Transparency and Authenticity in the Arts

Often I ask colleagues and other arts administrators how they handle the dissemination of their strategic plan. How do they involve the community? And the response is always the same, “Well, we make sure that our staff, board and major institutional donors all received copies.”

And when I ask, “And how do you involve the community in the creation of the plan? How did you disseminate the information to all of your constituents?” I am often met with a blank stare. Sometimes, an arts organization will announce, “We posted the five- year strategic plan on our web site.” Of course, when you go searching for it on the organization’s web site, you need a map worthy of Indiana Jones to find where it has been buried.

Let’s be clear. The act of distributing a completed report to the community or posting it on the web site is not the way to define openness and transparency. Arts organizations need to involve the community from the beginning. Too often, arts organizations are unwilling to be open, transparent and authentic with their communities. They should ask the community questions such as, “What are we doing that is working for you? What would you like to see us do differently?”

The Performing Arts Centre Project in Bermuda, which I am advising, stands out as a stellar example of transparency and authenticity. They have held over 700 interviews with members of their community: artists, corporate leaders, ordinary citizens, etc. about the potential of a new performing arts center. They understand that the new center must be of, by and for the people of Bermuda. That same logic applies to the arts organizations here in America. How refreshing it would be if the theatre, dance companies, orchestras, operas and performing arts centers had serious, open, authentic conversation – true dialogue with the people they serve, especially with those who buy tickets to their performances and are invited to contribute to their general fund.

And note that I used the word “dialogue.” This is not a one-sided, false conversation where the leaders of the arts organizations present a finished plan, but rather a true conversation with the community that requires the arts organizations to listen to what the community has to say about the plans, hopes and ambitions they have for the arts in their city.

So, what is the solution going forward? I’d like to offer the following suggestion to the national performing and visual arts community:

Talk to your community. Boards of Directors and the senior staff leadership must embrace the concept that open, honest dialogue with the public is actually beneficial for the long-term health of your organizations. We expect citizens to buy tickets and enthusiastically support our organizations; we solicit companies to underwrite performances; but we do not invite input regarding long-term goals and objectives.

  • “Talking” to the community is different from just announcing a finished plan. One approach is truly open; the other is paternalistic and prescriptive.
  • Be open to feedback.
  • Listen. Listen. Listen. This community will tell arts administrators (including yours truly) things that we need to hear, if we will just listen.
  • After the listening process is completed, share the results with the community—warts and all. Mail them – yes the old fashioned post office still works. Email the reports. Post the plan on the home page of your web site. Make sure everyone who is interested knows what the research says.

Sure, we are supposed to be the “experts” in our field, and we are. But we also hold the organizations we lead in trust for the community and for future generations. Only by truly being open, transparent and authentic can we gain the support we need to be self-sufficient and assure long-term viability.

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