Defining Our 3 Most Important Questions

question-markVisiting with a colleague recently, we got to talking about what would be the THREE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTIONS that a mid-career professional in ANY sort of arts or cultural organizations should be asking.

We further imagined that the process of ANSWERING such questions might serve as some sort of rite of passage for early/mid-career professionals – with the organizations that employ them expecting, supporting and respecting a staff member’s diligent efforts.

Imagine this as a kind of an emerging-leader Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  It’s not the ceremony (or party or presents) that would be important but rather the idea of period of voluntary, diligent and independent study committed to planting ideas and cultivating habits destined to be valuable throughout one’s future career in the arts & cultural sector.

For the purposes of inviting further discussion, here’s what we came up with:

  1. WHERE IS THE CORE OF RELEVANCE?  Arts & cultural administrators are most-used to answering this question with a future-focus – often in a strategic planning document where we get to proffer our most noble aspirations.  But that’s not what we intend here.  Up & coming arts & cultural leaders would be well served to undertake a more detailed and intimate exploration of the facets of meaning of specific arts and cultural experiences.  That means connecting with audiences, artists, stakeholders, academics, peers and others in order to discover that relevance is never about what we INTEND.  It’s only about the meanings that others DERIVE.  We ask this question with the hope that up & coming arts & cultural leaders might discover that the habit of pursing relevance is far more valuable than the determination of any particular answer.
  2. WHAT IS OUR HISTORY?  Every community, every organization and every form of art and cultural experience has a history.  It’s not just the dusty textbook history lesson that we are talking about.  In our organizations and our communities, we must do a greater job of appreciating the living daily history of people & ambitions – conflicts & disappointments – adventures & accomplishments.  Our ambition is not to glorify the past or constrain the future – but rather to honor those efforts and inform future endeavors.  What a wonderful “grounding” experience it would be for emerging professionals to be afforded the opportunity to visit with former Board members, fellow artists, emeritus employees, long-standing audience members, community elders, journalists, peer organizations and others for the purpose of tracing the ins & outs of  an organization’s or community’s stories.
  3. WHAT MUST WE DO BETTER?  In all of human existence, there may be no more  important statement than one that begins with the words, “What if…”.   The future vitality of the arts & cultural sector depends more on fostering the creativity and empowerment of new generations of leaders than from any “sustainable” decision made in the present.  We live in a wonderful era of possibilities that is served by ever-evolving technologies.  It’s time to unleash the full power of new & creative thinking – which means giving up & coming leaders ever-earlier opportunities to exercise their leadership.

Upon reflection, it appears that these 3 questions invite up & coming arts & cultural leaders to address the Present, Past & Future.  What wonderful possibilities exist in each!


FINAL NOTE:  In drafting this post, I have (uncomfortably) used numerous phrases like “emerging leaders” and “up & coming leaders”.  To my ear, they each sound rather, well, patronizing.  I’d love to hear better suggestions.

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  1. says

    I LOVE this idea, Matt. Thank you for sharing it. So much of ritual and rites of passage are about encouraging and ensuring that someone owns and understands their context and their individual purposes in that context. If you decide to develop this tradition, I’m in!

    As for all three questions, you might consider also requiring the assembly or presentation of a ‘sacred bundle’ — the artifacts and stories that define a group or organization or discipline. What objects carry the essence of your relevance, your history, and your aspirations? Gather them, consider them deeply, share them widely.

    • says

      Thank you, Andrew. What do you think of this potential for a ‘sacred bundle’? How about we create a vast on-line library/archive to which such research, histories, perspectives and information could be continually added – and from which future generations of arts & cultural leadership would have access?

      • says

        I think the beauty of the ‘sacred bundle’ is that it contains physical objects, ‘real’ things that connect to the real history of an organization. I’m not sure a virtual universe could capture it. But yes, there’s good potential.

  2. says

    Matt, this is a great article and I really like it is straightforward and doesn’t apologize about the need for real understanding and meaning of the work we do. I think individual artists as well as arts administrators will benefit from asking these three questions. I am always working with colleagues and clients to move toward a focus on people as they create their art. These human-to-human connections are what will sustain the arts in this socially driven era. Great work and keep it up!