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Words of Inspiration From 2020

Words of Inspiration From 2020

CI to Eye with 20 Cultural Leaders

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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The guests on CI to Eye during 2020 provided hope, guidance, and insight during an unprecedented year. Listen to all of their “CI to Eye moments" in this special episode as you rebuild and reimagine the future of the arts.

Erik Gensler: Good news has been scarce this year, but 2021 feels hopeful. Vaccines are offering a not-too-far-off return to in-person arts experiences and a new administration is taking office in Washington. Two years ago, we started a tradition of compiling each year’s “CI to Eye moments” to look back on the last year and get inspired for the new year ahead. In the unprecedented year of 2020, I spoke with 20 thought leaders, from executive directors to fundraisers to artists and others inside and outside of the arts including a hero of mine, Seth Godin. At the end of each interview I asked each guest, “If you could broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and board of thousands of arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them right now?” Here’s what they said. If there’s one thing 2020 has made abundantly clear, it’s that even the best-laid plans go awry. The only way to respond to uncertainty is to learn how to adapt and embrace the knowledge that while we can’t control the future, we can control how we respond to it. Kamilah Forbes, Executive Producer of the World Famous Apollo Theater, shared how she thinks embracing the uncomfortable helps us grow.

Kamilah Forbes: I think it is, get comfortable in the space of uncomfortability. Get very comfortable in that space. Live it, breathe it, don’t try to move too quickly out of it because I think it’s in that space that growth and true future institutional possibility will really happen.

Erik Gensler: Arthur Cohen, Founder and CEO of LaPlaca Cohen, also shared advice for making it through circumstances that are beyond our control.

Arthur Cohen: Understand the singularity of this crisis. It’s not like a war. It’s not like 9/11. It’s not like any of the tragedies that we’ve dealt with, which had the ability to be both tragic and somehow, at the same time, a bit remote. One of the things that we lead with in this data is just how ubiquitous and how viscerally direct the impact of the health crisis has been on cultural organizations, visitors, and subscribers and audiences. How many people have had, directly attributable to the COVID crisis, reductions or eliminations in income? How many people, either they themselves or a loved one or a family member, have been sick from COVID? The fact that this is a different crisis because it is so immediately, viscerally personalized and experienced and it is driven by anxiety and uncertainty. We’re not in the linear world right now. So, it’s not a comforting thought, necessarily, just so much as an acknowledgement of the structural reality of this situation, is that being okay, able to ride through a series of events that no one can control at this point, as opposed to the thing that we want to do most, which is to make a plan, to figure out the staff and the program requirements and the budget behind it and all that kind of stuff … You just have to be able to be very flexible right now and the only way that I’ve seen that seems reasonably effective at doing that is having a number of scenarios at the ready, to respond to these changes as they occur.

Erik Gensler: One piece of our organizations that ideally holds true no matter the circumstances is our mission. Non-profit arts organizations exist to serve their communities, so how can we prioritize them in our recovery strategies?

President of Langley Innovations, James Langley, shared some of the wisest fundraising advice I’ve ever heard. He encourages fundraisers to stop thinking like an organizational leader and start thinking like the leader of a cause.

James Langley: I would say, what you must do is to go back to all great causes and purposes and in your own Pantheon … I don’t want to propose any, but, you know, whoever in your personal experience in your reading of history stands out to you as a leader of a great cause, someone who made a profound difference and from their example say, “How can I apply it?” Stop thinking like an organizational leader and start thinking like the leader of a cause and assume that you have no headquarters, no physical plant. You’re starting from scratch. What would you do to advance that cause? And I would submit to them, you wouldn’t go around saying, “We need money to fill certain institutional categories.” You would be saying, “This cause is too important to let slip, to be undermined, and, at its purest form, what could we do to advance this cause, person to person?” You’d make it viral. You’d make it interpersonal. You’d strip away all pretense. You’d say, “How little do we need for ourselves and how much can we sacrifice to make sure the cause is advanced?” And so, in pre-COVID-19, we saw too many people, sort of, in their own ships, sort of, sailing merrily along and saying, “All we need is fuel,” and telling to their clients and customers, “All we need is fuel.” Well, with COVID-19, we’ve hit an iceberg. We’re in a lifeboat but what you’ve got to convey is a determination to get to shore, to get to that better place, to get to where that cause can be advanced. So, you’ve gotta be leaner internally and you’ve got to collaborate more. When we look at funding, when we listen to donors, they’re deeply concerned about false competition or even false market. So, if you’re in the business of theater or if you’re in the business of at-risk teenagers, what you’ve got to do is to say it is not the needs of the organizations, but it is the needs of those that we serve and we are determined to be internally lean and we are determined to collaborate with anybody and anybody, including other nonprofits, to make sure that the end cause is served. So, get back to cause and strip away institution. Understand what we’re learning, what is measurable, is a declining trust in institutions themselves and the primary reason is, they got caught up in survival and lost the scent of cause. Get back to that, any way you can, and everything you do, remind people of those core purposes and your determination to serve them in any way you can, no matter what happens. And if you cry desperation, if you say, “We will fold,” that you will then predict your fate. But if you say, “We will serve this cause, no matter what,” you will also predict your fate and future and make sure you don’t confuse the two. An organization can die but a cause never should.

Erik Gensler: Brett Egan, the President of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, agreed.

Brett Egan: This is the moment where everyone goes deep and answers, again, first for themselves and then for the community, “What makes this work necessary?” That’s the message that our donors need to hear. That’s the message that our audiences need to hear. And my belief is that that must be a visionary statement and that it is the visionary organizations during this period, not the organizations that grow quiet and retreat for three or six months, that are going to find their footing when this starts to rebound. And that requires both pragmatism and optimism in equal measure and constantly in the weeks that come. It’s a time where we’re going to stick together, as we always have, and take care of each other, and we have the great privilege, the great privilege, of working in the business of producing meaning and producing a vision for the future and I have great confidence, as I always have, our artists and our managers are going to step up to that plate and continue to serve.

Erik Gensler: Matías Tarnopolsky, President and CEO of The Philadelphia Orchestra, explained why their quick pivot to digital programming was so crucial to upholding their meaningful work and commitment to their audiences.

Matías Tarnopolsky: The most important day is tomorrow and the day after. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and make the decisions that you need to make for your organization and your people based on the priorities that you, your boards, your colleagues, your audiences have articulated. Keep the music alive. Think about the people that you touch through the work that you do. Your audiences locally, nationally, internationally, stay in touch with them. Communicate frequently and sincerely.

Erik Gensler: Finally, Colleen Dilenschneider, Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research and author of Know Your Own Bone, shed some light on the importance of being there to meet our communities on the other side of this crisis.

Colleen Dilenschneider: It would be to be responsive and not reactive, to take the time to look at information, accept that things are challenging and they are changing, and to make strategic decisions based on what we know, while being agile and open to that change. I also want to say that, right now, as I mentioned before, our nation is focused on surviving and, at some point—and hopefully that’s some point is soon—we will focus again on thriving and people will be looking to us to safely fulfill that need, so we want to be thoughtful now, so that we can be there for people when we’re called upon again to do that.

Erik Gensler: In addition to the importance of serving our audiences through mission, the pandemic has laid bare how crucial it is to listen to and rely on the artists who make our work possible. Emily Simoness, Founder and Executive Director of SPACE on Ryder Farm, a nonprofit artist residency program and organic farm in upstate New York, revealed the moment she realized that the artists she serves were shaping the future of her organization, which encouraged her to really listen.

Emily Simoness: The first thing that comes to mind is, listen. I think we give lip service to listening. We pretend like, “Well, I’m supposed to listen, right? Like, I’m supposed to ask. I’m supposed to survey, right? Survey around. I’m gonna do a Google form and then my assistant’s gonna collect the data and then I’m going to change my stuff,” but we’re not actually asking the question cause we want to know; we’re asking it because we’re supposed to ask the question and then we’re going to, like, not even look at the survey results. At some point, SPACE on Ryder farm stopped being a thing that I created and it started talking to me about what it was. The place … Like, that sounds woo-woo, but, like, the people started talking to me about what it was and I was like, “Oh, huh. That’s so interesting.” The food was not my, necessarily, idea. Like, I’m not a chef. I wasn’t like, “Three communal meals a day!” but guess what? We surveyed everybody and they all were saying, “I got so much work done. I met so many people and coming together for three meals was wild and radical and that’s the lightning in the bottle.” That’s not my idea. That is the communal feedback that I was getting and if I wasn’t listening, if I wasn’t asking cause I really wanted to know, I could have missed that whole thing. And that’s the centerpiece of the whole thing now, right? Which is, like … Listen, our operating budget is only $1.7 million so we can move our right arm very easily. So, for the nonprofit whose operating budget is $40 million and you have to talk to 7,000 people to move your figurative right arm, that’s a really hard challenge. But if you can’t listen to the people you’re serving, what are you doing? Why are you a nonprofit? Why are you a service organization? Who are you serving and are you actually asking them what they need because you want to know and you could maybe shift what you’re doing to respond more effectively?

Erik Gensler: Adam Roberts, Co-Founding Artistic Director of TILT Performance Group, a theater company in Austin comprised of paid adult performers with disabilities, shared his thoughts on how valuable it can be to make sure all stakeholders are involved in decision-making, especially when it comes to issues of equity, inclusion, and accessibility.

Adam Roberts: Have the conversation directly with the stakeholders themselves. So many times, over and over and over again at TILT, our work has been advanced, heightened, made more excellent by the contributions of our company members, who often are, again, classified or thought of as having a different type of ability. So, there is excellence in diversity and not to be afraid to go directly to folks, to have that conversation, to engage them directly in the decision-making, to make folks with disabilities an equal partner in decision-making; not either an afterthought or a requisite partner, but literally an equal partner at the table. That has proven time and again to make the work that we do with TILT all the more relevant, all the more rewarding and sustainable.

Erik Gensler: Anastasia Boudanoque, who has managed some of the most compelling classical music performers of our time, implores organizations to trust artists more when it comes to programming.

Anastasia Boudanoque: One of the things that I keep hoping for and wishing for as I work representing musicians is that organizations give things they’re not quite sure about a fighting chance because it’s so … in our world where there’s very little room for error, very little space where you can experiment, one almost always has to make the right decision. There’s very little flexibility. And so, I can see why decisions are sometimes made in favor of things that are foolproof, in favor of things that will always deliver. The names, the repertoire … My advice and my plea would be to be bold and to give a chance to people and ideas and content and repertoire, to things that are maybe not as well-known but that may have this potential to deliver fantastic results.

Erik Gensler: Joshua Dachs, one of the world’s leading theater design consultants, explained how even the theaters in which artistic work is performed should be influenced by the works of art it’s intended for.

Joshua Dachs: I find that my best clients are the ones that have the strongest, sometimes most idiosyncratic, ideas about what they want. And sometimes, my worst clients are the ones that have absolutely no idea what they want and just sort of, you know, “We want a world-class, one of these.” What does that even mean? Theater is not a generic experience. It’s not like flipping on the TV and, and it doesn’t really matter what device you’re viewing it on; it’s going to be the same. It really matters what room you’re in. And there needs to be a relationship between the work that’s being made and the space in which it’s being made and in the same way that there’s a relationship between what Shakespeare put on the page and what the stage was that he was writing for, that’s also true of Pinter and that’s also true of any contemporary playwright. They have an idea about the conditions in which their work is going to be performed and they’re writing with those conditions in mind. So, your job, as the building committee of a theater company, is to create the conditions in which artists will create. And so, you need to have an artistic point of view; otherwise, you’re making a generic space and the work that will be done there will be generic. So, I love it when a director has a strong reaction, “I hate thrusts,” or, “I love thrusts,” or whatever it is, or some weird requests that I’ve never heard before. Many, many years ago, I was making a space with Vinnette Carroll, who was a wonderful director and writer, who had a theater company, by then, in Fort Lauderdale. And she had an idea about procession and celebration and wanted a center line, basically. Most people would never take away seats on the center line, but she wanted, you know, a group of jubilant performers to be able to enter in procession right down the center line and take the stage. And we did that and it was a powerful space for her for that reason. So, I guess, know what you’re about. Have a strong artistic point of view. Now, we understand that people change over time. You know, today’s artistic director will be replaced at some point and maybe two or three artistic directors from now, the building will no longer match their vision and something will happen; either the building will change or the artistic director will change. Who knows, but if you’re going to go through the trouble of making a building, make it a strong one. Make it a powerful one.

Erik Gensler: Finally, one of my favorite drag queens, Jackie Beat—who has done a phenomenal job of marketing herself as an artist during the pandemic—reminds us that artists are at the center of it all.

Jackie Beat: As far as talent is concerned and artists are concerned, just always remember that that’s the most important thing, is the art and the entertainment and the person who is delivering that. But as an artist, that’s the first place I go.

Erik Gensler: In October, we released a special episode of CI to Eye where I asked three consultants who work with a broad array of arts organizations the question that had been on my mind all spring and summer, instead of our usual “CI to Eye moment.” The question was, “What is the state of the arts in 2020?” Jill Robinson, the CEO of TRG Arts, shared how she sees the arts as a critical part of the recovery economy.

Jill Robinson: The state of the arts, from my catbird seat, is that it is more critical, it is so much more critical than ever. It will be part of the recovery economy. If you think about it, in communities, we recover when we’re together in spirit and in proximity, and so, our coming together in arts and culture, in church, if that’s your thing, in community centers, in restaurants … We must, we must come back as strong … Even though we might be smaller, we can be smaller and stronger than ever. And so, I hear evidence of people seeing that and I think I want to inspire the sector to be reminded of the importance of the role that they play in their communities, and in their communities healing from and through all kinds of things, including this coronavirus pandemic, but not only. And so, you know, the state is, right now, right now is in flux and there’s a lot of fear, and there’s a lot of fear that’s based on a lot of realities of change, but this sector is so critically important. And I am hearing governments acknowledge that. I’m hearing community leaders acknowledge that and neighbors acknowledge that. And that, that is the point.

Erik Gensler: Donna Walker-Kuhne, Founder of Walker International Communications Group, observed how 2020 has opened up new opportunities for reinvention and collaboration.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: Transition, fearlessness, pivoting to a virtual landscape, bravery. That’s kind of what I see. I think that the opportunity that COVID-19 has provided for the art sector is to actually look at programming in a different way, through a different lens, and that you can use this now to really think about cultivating diversity in a way that perhaps you couldn’t afford to do in person. So, now, you can roll out all kinds of different programs. Now, you have the opportunity to partner with different organizations who may doing the work that you would like to do. And so, there’s a whole new lane of programming, collaboration, and marketing that is before us and this is up to arts organizations to walk down that path, to see that. And that, to me, is a great opportunity to start to implement the EDI work from your home. And so, you’re thinking about, “Okay, now, how do I actually do this? Okay, I’m not going to see anybody. How do we do this?” So, programming is absolutely one of those ways. I think that right after the murder of George Floyd, there was all these statements of solidarity that were issued. You know, everybody was posting, you know, “We stand in support. We will …” So, now, it’s about accountability. And so, when I think about what’s next? “Okay, fine. You issued your statement. And what are you doing?” There needs to be that feeling within arts organizations, that “I have to be accountable to my community, my constituents, my funders, because this is what I said.” Then, there has to be a level of accountability to yourself. “How am I measuring my growth so that when I go home—well, go back to my bedroom—I feel that, you know, I have, I’ve made a difference. I have a footprint. I’ve made an impact.” It’s also generational, too. I have seen more movement within the younger demographic than older. And so, there’s a much more willingness to be an ally. And I think that’s something that all white people should think about. What is, how, where am I on that trajectory of allyship? Am I a co-conspirator? Am I a partner? Am I an ally? Because you have to be on one of these. You have to be. You know, to stand to the side means that you are part of the problem. And so, you make a choice. “I’m going to be part of the solution. Then, where do I stand? I stand next to you. I’m in front of you. I’m providing the funding. I am working on myself.” But that piece, critical, because these are the things that people of color, certainly Black people have been saying for 401 years. This is not a new conversation. What is new is the way it’s being received and heard. And so, that’s when I think we have to push the door open, walk through boldly with, and this is what it looks like. This is how we uproot systemic racism. As we’ve mentioned, with leadership, with funding support, with board engagement, with programming, and at the end of the day, going home and feeling as if your life was respected and that I don’t have to leave part of me outside the door because I’m a person of color and I’ve got to fit within this model, but I can be all of me and that will be acknowledged and celebrated. That’s what we want to get to. That’s where we’re going.

Erik Gensler: Tom O’Connor, President of Tom O’Connor Consulting group and also the first ever guest on CI to Eye, drove home the importance of advocating for federal support for the arts in order to ensure that the arts can survive and thrive.

Tom O’Connor: This is where my social worker is going to show, but I will say, we are a field that is resilient, we are vital, I think we’d agree, and we’re very messy right now. All of those in ways that are deeply human and okay. But we, as a field, are in a whole lot of pain, you know? And so, just like millions of people right now, we can’t really rely on just generosity, philanthropy, and the tenets of capitalism to keep us going, keep us afloat. Those systems are either broken or greatly limited. We need government support to survive or we’re not going to have a country worth living in, if you think about some of the states that some of these arts organizations are in.

Erik Gensler: Something that I personally leaned into in 2020 is the understanding that decentralizing power is critical to anti-racism and effective leadership. Sometimes, that means that leaders need to cede some of their own power. Betty Avila, Executive Director of Self Help Graphics & Art in Los Angeles, highlighted the value of encouraging emerging members of your team for them to try and fail.

Betty Avila: What I would like to share and communicate is to learn to be comfortable sharing power and learn to be comfortable not always being in control. I mean that both in terms of how arts organizations are serving and in relationship with community and the many communities that they serve, but also internally. I think a lot about the young and emerging arts administrators who have so many incredible ideas and I think need safe space to try things and fail and how that safe space doesn’t exist in a lot of institutions and I’d like to share that as a piece of advice.

Erik Gensler: Robert Barry Fleming, the Executive Artistic Director at Actors Theatre of Louisville, shared his perspective on making space for marginalized voices.

Robert Barry Fleming: Stay curious, keep investigating. Keep asking questions. Keep a rigorous process of disconfirming your own operating assumptions. Seek to do that, seek to problematize what you think, you know, and keep asking questions and be teachable. I think that’s, if there’s anything that makes life worth living, you know, it’s like, I feel like I got some part of that from having educator parents, but also from being an actor and an actor in the largest sense of the word, both in the discipline, but also one who keeps trying to learn, keeps trying to grow, and keeps trying to divorce oneself from ego and lean into just that which you know. It’s like, sometimes, I think for many of us as artists or historically marginalized people, we have both overestimated our ability and centered ourselves sometimes. And then, sometimes, we haven’t done enough to allow ourselves to be centered and foregrounded and be open to being wrong and making mistakes because they’re so strong impulse of like, “You only get so many chances, so you’ve gotta be perfect.” I just try to keep learning and relieve myself of that pressure and keep pushing those boundaries by staying curious, staying investigative, staying in the process of inquiry. And it’s, it seems to be very fulfilled. It’s been very fulfilling for me. So, I wish that for others.

Erik Gensler: Kristie Swink Benson, Director of Communications at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, explained how diversity of perspective can help organizations communicate better with their communities.

Kristie Swink Benson: I think the advice that I would give is to definitely have an open mind about people and how people’s experiences contribute to the rich fabric of any organization. And we shouldn’t just look to one type of person. So, maybe someone that has been in museums all of their life, but we should look to people that again, have a wealth of knowledge that can bring that critical lens to an organization and allow you to develop your ideals about how you speak to people further.

Erik Gensler: Anna Glass, the Executive Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, demonstrated the power of vulnerability in leadership.

Anna Glass: I think it’s the big piece that I live by is, I don’t know everything. Right? You cannot possibly know everything. Be willing to say, “I don’t know and …” Be willing to explore what’s possible. Be willing to reach out to other people for assistance. That I think is the only way-

Erik Gensler: It’s about vulnerability.

Anna Glass: Oh, well, I already cried today. So, yes, vulnerability is absolutely key.

Erik Gensler: Finally, Britton Smith, Broadway actor and President and co-founder of Broadway Advocacy Coalition, reflected on how leaders can use their power to work towards anti-racism.

Britton Smith: I immediately think about power and how you’re using your power—I think you said this today—is either racist or anti-racist and you don’t have to call on your Black colleagues or your black previous cast members to understand if your practices or your ideas are racist or anti-racist. You, as a leader, know that leadership starts from within and asking yourself hard questions, asking yourself, “Am I? am I? am I? Are we? Are we?” So, if you can do that work and acknowledge whether your practices have been racist or anti-racist, it’s important to acknowledge and it’s important to reckon with that and move forward in a way that is anti-racist and use your power for that. You know, that’s what I would say. I want to see eye to eye with people who are using their power for good. And if you’re going to be having shows or staff or anybody of color on your roster of who’s in your institution, think about them when you’re thinking about the power that you have and if they are seeing eye to eye to your power.

Erik Gensler: To close out this episode, I leave you with a powerful and simple piece of advice from Seth Godin.

Seth Godin: Well, I think it’s pretty straightforward. You already know what to do and you’ve been hesitating to do it but this would be a good time to do it.

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