What managers need to know about how artists work

I remember my visceral reaction when I first heard George Thorn and Nello McDaniel say that the work of an arts organization – whether in the admin office, fundraising department or boardroom – should be consistent with its artistic process. It was like a lightning strike. I immediately felt that I understood and agreed; things that had been confused became clear. Of course, the way decisions were made and problems solved in the studio should be reflected throughout the organization; of course, interactions between board, staff, artists, volunteers and audiences should be based on the mutual respect and spirit of collaboration found in rehearsals.

This concept has profoundly influenced my thinking and practice as an arts professional. However, I admit that I’ve had trouble articulating just what it meant. What, exactly, are the components of the artistic process that we should embrace in our day-to-day work?

Although George and Nello would rightly say that each organization is unique, I found a fascinating set of answers in The Four Qualities of Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work, by Rob Austin and Lee Devin. 2003 by Pearson Education, Inc. Publishing as Financial Times Prentice Hall.

Here’s what they say about how artists work:

Release – is the first (and perhaps the most counter-intuitive) quality of artful making. Release is a method of control that accepts wide variation within known parameters. Release contrasts with restraint, the usual method of control used by industry and business.

Collaboration – is the quality exhibited by conversation, in language and behavior, in which each participant, released from vanity, inhibition, and preconceptions, treats the contributions of others as material to make with, not as positions to argue with so that new and unpredictable ideas emerge.

Ensemble –  is the quality exhibited by a group dedicated to collaboration in which individual members relinquish sovereignty over their work and thus create something none could have made alone: a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Play – is play, the quality of joy and exploration and discovery found in a production and responded to by an audience.

Every successful coalition I’ve been part of, each collaborative project I’ve worked on, each healthy organization I’ve known, has strived to work this way. I think it’s why artists and arts organizations tend to collaborate well, and I think I can now explain it to others.


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