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Big decisions, out of context and in free-fall
A classic cultural facilities study captures the energy and entropy of major project work in the arts.
“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
The Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass
Way back in the olden days (aka, 1991), the Nonprofit Facilities Fund (now the Nonprofit Finance Fund) launched a study of cultural facility projects – interrogating why they seemed to bring equal parts heralding and headache.
The resulting report contains one of my favorite bullet-summary treatments of an arts manager’s life.
The authors acknowledged that arts organizations (and arts managers) operate under continual and tremendous constraints. But also that “they frequently undertake projects in ways that contribute directly to their problems.” For high-stakes, high-profile, and high-wire cultural facility projects, the report’s diagnoses of self-sabotage came in four sharp shocks (Nonprofit Facilities Fund 1994):
Arts managers are often entrepreneurial, willing to take risks and most have a flair for drama. They seldom approach facility projects with the idea of incremental growth as a guiding principle.
Arts managers work in a highly competitive environment. They undertake their projects in isolation and lack (or avoid) advisors who question assumptions, challenge myths, or share information learned from other projects.
Arts managers lack “early money,” so they tend to commit to a project prematurely in order to spur fundraising. The process is turned around: it not only skips planning, but makes it difficult or impossible to back down from an early mistake.
Because fundraising is fluid and often runs concurrent with construction, decisions about projects are made out of context and in free-fall, spurred by momentary fundraising successes and uncontested by solid planning.
It all sounds like a race worthy of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen – designed to scramble the compass, shred the maps, and sidetrack the travelers from their intended path.
Which is another way to say that arts management is entrepreneurship in odd and confounding circumstance. Out of context and in free-fall is just another day at the office.
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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: Calibrating Uncertainty
One way to inform your decision-making and evidence-gathering is by considering both the chance of being wrong and the cost of being wrong.
“National Cultural Facilities Study.” 1994. Nonprofit Facilities Fund (now Nonprofit Finance Fund). https://nff.org/report/national-cultural-facilities-study.
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