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Ambition and capacity in Arts Management
If we only understand ourselves and our environments as separate things, we miss the vital and varying nature of the dance.
There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.
Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything
Molly Smith and Edgar Dobie often describe their thirteen-year partnership at Arena Stage as a balance of ambition and capacity. As Artistic Director, Molly emphasizes ambition. As Executive Producer and President, Edgar emphasizes capacity. It is by no means a clean and complete split, as ambition and capacity interact in every job at every level of an arts organization. But it's a reminder that creative action is a product of not only vision, but also the people, money, and stuff required to make that vision real.
This week’s featured framework, affordances, captures this entanglement in ways conventional language cannot. Psychologist J.J. Gibson coined the term to describe the entangled relationship between any animal and its environment, writing:
The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment. (Gibston 1977)
All action happens when action-intention meets action-potential. You can’t pass between rooms unless there's an opening you can fit through. You can’t move forward unless there’s a surface that sustains your step. Affordances can range from simple – a horizontal plane for sitting, a handrail for grasping – to highly complex – space, staffing, money, equipment, audience, and the full array of required skills for producing a live performance.
Through this lens, Arts Management is largely about matching aspiration with affordances. When affordances aren’t sufficient to the creative intention, they can be sought out, built out, or recalibrated by growing internal skills or abilities.
It is common and even useful to consider ourselves and our environments as separate things. The actor and the stage. The artist and the studio. The musician and the instrument. The manager and the organization. But affordance theory suggests that this reduction misses the essential dynamics at play. If we only understand ourselves and our environments as separate things, we miss the vital and varying nature of the dance.
From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: Spaces & Systems
Spaces & Systems involves selecting, securing, stewarding, and harnessing the built environment and technological infrastructure.
Framework of the Week: Affordances
Psychologist J.J. Gibson coined the term “affordances” to describe a complementary relationship between an animal and its environment. He suggested that the affordances offered by any environment will be relative to the nature and capacity of the animal within it.