Lost Angels

I’m driving to Los Angeles today to meet up with my colleagues on the Emerging Leader Council of Americans for the Arts for our annual Winter Meeting and planning session.  We’ll spend two days working out how we want to spend our year together, what we can do for Emerging Leader networks nationally, and what we think Americans for the Arts should be more aware of in regards to emerging leaders.

I’m really happy that Americans for the Arts revised its definition of “emerging leader.”  Since the ELC started, it has been defined as an arts professional under age 35 with fewer than 5 years of experience in the arts nonprofit field.  Now we embrace anyone with fewer than 10 years of experience, which I think is a good option since the Great Recession has changed a lot of people’s lives and careers, particularly in the nonprofit world.

For the last few months I’ve been working to reboot the Tucson Emerging Arts & Culture Leaders group, which is just a local network of arts professionals, culture workers, and artists who work both in the nonprofit and for profit worlds.  It’s been slow going but I’m hopeful that 2012 will bring new members and more energy to the group, which has been off to a good start thanks to some highly motivated and committed folks.

Expect photos.  I love Los Angeles.

An Open Letter to My Literary Community

Dear Writers of America,

Why aren’t you more actively engaged in supporting federal, state, and local funding for the arts?

Many of us, myself included, have found personal benefit in this funding. Several years ago, I was one of 11 artists to receive a $5,000 grant for poetry from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. The poems receiving that award ultimately became the centerpieces of my first collection, The First Risk. The funding I received from the Arizona Commission not only provided significant financial support as I balanced my “two full time job life” (one that paid/one (being a writer) that didn’t), it also provided me with the emotional fuel to complete the collection.

In the 90s, Congress decided that artists funded by the National Endowment for the Arts were doing harm to traditional American values. In response, they cut funding to the Endowment, crippling its ability to support individual artists. Today, writers and jazz musicians are the only independent artists eligible to receive project grants from the National Endowment.

Each winter, we as a community celebrate our colleagues, peers, and friends who receive this generous and essential awards. We revel in the knowledge that poetry and fiction matter to our culture, that many of us who work low income jobs or without health insurance can find legitimacy through our art.

Each year, the National Endowment and state arts agencies provide millions of dollars to the organizations that allow us to connect with our audiences and readers: nonprofit presses (now the bread and butter of poetry publishing), literary centers, writing conferences, publishing collectives, book review outlets, and so on.

While federal or state funding should never be considered a crutch or an essential income stream, it is important. To paraphrase Adrienne Rich, federal funding is not “more necessary” than sales revenue, donations, or grants–“but it is necessary.”

In an article published today, The Huffington Post reports that Congress is yet again pilfering the measley arts coffers in an effort to close our budget gap.

And, if we don’t act, they will take that money.

They have already taken the arts out of our schools. Now they will take money away from our presses, meaning fewer books can be published. They will take money away from our literary centers, meaning fewer writers can be remunerated for appearing there, fewer staff can be hired and sustained. They will take money away from our state and local arts agencies, whose goals are to fund smaller projects and organizations, more individual artists in other disciplines.

They will pull the plug on the arts, and many of our organizations–well run or not–will wither and die.

The good news is there is something you can do. (And, if you ask me, there’s something you must do.) Become an advocate for the arts by telling your story. Explain the value arts organizations give to YOU, your family, your community.

Get involved on the state level by locating your state advocacy agency (often called “Alliance for the Arts,” “Citizens for the Arts,” “or “Action for the Arts”) and sign up to be notified when important votes come up in the legislature.

They will prepare your email or print letter for you. All you have to do is click send or print it out.

And it matters.

When 10 people contact a legislator about an issue, it makes a difference. If 100 people contact 10 legislators, it makes a significant difference. When 1,000 people contact 100 legislators, it has a snowball effect. Imagine what we could do if even just 1,000 writers signed up to be arts advocates and made a commitment to be more involved with arts policy in our country.

Writing is an isolating art. We are often not at the table when larger discussions of “the arts” occur. But that’s our own fault. We aren’t going to be invited to this party, so we need to crash it. We’ll make our own seat.

Help save federal funding for the arts by signing up for the Arts Action Fund through Americans for the Arts. You’ll get only a few emails each year updating you on the progress of our advocacy, and you’ll only be asked to send a few yourself.

Those twenty minutes you’ll spend this year advocating the arts can have twenty years of impact.

What else will you do this year to make such an incredible difference not only in the future of American art but the future of America?

A culture is remembered through its art. We are the makers of that memory. We are the makers of our future.

Ballmer

I spent my weekend up in Baltimore at the Americans for the Arts Mid-Century Summit. It was awesome.

I presented on a panel called “Leadership and Influence,” and talked about my experience “embedding” myself in the DC area arts community after moving here two years ago. I spent quality time with the Emerging Leaders Council members doing a lot of our annual work over a few days of meetings and networking sessions, and I really enjoyed meeting the new arts professionals who attended the convention, many for the first time.

I left with a lingering question, though, which was: where were my literature peeps?

The Americans for the Arts Convention drew about 1,000 people from all over the country. It seems evenly split between professionals who work in state and local government agencies and professionals in private nonprofits. Many of the panels and talks are oriented toward business-related concerns; this year, for example “exploring new business models in the nonprofit sector” was a big and important topic–and also a slightly incendiary one!

Over the course of the weekend, I compared this crowd and experience with AWP’s annual conference, which now attracts over 8,000 people, most of whom are employed by or involved in higher education. But through my involvement with AWP’s Writing Conferences & Centers program, I know that there are a significant number of independent nonprofit literary organizations who attend AWP, who present there, who exhibit there. These organizations would really benefit from a connection with Americans for the Arts, and I think as our world becomes more interdisciplinary and “hybridized,” connections with our arts colleagues in other areas will be more and more important.

Consider, for example, that a huge portion of the Americans for the Arts event is build around Arts Education–both understanding what makes it successful and how to rally public and private support for it. But many organizations in the nonprofit sector also engage in arts education, including literary organizations like The Writer’s Center, so it benefits us to be connected to the larger discussion, to have colleagues in the field.

The Emerging Leader Council has been a true gift to me personally and professionally this past year, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to serve on it. The convention this year will full of young leaders and leaders new to the arts administration field who represented workers at all levels in their organizations. The literary world, too, is full of smart, passionate, and entrepreneurial leaders who found presses (No Tell Books), establish affinity organizations for writers (Kundiman), and convene (Lambda’s seminars for GLBT writers), yet those perspectives and talent were absent from this weekend.

When you consider that more and more of “literary” (scare quotes intentional) publishing is moving into the nonprofit sector, I wonder why more and more professionals aren’t reaching out to be a part of the sector as a whole. We rely more deeply on governmental grants and funding from philanthropic foundations, yet we aren’t a part of the organization that lobbies Congress on behalf of art everywhere.

Is it too incendiary for me to posit that we might be reaping too many benefits and sowing too few seeds?

From my perspective, with seven years of experience in this field, I can honestly say I feel dance and literature are the two arts most commonly “left off” the catalog of arts disciplines in our country. I’d say that even film, despite its connection to a robust for-profit enterprise, is still more commonly recognized as “art” than writing and dance are. Yet writers are one of only two kinds of artists who receive direct financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s a strange conflict to witness. I’ve watched literary orgs jump back and forth between arts councils and humanities councils because their programming seems to wear the other hat (or both, or neither distinctly enough for their tastes). And now I feel like I see the community of literary professionals forsaking involvement in the greater arts conversation that could, over time, get us a better seat at funders’ tables.

Does literature’s symbiotic relationship with the academy separate us from the arts community? I did notice that another underrepresented group at the Americans for the Arts Convention were arts administrators who work within systems of higher education. (In fact, the first time I attended this Convention was during my tenure at ASU, and I came away feeling like there were no colleagues for me or information relevant to my job at that event.) And it’s true that for many university presses, rather than lobby their elected officials for funding, they lobby their administrators and regents instead.

But I can’t help feeling that the stronger our arts field is, the more inclusive and diverse it is, the stronger our impact will be, the more readily funding will be made available and a greater diversity of voices will be heard.

What do my literary colleagues think about this?

The Future of Arts Leadership Green Paper

This season, Americans for the Arts is hosting an online salon on arts-related topics surrounding our future. As part of our work of the Emerging Leader Council, I crafted this green paper in collaboration with the ELC’s ideas about where our leaders (and leadership) are heading. You can follow and participate in the discussion here.

We owe a great debt to the generation of leaders who established the nonprofit arts sector as a viable career choice, one that both offered and required preparation and expertise. Those leaders, who established and shepherded arts nonprofits from fledgling grassroots efforts to massively successful organizations, have in turn mentored and developed the next generation of arts leader. Along with their support, today’s nonprofit workforce can access formal education in arts management graduate programs, which have become common nationwide, as well as join professional development organizations that segment us by field, by discipline, by region, and by our level of experience. This means our ability to pool resources—human, intellectual, and community-based—is at an all-time high. It also means that we, like our sector, are accustomed to—and thrive on—change.

That’s fortunate, because our sector is in constant change. In the last twenty-five years, much of this has been due to technology, with its great leaps forward that have radically altered both the way we get work done as well as how we communicate with our constituents and with our colleagues. With the increased education and awareness of the nonprofit model, we’ve learned that in order for our organizations to thrive, we have to think with a mission and behave like a business. Borrowing standards, practices, and policies from our for-profit colleagues have been an essential part of the professionalization of our sector, and it has ensured the continued success of many nonprofits. We must not be “nonprofit” in the sense that our businesses make no income; instead, we must be “not-for-profit,” an important distinction.

As leaders, we have learned not to fear change, but to embrace it. The future of leadership must do more than just embrace change, however; it must anticipate it, rely on it to push our organizations forward. We have identified several effective strategies to implement change management into organizations as part of healthy life cycles.

Conventional wisdom has been encouraging leaders to become well-rounded, being “competent” in all areas of management and leadership, but we ask why this should be so. Competence is rarely invigorating, nor does it inspire change; it encourages stasis. As in physics, when all variables are held constant, the system remains inert. The last ten years have demonstrated that the world in which we live and work is anything but inert, that change is pandemic, and that the speed with which change occurs has only increased. In the life cycles of organizations, different skills will be needed at different stages. In times of growth and expansion, an entrepreneurial leader can be visionary and motivational to the constituency. In times of stabilization, a more administration savvy leader can steady the ship. In times of external change (such as the recent recession), resourceful and collaborative leaders can be most effective. It is a rare individual who can be entrepreneurial, bureaucratic, and collaborative all at the same time, but it is sometimes possible for a single individual to evidence these skills in a single tenure. But we hold that this individual is a rare find.

Small organizations—the vast majority of our sector—sometimes fear change, particularly staffing changes, because vacant positions prevent work from being done and knowledge from trickling down into databases and organizational files. Instead of fearing staff attrition, we should incorporate it into our organizational goals and visions. While the traditional, even corporate, ideal is to create professional growth opportunities for staff from within, the reality is that smaller nonprofits will not have this luxury. The fluidity of staff and projects will be acknowledged, and even embraced. Strategic plans provide the best sense of what kind of staff and leader an organization will need for a five to seven year period. Based on the goals and objectives of their plans, organizations should both capitalize on the strengths of their particular leader and make arrangements to staff the organization with the necessary skills to carry out the work ahead.

We foresee more and more situations wherein employees and organizations can create mutual “win-win” scenarios that involve a three to five year employee commitment (shorter term employment) to pull the organization toward a specific goal. For example, an organization beginning a branding process should invest in a multiyear commitment to a design professional who seeks to build a portfolio that will further her own career agenda; at the end of the period, the employee can move on (and up) while the organization brings in an employee whose skills will stabilize the brand rather than continue to innovate it. The trend in our culture means workers will have more jobs in their lifetimes, and this is because people are constantly seeking education, training, and new opportunities to grow and develop, as well as to advance to positions of greater responsibility in their careers. Because arts organizations can be small or specialized, it could take years, even a decade before an employee would hope to move up the ladder in one organization. We need to encourage transition between organizations as a means to keep all our organizations fresh, vibrant, and forward thinking.

As leaders, we can spark change and development in our organizations by creating and maintaining smart staff development programs and evaluation processes that are employee-focused. We agree that some organizations cannot match salaries of our for-profit peers and thereby risk losing talented and effective labor to other sectors, so the strategy of including staff development and training as benefits might be viewed as an important opportunity for bright, advancement-minded individuals. Evaluation programs that are employee-minded stress the importance of skills and development needs, not “successes” and “failures.” For all staff, not just leaders, 360-degree reviews provide a panoptic sense of their impact and effectiveness. This practice also encourages employees to be reflective not only about their performance, but about how the effect the organization as a whole. This kind of external concern, this fundamental self-awareness, is an important trait of a good leader and often one of the first to develop.

Collaborate and participative leadership strategies—a flat-organization structure in which staff make concerted contributions to the organization’s leadership—can also serve a staff development function while building in a means for seamless succession. The win for organizations when they employ collaborative leadership strategies is that they ultimately plan for succession. By observing them first hand, employees learn the skills and qualities of good leadership. They will appreciate the increased investment in their abilities, and as leaders, we should not fear losing this expertise to other organizations. It is certain in our future employees will leave organizations for better opportunities. We must accept that. But we should not let attrition cripple our approach to maximizing the time we do have with our staffs because this ultimately only hurts our own organizations. In addition, by contributing to the skill development of the field, we cultivate a healthy and savvy sector workforce of peers who will buoy the nonprofit arts in our country. The camaraderie of the field will continue to be important as it has in the past, and our networks of associates, mentors, and mentees will only become more essential as technology makes us able to collaborate over great distances.

Lastly, we must confront, without fear, significant organizational change. Whenever a for-profit industry bubbles in a period of great expansion and growth, everyone accepts that some of them will fail, will close. We, too, must accept this of ourselves. As more and more arts nonprofits have developed, so has the competition for financial resources, for funding. It’s possible that, like for-profit business, the market and/or the community cannot sustain the sheer number of organizations coming into existence. Looking ahead, some of our organizations will close. Some will forge cooperative partnerships with other nonprofits, while others will seek alliances with for-profit colleagues. Some organizations will merge to pool resources and missions. And some will continue to grow. The nonprofit life cycle includes this, plans for this. Even when it will be difficult to do so, as leaders, we must make these difficult decisions.

It may seem oversimplified, but the only consistent aspect of leadership will be the necessity of change leadership. We foresee a future of arts management wherein arts leaders do not remain in their positions for decades unless they are able to evolve with their organization’s change needs. It could be that the relationship Executive Director and Managing Director (or other second-in-command) will become even more essential and that it is through staff evolutions in these positions that we will see the most effective use of change leadership. For most of our workforce, it will mean job transition, in the interest of skill building and leadership development, will be the primary goal rather than dedication to a single organization or cause. We can see reflections of this in our for-profit peer organizations as well, meaning that our vision of the future of nonprofit leadership is in line with trends in other sectors as well.