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Gary P. Steuer Headshot

The Greatest Challenge Arts Workers Face

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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 lives.

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?