Dispelling Myths and Nurturing New Structures

Surviving and Thriving in a Changing World

By Anne Dunning

How can we survive and thrive in a changing world? By adapting and adopting emerging structures and approaches in how our performing arts organizations work. In this quick moving 21st-century technology-driven environment, change is inevitable.

Focusing on small and mid-sized performing arts organizations, which I have observed during my career as a consultant, has helped me think about both organizational change and the larger systemic changes that many of us in the sector are working toward: equity, access, inclusion, and diversity. But the first order of business is dispelling myths and questioning received wisdom. Then comes supporting emerging leaders and new ways of working that better achieve the goals and reflect the values of the artists and arts professionals most deeply engaged in creating and connecting the work.

Dispelling Myths

If we as a field are committed to rebuilding and rebalancing our arts ecosystem, we will first need to let go of the ideas and expectations that don’t serve the work we do or apply to the environment in which we now find ourselves. Not surprisingly, however, existing myths and received wisdom are difficult forces to overcome. Those who have built and tended existing structures and beliefs are understandably reluctant to see them changed or lost, even when they are no longer fully functional or appropriate.

In Artistry Unleashed: A Guide to Pursuing Great Performance in Work and Life, Hilary Austin provides this encouragement and caution for those who seek this kind of change:

“When your efforts run in the face of conventional wisdom and accepted mastery, persistence can look like madness. If you succeed in the end, this extreme originality reformulates into a new level of mastery, sometimes even genius; if you fail in the end, you remain a madman in the eyes of others, and maybe even yourself. When you are in the midst of the journey … there’s really no way of knowing which one you are.”

In our day-to-day work, there are many ways our sector is struggling with outdated and unrealistic approaches, expectations and measures of success. Some of the most prevalent are the continued commitment to a growth paradigm, misconceptions about board roles and responsibilities, the perpetuation of a single ideal organizational model, and misunderstandings about the audience/community and how they want to engage with the arts.

Growth Paradigm

In a world in which “bigger is better” and where a constant drive toward the new and the next is highly valued, nonprofit arts organizations are often drawn into the overall growth paradigm, which measures success in terms of constant increases in size, scope and structure. This creates unsustainable structures and programs, which often lead organizations away from what they truly value at the cost of an artificial measure of success unsuitable to the work being done or the community being served. While growth is important and effective in some phases of an organization’s life, perpetual growth is not sustainable. We encourage leaders to consider the intentions around growth and what is healthy for their organization, work and mission.

Board Role

One of the areas of greatest disconnect between expectation and reality is that of board engagement. Arts professionals and board members adopt expectations based on a series of myths about what board members can and should be doing for the nonprofit organizations they support. Rather than seeing these dedicated community members as important ambassadors, relationship builders and dedicated supporters, we often find organizations expecting board members to drive organizational development and sustain growing revenue needs. At the same time, board members may expect to take on artistic authority or managerial oversight. Such unrealistic expectations lead to frustrations on both sides of the relationship between board members and organizational leaders and fail to activate the real, positive and constructive contributions board members could be making for their organizations. Board members and organizational leaders must communicate clearly with each other about expectations and goals to ensure that each fulfills an appropriate role in their organizations.

Organizational Structure

Although there is no inherently “right” way to structure and operate an arts organization, funders, community members, advisors and even peers often encourage or even push others to conform to expected “norms” of the field. Often, though, the most successful arts organizations are those that build their organizational structures and practices around the work they do and the community they engage, balancing and aligning what they do, why they do it, and how it is done. Each dance artist has a unique vision and approach to their artistic work and we must and do support and celebrate this diversity. Yet, at the same time, such a diverse approach to organizational structure and planning is somehow considered neither desirable nor effective. In every organization, leadership is encouraged to consider their unique approach to the artistic work and to create an operating format for their organization that reflects and supports it.

Audience Engagement

Collectively, we have tended to think about the interaction between artists/arts organizations and audiences/community as focused around attending performance. Experiments in community engagement, social practice art and outreach over the years have significantly expanded our understanding to include work as providers of community spaces, facilitators of creativity and conveners of conversations. Audiences in the 21st century want experiential connections to artistic processes, often followed by a desire for relational connections with the artists. These are the building blocks of a core audience from which, in turn, emerge contributors, volunteers and board members. Dance and arts organizations increasingly reach out to diverse communities with an openness to understanding their needs and to building relationships around mutual interests rather than offering a narrower access point focused primarily on performance.

Nurturing New Leadership & Structure

As we dismantle myths and unrealistic expectations, we need to replace these with other approaches, ideas and expectations. In their place, alternative structures and approaches invented of necessity by small/mid-sized/independent organizations (many embedded in communities of color) effectively enable their missions and their work. So much is emerging in the sector right now that can be valuable in forging a path forward – IF we can make room for and support it. This means both embracing new leaders and new ideas and supporting structures that don’t always look the way we expect. Sometimes this means abandoning counter-intuitive, illogical, even hypocritical allegiance to old structures. Sometimes it requires reinventing existing structures. Most of the time it requires embracing entirely new constructions. Funders, peers and communities all have roles to play in supporting these emerging ways of working. As George Lodge, Harvard Business School, says “Any force of change must be protected from the inevitable retaliation of the status quo.”

Over the past number of years, with ARTS Action Research I have worked with small and mid-sized organizations exploring change within their organizations and communities. Working with cohorts of arts leaders has encouraged and supported their individual paths of change and provided a supportive community and collaborative opportunities for emerging leaders and ideas. Below is a  story from this work that illustrates the new approaches and ideas that are emerging within the field.

The Movement Theatre Company, New York

One example of re-envisioning structures is The Movement Theatre Company (TMTC), which is led by a group of four collaborating artists/producers. At a point in the company’s history, the original collaborative team believed they needed to adopt an accepted, existing structure to sustain and grow the organization. “Our biggest challenge with the structure was … we were seeking ‘structure’ from traditional models,” said Deadria Harrington, Producing Artistic Leader. “In a way that’s what we were hoping for. But, in the larger group meetings we were consistently advised to ‘re-structure’ and to ‘re-define’ the traditional approach.’ So we felt very confused about what WE needed from this process, but by the end we figured that we’d define our current model in order to clarify what works and what needs work, and for us that was beneficial.”

In exploring their structure and relationships, TMTC began to better understand why their process succeeded and how they could acknowledge and build on that success. They started to adopt new language, calling themselves Producing Artistic Leaders (or PALs) and referring to their way of working as an ambitious, collaborative team approach.

The process had immediate benefits. First, the team was able to define the relationships of various company members and collaborators with TMTC. They now have a greater clarity about expectations and responsibilities. The leadership team members are better able to support each other, having taken true ownership of their role in sustaining and leading. “We learned that we can create our own model that works best for us,” noted Harrington. “We learned that long-term planning can assist in helping us to all feel more fulfilled. We learned that we can certainly take more time to decide whether or not we want to become our own nonprofit. We learned that WE must be the leaders of the organization and not allow expectations of Members, Audience or Peers to dictate ‘every’ decision that we make. A huge change has been our willingness to take care of ourselves as the artistic leaders of the organization. Previously we’d avoid giving ourselves opportunities to direct, act, write etc. because we were afraid that that was too selfish. However, we’re learning that in order for us to feel fulfilled artistically within our company, we must both participate in and share the artistic activities.”

We are in the midst of an inspiring and exciting moment to support the work that artists and arts professionals are doing of necessity and with ingenuity in new and, perhaps, untried ways. Not only do these new ways of working allow for and support more diverse structures and communities – in many cases they are already here. We just need to acknowledge them and seek out ways to sustain them.

Editor’s note: ARTS Action Research has published reports on this work including “Seizing Permission” and “Emerging Narratives.”

Anne Dunning

Anne Dunning is a facilitator, strategic planner, evaluator, and educator. She became principal associate at ARTS Action Research in 2004 after several years as administrative director of the Danny Grossman Dance Company in Toronto. In Canada, she was founding chair of the Canadian Dance Assembly and served for twelve years on the George Cedric Metcalf Foundation’s Strategic Initiatives Advisory Committee. She has been a trustee and chair of the board of Dance/USA, a member of Dance/NYC’s advisory committee, and chair of the board of freeDimensional. She has taught for Humber College’s arts administration program and been a guest speaker at the University of Toronto and NYU. Anne studied biology at McGill University in Montreal, where she received a BSc in ecology, evolution and behavior. She lives in Boston and New York with her husband, Gary Dunning, president and executive director of Celebrity Series of Boston.


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