Artists know more about strategy than they think

Have you noticed that in a room of artists, arts managers, and board members, simply mentioning strategy can bring an instant sense of relief? The word itself can feel like a salve.

Why is that?

In my experience, strategy follows a need for, and an acquisition of, clarity. In our world in which our very definition of success can boil down to “all we know is what we are not for,” clarity is both a valuable and sometimes hard-to-come-by commodity.

Why do we lack clarity? There are a vast number of potential reasons. Two of which are:

Subjectivity. Beyond the technical artistic building blocks (how to read B-flat on a staff, how to stand in first position, how to draw an accurate, proportional face), typically there aren’t right answers in art. Art begs interpretation, an individual response. This means that art is always experienced subjectively; the same artwork will not spark uniform responses from everyone. It follows, then, that while consensus may be an unnatural response to art, a degree of it is necessary for an arts business venture to be successful. However, it is worthwhile to note that often, stakeholders bring to the table their experiences as receivers or responders to art, at the same time in which they are looking to come to consensus and make the best possible decisions about the business of the organization. This is a paradox that can unintentionally present both tension and a lack of clarity among those who care the most about and are charged with governing an arts organization.

Motivations. Another possible reason for lack of clarity is another phenomenon that defies consensus: individuals that are drawn to creating, experiencing, and supporting art, do so for personal reasons. Why an artist may choose to create a particular work, the audience member to subscribe, the funder to contribute, the volunteer to donate time, the board member to serve, can all vary wildly, and are guided by personal preferences or inclinations. But even if these individuals do not choose to participate as the result of a unified motivation, do they need to share the same motivation, in order to be effective? The answer is no, but by looking through the lenses of their own experiences and personal motivations, stakeholders often unintentionally make, transfer, or project misguided assumptions onto others about what is best for an organization. Such a wide-ranging mix of accurate and inaccurate assumptions often results in further lack of clarity.

So why do we crave strategy?

Because we believe in process, even if we forget that when we are runningbusinesses. Creating art is not scientific, and many organizations are founded and run by artists, so being deliberate can feel counter-intuitive to the practice of what is so familiar: the art itself, which is inherently non-linear. But ironically, being deliberate is often the key to perpetuating that alchemy from a business standpoint, and good strategy implementation is rarely linear. When you are ready for strategy, it means that you have enough clarity as to the areas that need to be tackled, and enough momentum in order to resolve of these issues in a proactive, deliberate way. Most organizations do not fail deliberately, but they can and are much more likely to succeed, deliberately. Strategy is magic because it gives us a reason and a framework in which to be deliberate, and deliberately successful.

The irony: most arts leaders already know how to do this well, but have not yet transposed the processes they know so well from art-making to the running of their businesses. Below is a chart that summarizes the scientific method. I have found through personal experience that it is the same the process undergone by artists in creating their work. Preparing an excerpt or a recital follows this process. This process is also applicable to the business of art – think fundraising, board development, or marketing campaigns and community engagement work.

The beauty of this insight is that many organizations already know what to do: they know how to be strategic. As artists and artist-turned-managers, they know and many have mastered the key to strategy and being deliberate: having a solid process in place. Strategy is magic because it is a process, a series of goals broken down into steps through which to achieve those goals.

So...Isn’t it a relief to know that so many of you already know and have been practicing deliberate success for years? Now it’s time to take it out of the studio or practice room, and apply it to business. And you don’t need a consultant to do that, nor to do it well.