http://createquity.com/2010/12/the-myth-of-the-transformative-arts-experience.html. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  27. Thanks Ian, for the very well-put response on your blog. It was amazing to me what a strong response my blog entry prompted. Clearly this strikes a nerve for may people, and clearly not everyone agrees with my hypothesis. Your point is especially interesting - that truly transformative arts experiences come through the actual engagement in the making of art, through arts participation, rather than through "passive" audience experiences. This is a distinction I was not really addressing, and clearly the quality and depth of a cultural experience is heightened through actual personal artistic practice. I still think that is different from the question: is our capacity to enjoy art as an audience member/museum visitor somehow dampened or restricted by a life spent professionally in the arts field? Some seem to feel yes, some that the knowledge they gain by being in the field actually enhances their "passive" cultural experiences. But perhaps for many this sense of loss is brought on by the fact that when younger they were more devoted to MAKING ART, and less to the selling, funding and managing of art. To be honest this is true for me as well. I studied visual arts all through my childhood, went to LaGuardia HS of the arts in NY, then studied theatre - acting, directing. And now I am so busy engaged in my "cultural policy" career that it has been decades since I actually made art. Writing this blog is probably the closest I come.