Why Aren’t More Organizations Bringing Artists into the Office?

Many artists have administrative skills in addition to creative power. Why aren’t more arts organizations tapping those skills for their own teams?

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundations places 14 playwrights around the country in salaries positions. Image: Howlround.com
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundations places 14 playwrights around the country in salaries positions. Image: Howlround.com

“Don’t give up your day job!”

No artist wants to hear this. It’s a cliché. As an artist, if someone says this to you, you are officially a cliché. A failure. You might as well have not even tried in the first place.

Most artists I know have a day job. Often, writers don’t like to take copywriting jobs because they don’t want to drain their creative energy. They would rather work as an assistant in an office because it doesn’t tax the part of their brain that’s needed to write poems, prose or plays.

But if artists have administrative skills, why aren’t more organizations tapping those skills for their own administrative teams? Bringing artists into the office to work alongside administrators can infuse the office with creativity and a different perspective on business. Moreover, artists become a prized part of a team, which can pop the bubble in which so many artists find themselves creating.

What are artist residencies?

In American theater, there has been a move to support artist residencies that pay. At the beginning of this year, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with the Center for the Theater Commons launched a playwright in residency program. Eliza Bent wrote a detailed breakdown of this program in American Theatre Magazine. The program gives 14 playwrights salaries plus benefits over three years. This $3.7 million program is meant to offer these artists homes and let them be who they are: playwrights.

In 2008, The Public Theater – also supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – created a full-time staff position for Suzan-Lori Parks as the institution’s first master writer chair. She holds a weekly meta-master class on playwriting called “Watch Me Work.” Recently, she participated in Public Forum Duet: Wynton Marsalis/Suzan-Lori Parks a conversation about music and American identity at Joe’s Pub in The Public. Now, when people think of Suzan-Lori Parks, they think of The Public.

10,000P courtesy of Mark Krause
10,000P courtesy of Mark Krause

When artist residencies aren’t enough

Despite these wonderful examples, hundreds of talented artists toil away in day jobs, far from the walls of arts organizations. What if every organization with a budget of over $500,000 offered one staff position to an artist? The position would be 40% administrative responsibilities and 60% artistic ones. This would funnel the hours and energy of artists’ day jobs into arts organizations. It would enhance the administrative staff with an artistic point of view. Most importantly, it would create a residency that generates new art in the organization’s space.

This dynamic would break down an organization’s creative and administrative silos. It frames the artist as a person who deserves a salary and benefits. It brings artists into an environment that feeds their creativity rather than sucking it out of them. This might also encourage the support of local artists, which would address a criticism of some residency programs, including The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s 14 playwrights. And it brings a symbiotic value to the artists and the organization.

According to Theatre Communications Group, 310 theaters in the United States have budgets of $500,000 or more. Instead of offering residencies to only 14 playwrights, there is a potential for 310 full-time administrative/residency hybrids. An example of this fusion is Rob Zellers’s role at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Zellers is an unofficial resident playwright and also the theater’s education director. His arts administrator job gave him the opportunity to have his play The Chief produced eight times.

Looking inside the organization for new opportunities

I’m not calling for organizations to hire new staff members and let strong administrators go. Typically, organizations don’t have to hire someone new. Aside from food service and office work, the day jobs most of my artist colleagues have are as arts administrators. If artists are already administrating for organizations, why not give them artistic opportunities?

What additional value can you imagine artists as employees bringing to organizations? What new thinking might this require of staff members? Are external forces – like foundations – needed to provoke new ideas about artists on staff, or is the onus on staff members to look internally and shake things up on their own?

There are many questions as to how to shift the role of arts administrator to administrating artist, but I believe it is important to unearth ways to keep artists out of corporate America and working in arts institutions, where they belong.

James Carter is a dramatist, experience designer and producer. He was a founding member of terraNOVA Collective and its associate artistic director for eight years. Recent transmedia plays include FEEDER: A Love Story and NY_Hearts: LES. For more about James, read his blog onemuse.com where he explores the intersection of art and technology, or follow him on Twitter @jdcarter.

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  • Erinn Roos-Brown

    In the years I have worked in arts administration I have had many colleagues with duel lives – the administrator by day, the artist by night and weekend. While I was reading this blog I found myself thinking about these co-workers and visualizing what it might be like if their creative side was embraced and cultivated as part of the organization’s mission. Usually their expertise is only requested when an outside artist needs evaluation (i.e. what do you think of this artist’s work?). I like the idea of accessing their skills on a deeper level and I think it would be interesting if arts organizations in theater and beyond experimented with the structure of their organizations by provided their current employees with an opportunity to explore and develop their artistic practice during the day. Personally, I think it would be a great boost for any organization – creating a loyal employee and gaining programmatic material. On the flip side, I think funding is a major consideration. If you are allowing a staff member to spend half of their time, or more, on their artistic process then someone else will need to pick up the work the artist has been relieved from doing. That is a pretty major thing, especially for small arts organizations, since most have a minimal amount of staff doing the maximum level of work. I don’t think this is a deal-breaker, but I do think it’s a critical element that organizations will have to address in order to have an effective program and efficient office. Foundations might be a great place to find the funds to cover another staff person, but they won’t be an option forever. If this is to become a sustainable initiative, funding will need to be addressed.

  • Erinn – I feel you on all these counts. I’ve had a few people email me with similar concerns. I’m simply offering suggestions of how we might look at it. One organization might allocate a 30% artist residency to the employee, while another company could allow an employee to make art for 60%-80% of the time. I think this is where foundations can help cushion the financial blow. Perhaps, if an organization paid for half the resident staff artists’ salary and a foundation paid for the other half, there is a way to share the financial burden. In the case of The Mellon 14, they are receiving all the financial support from foundations, which means, if the foundation ends the program, the residencies die. It’d be great to see organizations and foundations work together to construct the hybrid.

    As far as picking up the work the artist is doing, I’ve received these concerns from a couple people, and the approach has been very black and white. I’m hearing things like: If we allocate an administrative position to an artist, that employee can go play whenever they want. The other employees will feel slighted, and the office will have jealousy.”

    On Twitter, one of my followers shared this program at Minneapolis Institute of the Art. It’s in the vein what I’m suggesting.

    “During their six months at the MIA, Brandon Boat and Tane Danger trained docents and guides in new approaches to engage visitors and worked with curators on new ideas for exhibition experiences. They also worked with museum staff across divisions on ways to foster stronger collaboration and greater agility in storytelling, communication, and more. The opportunity to bring Tane and Brandon to the MIA presented itself as a chance to build capacity, to offer new tips and techniques to the MIA’s docent corps, and to infuse museum staff with new approaches to improvisation and innovation. http://www2.artsmia.org/blogs/artist-in-residence/artists/tane-danger-brandon-boat/

    I truly believe if the artist residency/staff position is integrated into the fabric of the institution, like MIA does, there will be a buoyancy and synergy between the administration and the artists.

    Many questions to consider…

  • We’ve had resident artist positions at the Dance Exchange for a couple of years now. The salaried dancers hold administrative duties as well. The organization feels it’s important to offer artists the security of a full-time salary and benefits, rather than just administrators. As a result, we have a fairly equal balance between artists and administrators (about 4 full-time of each), with both groups regularly exercising their skills on the other side.

    There are challenges to this system, such as when the artists go out on the road for a gig and don’t have as much time for the administrative side, but we’ve been able to come up with creative solutions that work fairly well. I think we do feel that buoyancy and synergy that you posit, James, and the organization as a whole is stronger for the collaboration that happens as a result.

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  • Catherine Castellani

    As a playwright and an administrative assistant in an unrelated field, this is an intriguing idea. I had begun creating a “mash-up” resume some time ago that included BOTH my artistic and my business experience. I should revisit that and finish it up. For me, I don’t need an organization to provide me time to write–I get up at 5 a.m. to accomplish that. I DO need an organization that can handle me leaving to do a production, and then returning. I have high-level admin skills and I have hopes I can find a job-share situation or something. The issue of being a burden to “real” staff is not a small one. But I would love to use my skills to actually solve problems for a theater I care about, while making a living AND continuing to do my own work. I’d love to see this idea catch on.

  • Alison K.

    Employing artists to fulfill both administrative and creative capacities within an organization would be an innovative method of breaking down silos and effectively utilizing an organization’s human and financial resources. However, there is also something to be said for the fresh perspective and creative energy that comes from
    rotating residencies that pull talent from outside the organization’s immediate
    community. Either way, the debate is an invigorating examination and re-imagining of the typical arts organization structure.

    Unfortunately, the author brings up one particular point that belies the progressive nature of the discussion: “[The dual artist/administrator role] frames the artist as a person who deserves a salary and benefits.” I bring this up not to make a comment against the author, but to illustrate a reality still facing the arts. Regardless if artists are engaged in impermanent residencies, are members of artistic staff, or are hybrid artistic/administrative staff members, a foot in the administrative side of operations should not be a condition for validating the right to a salary or benefits. As long as such an argument remains part of the equation, it seems that the traditional artistic/administrative dichotomy is destined for little evolution.

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