The Art in the Process of Planning
It's self-evident, right? An arts organization is centered on its art and therefore its planning process assumes this focus as well. However, all too many plans have undervalued the central role of the art and artists. Sometimes, artists have felt the planning process was not really something they should engage in: "I'm swamped in rehearsals," or "Let the management and board deal with that." Or artists have been less than welcomed by those who suggest that the desired work product is just a "business plan" and therefore a waste of the artist's time. Of course the "business" of any arts organization is its art. That's what has the single greatest effect on sales, contributions, institutional positioning, and community relations. So the art and artists must be intimately involved in any planning process, and even be persuaded (if necessary) to take a leadership role.
There's no question that this point is most easily accepted by a clearly artist-driven organization, such as a single choreographer modern dance company. However, this principle has relevance to all cultural organizations. Merely substitute for "artists" words such as "curators," "programmers," "artistic directors," and so on.
These people are the direct line to the art. I would suggest that each successful cultural organization has a point of view, and that this idiosyncratic perspective is generally derived from the arts-related leadership. Only when that perspective suffuses a planning process will its results be organic to the organization's mission. This means the process itself, as well as the resulting plan document needs to be in sync with the aesthetic. One of my favorite examples is the planning process for Meredith Monk's House Foundation, which was designed from the perspective of a mosaic with fluid interaction among its component parts; this approach parallels her own work methodology. Or here's another: For Trisha Brown's dance company we designed a process in which many ideas were tried on for size and then we methodically subtracted those not considered to be priorities; this method parallels her personal work style.
Let me be clear: I have not yet experienced a successful arts organization planning process that did not have the full commitment of the people making, exhibiting, and/or presenting the art. Even if the end document might look beautiful, it is rarely implemented in ways that enhance the standing of the organization's primary purpose-in part because the key players responsible for achieving its goals do not feel connected to the plan.
There are a number of ways to infuse a planning process with art. I'd like to discuss five.
1. FULL ARTISTIC REPRESENTATION. The most obvious is to assure full representation and leadership by those people who are voices for the art. If there is resistance, push through it. The artists must simply be convinced that their presence in major planning sessions is vital to the success of the organization overall and specifically to the success of their own work. To trample upon an old ad campaign, "Don't leave home without them."
2. ADDRESS MISSION EARLY. We must recognize that the organization's reason for being is its mission, which presumably reveals artistic or programmatic purpose. Therefore, you must assure that mission-level questions arise early in the planning process. For instance, if we are a service organization considering representing an entire field, what are the ramifications upon the mission's call for our being an organization with paying, entitled members?
3. PROCESS REFLECTS THE ART. You must make planning process decisions that reflect the art. The plan's time horizon should be in sync with it. For instance, if an opera company works on productions four years out, then that should be the minimum time frame to consider for planning purposes. If a choreographer needs 18 months to create each of her new pieces, then perhaps the intervals studied should be in 18 month, versus 12 month, increments.
4. START WITH PROGRAM. Plan from program rather than toward it. Of course, it is critical to have an analysis of environment, opportunities, threats, and so forth. And of course one must understand the market. (As Peter Drucker - a well known consultant on business management and the future -- reminds us, we should not look at audiences as people for whom the non-profit does good, but rather as customers who have to be satisfied.) However, as a not-for-profit organization given privileges and protections under our laws, it is imperative to consider what programming is envisioned, and then consider how to reach the marketplace. This course of action immediately raises the profound questions as to what size market is likely to respond and assure that the work can be sustained. But the point is to start with program. This will surely keep the art in planning.
5. SEE/HEAR THE WORK. A fifth means of assuming the responsibility of this keepsake is to view the artistic work and use your resulting wisdom to consider the planning challenges. This seems so very obvious, but I must tell a story: I worked with a marketing committee of a music festival that was trying to promote contemporary work. Members of the committee were dumfounded that sales were weak; they kept thinking that something was wrong with the marketing department's efforts. Finally, a staff member went down the hall, got a tape recorder, and played examples of the music. The committee members had no idea it sounded different from classical music. Then the committee began intelligent deliberation!
What this all boils down to is that to assure the centrality of artistic purpose, the constant planning context is: "To what extent does the idea at hand further our artistic purpose?" If you conclude that this mantra might not be relevant to your own organization, then let me offer another: Even if a particular artistic purpose is not central to your organization, there is always an operating principle that may well be. That is, there is a way of working that you believe informs everything you do. Perhaps, you're a service organization that prides itself as being a catalyst to the field. If so, then every planning option needs to be challenged by the mantra: "To what extent does this approach further our operating as a successful catalyst?"
The art of planning is best revealed when art is in the planning.
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