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The Messiness Ghetto

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I recently taught a seminar for board members in South Africa. I find that we offer far too little training to people who are meant to govern our arts organizations. While I have often taught similar sessions in the United States, this was my first such program overseas.

It was a spirited discussion as these typically are. As in many countries, the role of the board in South Africa is evolving as the way arts organizations are funded is evolving. Board members, who traditionally were simply there to oversee financial health, are being asked to play a more central role in resource gathering as private fundraising becomes increasingly important to the survival and growth of arts organizations.

My seminar was aimed at helping board members make this transition and to explain to arts managers what they must do to motivate their board members to ask for funds. When board members are excited by programming and marketing plans, feel close to the organization and are allowed to view the creative process, they become far more successful as solicitors.

But I could not immediately identify one underlying anxiety that filled the room. I only realized after the session, on the drive to the airport, that the tension in many arts organizations, and between many boards and staffs, is often caused by the messy nature of art creation.

One does not make art neatly. Ideas emerge, they are challenged, changed, and dropped. Many artistic creations, and certainly almost all performing arts ventures, are collaborative processes where each participant is experimenting, changing, dropping and trying again. This takes time, iteration and experimentation.

This activity does not lend itself to the strictures of planning. And artists naturally rebel if a board attempts to make them create work in a straight line.

But good arts managers know how to segment off this part of the work from the rest of the organizational efforts. They know how to plan for this messiness while still allowing the organization to plan and market and create resources.

The fact that it is messy to create a new ballet does not mean that planning for the creation of that ballet has to be an unstructured process and cannot be accomplished smoothly. Nor does it mean that marketing and fundraising cannot happen in an orderly way in service to this messy process that actually provides the lifeblood of the organization.

When administrators and boards try to avoid the messiness, they ignore the mission of the organization. When board members argue that it would make more sense to become "more efficient" in the art making process rather than expand fund-raising goals, they are demonstrating a lack of understanding of the way art is created and the purpose of the institution as a whole.

But learning to accept how art is made and to embrace it and then to pursue everything else the organization does in a more structured, programmed way is central to success - in Cape Town or Washington, D.C.