When people say that an action, effort, or initiative is ”in their wheelhouse,” they tend to mean that it lies in the area of their greatest ability. The phrase seems to have become popular in baseball to mean “That part of the strike zone in which the batter swings with the most power or strength; the path of the batter’s best swing” (Paul Dickson, New Dickson Baseball Dictionary, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999). Something to do with railroad roundhouses, or the place where a paddle-boat pilot works, or the like.
The phrase keeps coming to mind as we continue to discuss the value, impact, and expectations of public and nonprofit arts organizations, where I often find myself and my peers saying ‘should’ a lot. Arts organizations should design and describe their public value. Arts organizations should serve a good beyond their own impulse to express. Arts organizations should serve diverse audiences and social issues and accessibility and excellence and on and on.
Pushback to this litany of shoulds often comes in the form of artistic freedom and creative emphasis: an arts organization’s job is to foster exceptional voices and make extraordinary work. Aiming at other targets pulls focus, dilutes impact, and dulls vitality. And for many arts organizations, making exceptional creative work is in their wheelhouse (I’ll let you define ‘exceptional’ as it can legitimately mean many things). Swinging at a pitch above or below that zone feels awkward, doesn’t connect, or pops up.
But eventually it occurs to me that the art of an arts organization is not in the shoulds that pile on you, but in the coulds of connecting your work to the world. Could we focus our limited time, attention, and resources on the things we do best, and still make an impact beyond our circle? Could there be needs in the world that lie within the arc of our swing? Could we stretch just a little over time to increase that zone of possibility?
Author and philosopher Frederick Buechner wrote that ”The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Where do your wheelhouse and your world intersect? What could happen if you focused your energy there?