Artists and Administrators: we really are all on the same team

I’m not sure why Mike Daisey’s article from February 7, 2008 has been making the social media rounds again, but I’m reminded enough of the ire I felt when I first read it in 2008 (and saw his production of “How Theatre Failed America” during NPAC in Denver that same year) that I am back here blogging again.

I’m not going to spill a lot of ink on the article itself or Mr. Daisey’s specific arguments because (1) it was written 6 years ago, before the “Great Recession” hit that autumn and changed much of the landscape, and (2) I feel Mr. Daisey makes so many leaps of ill-focused logic and presumptions that it is a waste of breath to enumerate all the flaws in his argument.

I do worry, however, about the perception that the resurfacing of the article may encourage: that (1) “large” organizations (broad and ranging definition depending on who is speaking) do not care about the art or the artists and (2) arts administrators are evil delusionary autocrats deliberately seeking to cheat artists (“they are a dime a dozen”) and fill their own pockets in the name of supporting the edifice of “the institution.”  Granted, I am an arts administrator, so it would make sense that I would take offense to this…no one, not even the most universally reviled criminals would probably paint themselves as a villain.  However, I have spent almost two decades in the non-profit theatre industry and I have yet to encounter one single person who was deliberately trying to find ways to cheat or devalue artists for their own gain.  The sooner we all stop demonizing each other, the sooner we will start to realize there are numerous theatres existing right now that are trying to do what’s right by all their employees and the communities they serve.  When we do that, we can start talking about what works in various communities, why it works, and how these strategies can be modified and replicated in other communities that haven’t found their model yet.

The first, and most important, thing to note is that we really are all on the same team.  The vast majority of us, artist or administrator, came to this industry through a love of theatre.  We have a deep, burning need to share that love with our communities, to help them know how much more beautifully rich our lives are with theatre in them.  That love is why we put in the umpteen extra hours, work for significantly less pay that we would find in the corporate sector, and (for me, anyway) stay awake at night trying to find more ways to make our employees’ lives better.  In the years since Mr. Daisey wrote the aforementioned article, the answer to that last issue has rarely included increased salaries.  We’ve all spent the last six years finding our balance and learning to be better stewards of the public’s funds (we are, after all, by definition of “non-profit corporation”, in the public trust).  We know that our people are the backbone of our organization and, there is no question, most of our theatres rode out the recession on the backs of our people, artists and staff alike.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned in my career and I hear echoed in the conversations of my peers:

  • Your mission, vision, and values must be your guiding light.
  • Great employees (artists and admin) are the only way any organization survives, much less thrives
  • All great employees should be valued, regardless of title or union affiliation
  • Respect is the Golden Rule.  Why on earth would anyone put up with everything else related to working in non-profit theatre if they weren’t at the very least respected for their unique contribution?
  • When there is a choice, you should always prioritize people (we will give raises rather than getting a color copier until all our employees are paid fairly)
  • Sometimes it does come down to “we have to fix the air conditioner” and there is no other choice.
  • It is almost never a question of black and white; so many factors go into every decision (budget, casting, marketing, staffing) it is always a matter of degrees, timing, and competing priorities.
  • Transparency should be the law of the land.  Without accurate information folks are free to jump to whatever conclusions pop into their brains, just as Mr. Daisey did.
  • You have to bring in more revenue before you expand the budget.
  • Breakeven is never good enough.  We’ve allowed ourselves (often encouraged by funders) to believe that if we aren’t “re-investing” every penny we make this year into this year’s expenses then we are not using our funds wisely (and we don’t need their funding).  We must eradicate this thinking.  It is only by establishing cash reserves (not endowments) that we can take the artistic and programmatic risks we all want to support.
  • It should not be a question of “if” but “when.”  Just because you can’t fulfill the organizations wildest dreams (or even more pedestrian ones) tomorrow doesn’t mean you give up and condemn “the administration” for killing your dreams.  It does mean you need to plan out how to take all the steps needed between where you are and where you want to be.  We’ve all been so busy making sure our checks didn’t bounce, it has been hard to lift our eyes to the horizon and even think about dreams.  I’m encouraged by the fact that I am hearing more and more conversations about strategic planning and mapping out strategies to move our organizations to the next level (including the next level of support for our people).

I honestly believe that most often the fault lies not in administrators’ motivations, nor even in the specific budgetary priorities of an organization, but rather in a severe lack of transparency.  Without transparency, there can be no appropriate oversight.  Without transparency, you lose vital opportunities.  Without transparency, there can be no trust.

Articles like Mike Daisey’s encourage and support a culture of fear in an industry where our best work can only be created in a safe environment.  We, as administrators, must lead the way to reverse this culture of fear and the surest way to do this is by sharing what you know and all the plans.  By doing so, we invite in every person in the organization to be part of the solution.  We are better together.  In fact, we can only exist as a team.  Let’s stop fighting and start working towards a better artistic world for us all.

5 thoughts on “Artists and Administrators: we really are all on the same team

  1. As an artist, I have worked in theaters large and small all over the country. And I can tell you: producing organizations have been largely overrun by a corporate ethos. They purchase a commodity (the play) and then figure out how to wedge the artists into their corporate model. That is largely how theatre is made in the 21st century. There are theaters that have real leaders who don’t think like this and don’t abuse artists. In *my* experience, most are abusive. It is nice and jingoistic to say that we are all one big team. That’s awesome. But when a playwright comes into a theatre with that expectation and then gets repeatedly, violently abused by the producers — at different institutions — over and over — in various and sundry ways — said artist has no choice but to take an adversarial relation to the institution. There are some truly wonderful theaters and administrators, but most, again, in my experience, are horrifying.

    I will name two minions of satan here: TODD HAIMES and LYNN MEADOW — these two ARE “evil delusionary autocrats” — with a tremendous lot of power which they will leverage with no compunction whatever against the well being of the artists they regularly exploit for their own profit. They are also the leaders of two of the most *successful* corporate builders in the NY non-profit (ha ha, that term) circuit). No one cares how or why they are abusive, because they win lots of yummy shiny Tony awards, so it must all be worth it.

    We artists MUST be fearful, vigilant and appropriately cynical in the face of the rampant cynicism of our institutional “leaders”. Thank you Mike Daisey for speaking truth to power.

  2. Oh amen, Amy! Everyone has a role to play, and every role should be respected. When the staff is respected – artists and administrators – something wonderful does happen and it’s better for everyone.

    And when organizations dare to dream – and then communicate those dreams and work toward them together – good stuff happens.

  3. And in defense of administrators: while some organizations can seem pretty “corporate”, most are struggling, too. Giving up personal lives and sleep in a daily fight to keep doors open and lights on. And Sam, while I’m sorry to read of your bad experiences, remember that plays don’t really live until they’re performed, for an audience. Administrators make it their mission to give plays that life.

    This comes back to Amy’s call for respect and trust. When we understand each others struggles and aims we have a better chance of treating each other well and doing good work together.

  4. This is one of those “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” scenarios, IMO. I’m with you, Amy: myself and most of the admin I know routinely give their left eyeteeth to make sure people are cared for to the best of the theater’s capacity and are truly sorry we can’t do more. As the vast majority of theaters are small (tiny, miniscule) operations, this illusion of power-struggles only exist at a very limited number of institutions. While I don’t doubt there are abuses of power, we should not lump every single arts administrator at every single (likely 1-5 staff, $100K-$250K and most of that goes to keeping the lights on) nonprofit theater across the country into the same abusive role.

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