4 Questions for the Arts & Cultural Community

Why is this night different from all other nights?  Thus starts “The Four Questions” – the centerpiece of the traditional Passover Seder (held tonight) which recounts the story of the Jewish people’s freedom from slavery in ancient Egypt.  The Seder is more than a great meal with family and friends.  It is an annual experience by which a Jewish family revisits the essence of its history, religion and culture in a way that conveys meaning and connection forward from generation to generation.

Preparing for this week’s holiday has me thinking about what four questions might well serve as (at least) an annual “touch base” for those of us who work in the arts & cultural community:

  1. What makes what we do IMPORTANT? – What goals do we set for ourselves and for the experiences we offer to our audiences and communities?  How do we balance the desire to entertain with responsibilities to preserve traditional art forms or give voice to new perspectives and creative expressions?
  2. What makes what we do COMPELLING? – However we set those goals, how do we invite, engage and sustain audiences and stakeholders whose participation and appreciation is the ultimate reason we exist. 
  3. What makes what we do WORTHWHILE? – How do we sustain our ability to offer our organization’s scope of experiences over time?  What is the value that attracts and serves audiences and what on-going investments must we make in labor and leadership to nurture and adjust that value.   
  4. What makes what we do GRATIFYING? – What is the highest expression of fulfillment that can be sought by/for: 1) our audiences; 2) the artists whose work we produce or present; 3) our organizations (and their Boards of Directors. staffs and volunteers) and 4) ourselves, personally.

What might we learn – and our organizations accomplish – from asking these questions?

And even more important, what is the culture of mindfulness and purpose that we can nurture for the future by getting into the habit of asking these questions today.

Those are good questions, too.

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  1. says

    Thanks for these guiding questions – they encapsulate some of the important reasons for and considerations of nonprofit arts organizations. I am an emerging arts manager and find these questions especially useful in establishing good habits of thought going into the field. They also serve as an important reminder for current or veteran arts managers to reflect, think through, and approach decisions in a meaningful and mindful way. Great discussion starters!

    Regarding your question about gratification, does the list you provide reflect an order of importance?

    Some other questions to consider might be: Are we staying true to our mission and core values? How accessible is our work? Does this lay the ground work for new direction, future innovation, new partnerships, etc.? What impact are we having in the community and what makes our work meaningful?

    Thanks again, let me know what you think!

    • says

      Great questions, Catherine. I’d like to hear how YOU would answer the “order of importance” question.

      In the first draft of this post, I thought (and redrafted a lot) on the question of “order of importance.” Ultimately, I dropped the consideration entirely when it occurred to me that the viability and health of arts & cultural organizations is determined not just by ONE function – but by the interaction of many. Can you select the most important organ in your own body? Would you pick brain, heart, lungs, skin or something else? Des Cartes’ “I think, therefore I am” is a pretty strong argument for choosing the brain. But the brain could not survive for a moment – in fact, would never have come into being in the first place – without the range of complex critical systems that sustain it.

      Ultimately, non-profit arts & cultural organization exist to pursue MISSION. That’s the “thing” that defines the organization and draws the efforts of workers and supporters together in common cause over time. But the health and vitality of the non-profit organization’s “body” depends on the continued interaction of functions described in these 4 questions.

      What do you think?

      • says

        Thank you for your response, Matt. Your description makes perfect sense and I agree! How can we say one organ is better than another? Each play a role in an important way, contributing to an entire system, and sustaining a healthy body. For the question of gratification, some of the factors to consider might be exposing audiences to new works, maintaining the quality of art, and fulfilling artists’ need for challenging and interesting work, in addition to considering the likes/dislikes of audience members. As you mentioned, however, decisions must ultimately fit within the context of the overall mission of the organization.

        Should arts organizations attempt to satisfy “1) our audiences; 2) the artists whose work we produce or present; 3) our organizations (and their Boards of Directors. staffs and volunteers) and 4) ourselves, personally,” over the course of one year’s programming? Is this realistic? How can we make sure that we are truly aware of the activities, services, and attention that will be most gratifying for each key player?

        Thanks again. I look forward to your feedback!


  2. Jennifer says

    Similarly, Rotary has a four-way test:

    The Four-Way Test

    The test, which has been translated into more than 100 languages, asks the following questions:

    Of the things we think, say or do
    1.Is it the TRUTH?
    2.Is it FAIR to all concerned?
    3.Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
    4.Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

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