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Arts Management and the challenge of convention
Artists and arts organizations often self-identify as unconventional. But without convention, most complex, collective, creative work would never find its way into the world.
We shape our self
to fit this world
and by the world
are shaped again.
and the invisible
in common cause,
David Whyte, from “Working Together”
Artists and arts organizations often self-identify as unconventional. But without convention, most complex, collective, creative work would never find its way into the world. Arts managers have the challenge of embracing convention when it moves things forward, while resisting it when it blocks the path.
A convention is a community's spoken or unspoken agreement about basic principles or procedures. It defines "how we do things around here." As sociologist Howard Becker describes it in Art Worlds:
People who cooperate to produce a work of art usually do not decide things afresh. Instead, they rely on earlier agreements now become customary, agreements that have become part of the conventional way of doing things in that art.
Convention allows artists and artisans, technicians and craftspeople, business people and back-office teams to quickly collaborate in sophisticated ways. An experienced stage manager, for example, can walk into almost any proscenium-stage theater and know what to do. A touring art exhibit can expect on-site specialists, equipment, and systems in every major stop of the tour. Conventions also help audiences frame and engage creative work, and help critics put new artistic work in context.
Of course, convention can also block creative progress – especially if the artistic work strives for something new and different, dare I say “unconventional.” New performance, design, and technical approaches may not yet have conventions (think of the new world of videoconferencing theater over the pandemic as one example). Genre- or discipline-bridging projects can face confusion or even resistance from their art worlds.
We humans have an array of ways to work toward shared purpose or common goals. Some of them are deep in our DNA. Others are layered on through culture, social norms, and rules. Conventions accrue and adapt over time, often providing a shortcut to collective creative work, often providing a thicket that slows you down.
Grant us all the wisdom to know the difference.
From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: Welcoming & Guesting
Welcoming involves inviting, greeting, serving, and supporting guests, visitors, neighbors, artists, and staff. Guesting involves all the reciprocal activities of being intentionally present when you are a visitor.
Framework of the Week: Convention
Convention is a coordinating principle identified by sociologist Howard Becker in his study of “art worlds,” the whole ecologies of people, money, and stuff that surround each artistic discipline. Convention can be invaluable in coordinating complex teams in creative work. But it can also block innovation in artistic practice that stretches or breaks assumptions.