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.