It may be excellent work … but is it good?

A few years back I heard Howard Gardner speak in a lecture series at MOMA in NYC called The True, the Beautiful and the Good, Reconsiderations in a Postmodern, Digital Era. I attended the lecture on ‘the Good’ in which Gardner described ‘good work’ (in the sense of one’s vocation/job) as work that is excellent, engaging, and ethical (for more on this idea, check out Gardner’s Goodwork Toolkit). As soon as I heard the description my mind began working on a question: By-and-large, are nonprofit arts organizations doing ‘good’ (i.e., excellent, engaging, and ethical) work? While there are many arts organizations that are beloved by the artists and staffers that work there, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that (at least at some institutions) one or more legs of the ‘goodwork’ stool may need shoring up.

Some have written that Philadelphia Orchestra’s filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy is a ploy to enable them to renege on the pension benefits that they once promised to musicians.  A post on Norman Lebrecht’s blog describes the new Metropolitan Opera contract for conductors as one which requires them to ‘sign their lives away’. And of course there is the oft-referenced and remarkable statistic that orchestra musician job satisfaction ranked below that of prison guards in one study (Allmendinger, Hackman, and Lehman (1996), p. 202).

Likewise, the book Outrageous Fortune is chock-full of observations by playwrights that would suggest that the process of having their plays developed by a major nonprofit resident theater is often demoralizing or oppressive. Moreover, some playwrights say they prefer working for TV over the American theater not just because it pays more but because it is often more creative.

And while (in the good news column) some nonprofit theaters have in recent years modified their stances on subsidiary rights (in favor of playwrights) it’s not clear that the move was entirely altruistic; some simply seem to have realized that the relatively small amounts of money they were making off the artists were not worth looking like jerks and potentially losing goodwill and funding. More importantly, one might ask how such rights ever became the standard in nonprofit organization contracts?

I talk with young arts administrators who have graduated with the aspiration to do ‘good work’ in a nonprofit arts organization who, one or two years later, are bored and frustrated. They feel like cogs in a machine, or like slave labor, working long hours for low pay (all the more challenging if they know the artistic or executive director is making 15 or 20 times as much) and doing not very interesting work. The last point is an important one. I often hear Baby Boomers decry that they had to scrub the toilets and take out the trash at their theaters when they first started them. Yeah, well so did almost every entrepreneur that ever started his or her own small business. But let’s face it, taking out the trash (much less doing data entry) is much easier to endure if you know that you also get to program the season, or have dinner with a major American playwright and discuss her work, or choreograph a new work later this year.

If I had a dime for every time a nonprofit arts admin staffer said to me, “our organization is filled with people under 35 who have great ideas but the artistic and managing directors have no interest in what we have to say” I’d be able to buy a round-trip ticket Amsterdam to NYC. Similarly, actors, musicians, dancers, and other artists (unless they are celebrities) are rarely invited to share their opinions on programming or marketing or fundraising strategies. While I acknowledge that some may have no interest in such matters, my sense is that some do but that their ideas often die on the vine because no one thought they’d be worth picking.

This all strikes me as wrong. It seems that nonprofits should hold themselves accountable for being places where process matters as much as product and where ‘good work’ reliably happens. Places where administrators and artists alike are able to do excellent work (e.g., are given sufficient rehearsal time), are engaged in the work (e.g., have the autonomy to be creative and feel ownership of the mission), and are treated and behave ethically (e.g., contracts do not advantage institutions at the expense of artists).

Yes, organizations face uncertain times and unfavorable financial circumstances. Such an environment can require dramatic changes in the size or scope of an institution. Union contracts may very well need to change and it may not be possible to sustain the infrastructure that was once created–and administrators and artists alike must face this reality. But what are we safeguarding as we make such changes? If not the promise of ‘good work’ then is it worth keeping the doors open? How these changes happen is as important as whether they happen.

We have for years taken for granted that nonprofit arts institutions are inherently more trustworthy than commercial entities and are (more) worthwhile and creative places to work. However, the experiences of at least some artists and arts administrators would suggest that even when arts organizations appear to be achieving a certain kind of excellence (selling out the hall, doing great work on stage, raising lots of money, or balancing their budgets), the toll exacted for that ‘excellent’ work may be ‘goodness’ in the process.

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  1. says

    Thanks for this, Diane. I think you may have also hit on why so many new arts organizations get formed each year even though some evidence suggests there is no “demand” for them. If the options are cleaning toilets in service of someone else’s vision with no outlet for one’s own voice and striking out to create one’s own organization where you also cleaning toilets but are in control of your own vision as well as your own success or failure, forming one’s own organization doesn’t only seem viable, it seems like the only sane choice.

  2. says

    Agreed. If the youngest of the young had any influence in arts organisations, funding worries would wane. The most interesting business bits of arts don’t appear to be coming from elder statesmen, rather, young communicators seem to be better built for a flexible future. I just had a rant about why galleries don’t encourage more social media to increase the chatter, and therefore front of mind-ness. It seems to me that younger people could assist in saving creaky old arts models.

    • says

      Whoa, now! Diane, is this really what you are saying? That arts institutions would be healthy again if only the under-40s were runing them instead of cleaning toilets? Those references to younger members of the “staff” was certainly not the lion’s share of the article.

      If you opt for corporate America (and make no mistake, established arts institutions are corporate America) then you have to put up with the corporate hierarchy. If you don’t, start your own damn theatre! That’s what Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford did. In fact, it is what every artist that made a difference did. In software development, young people create their own start-ups. They come up with a new idea, and work like hell to see it through, including cleaning the toilets. But to complain because nobody in a multi-million dollar established arts organization is will ing to turn the reins over to you after you got your MFA and everything just seems sort of whiny.

  3. says


    Bingo! Beyond the demographics and stereotypes of the “aging baby boomer,” you’ve found the most important reason why there needs to be a transition of leadership. Unfortunately, the arts sector’s norms are: artistic excellence first, monetary success second, and so on, with “how well they treat the staff” probably last. It’s a brutal truth: arts CEO’s routinely abuse staff, especially younger staff, in a variety of ways, and never pay a price for it in salary, esteem, relationship with the board or public, etc. We can do so much better, and the long term results — in art and money as well as in harmony — will be vastly better than what we’re generating now. Perhaps “how to treat others and listen to new ideas” ought to be required in school, along with financial management, directing, and marketing.

  4. says

    Diane, these are good points. I do wonder, however, if really what you’re talking about is not the conflict of “good” and “excellent,” but the fact that that definition of “excellent” is really problematic in a values-based industry like ours. The metrics you highlight — sell outs, balanced budgets, new grants — are all economic indicators of commercial success. Which, of course you’re absolutely right to point out, we’re relatively obsessed with. But as a sector, we contribute something like .51% of the annual American GDP, so all that obsession on economics isn’t really getting us to a more fulfilled (or relevant) place.

    It seems to me that it’s not about abandoning the frame of excellence, the pitfalls of which you very eloquently discuss in your speeches, but rather to focus it elsewhere. Which you’ve actually argued yourself in your entries on mission fulfillment as the ultimate level of success. It’s not so much that I’m arguing that we give up the ghost of an economically-balanced structure, but that we don’t so quickly take the E-word out of play. Social good is important, and doing good excellently is even more important. In a non-profit social enterprise, we’re given the luxury of working without the constraints of true economic burden (or we should be — although by focusing on economic indicators as the primary definition of a success, both companies and their funders are proving that less true every day).

    Perhaps economics is part of it, after all–just look at Google or Facebook, where creature comforts, living wages, personal perks and flexible hours are their main carrots for keeping people voluntarily pouring their souls into the enterprise. The faulty economics of our enterprise, in a way, seem to have doomed us to spreading the relative poverty instead of the wealth…

  5. says


    Here is where I must step in and applaud the following:

    “Similarly, actors, musicians, dancers, and other artists (unless they are celebrities) are rarely invited to share their opinions on programming or marketing or fundraising strategies. While I acknowledge that some may have no interest in such matters, my sense is that some do but that their ideas often die on the vine because no one thought they’d be worth picking.’

    Not including artists in executive level decision-making is one of the main failures of the nonprofit arts world. An improper view of artists as merely children: seen, not heard and a necessary liability whose function mirrors that of puppets is, fundamentally, unsustainable because such thinking hinders creativity and healthy organizational growth. We are living in the 21st century where artists like myself are gracing MBA and MA Arts Administration programs so that we might indeed start our own initiatives apart from the oppression of nonprofit arts organizations. With MBAs and MAs in hand we can equally live, create, profit and have a voice.

    Regardless of what laws, politics, broken business models, policies may govern, rather constrict, the nonprofit arts world, this fact will always remain: there can be no art without artists. Artists’ creations in essence create jobs. If there were no writers/playwrights, choreographers, composers, painters (and their singer-actor-dancer-director- colleagues) what would arts administrators administer? what would artistic boards govern? There would be no need for such individuals or arts organizations in general. Audiences come to see and connect with the artists not the administrators (a fact many either forget or fail to realize), and most certainly not a building.

    If nonprofit arts orgs are to exist in the future, artists must be given equal partnership and decision-making power in the operation of nonprofit arts orgs, and the overall industry. Daniel Pink wote an enlightening HBR article entitled: The MFA is the New MBA. I think it is sad that for-profit businesses are finding artists more valuable than nonporfit arts organizations.

    • says

      If we are to develop more fruitful engagement between administrator/programmers and the artists themselves, we must rise above the compensation- and rule-focused, us-vs-them antagonism that prevails at so many professional arts organizations.

    • Sasha H says

      I work for a nonprofit and I believe that at least 1/3 of our staff (if not more) is or has been at some time a working artist, this includes the two executives (artistic and producing director). May I see a statistic (please) that says artists don’t work in arts NPOs?

      Also, the 20-somethings are unhappy? Hahahahaha! Have you read the generational comparisons circulating? Of course they are. Entry level positions don’t “challenge” enough, nor do their titles or jobs make them feel “special” enough. This is coming from a 20-something (er, now almost 30-something). Lucky me, I lived the millennial dream and was promoted to a director position and discovered just how unprepared I was for it – mostly the 70 hour weeks because we couldn’t hire anyone to do what I was doing while I took on new responsibilities. However, with only a few years of NPO office experience (and no management experience), I was wholly unprepared to manage staff, create and oversee budgets, strategically plan and collaborate (i.e. mollify and manipulate) with a board – no matter how many NPO management classes I had in college.

      I’m much happier to be back doing creative work and letting my elders worry about funding, staffing, etc. etc.

  6. says

    Thank you for raising these important issues! They are long-standing problems; look at how long the arts have tolerated horrible behavior from supposedly “great” artists. Non-profits and for-profits are all part of a culture that has long valued product more than process, despite many indications that this isn’t healthy. And the nonprofit sector, despite its idealism, has been slower to adopt the innovative practices that the for-profit world is exploring. Human beings tend to resist change, even when things aren’t working.

    And now, for various reasons, things really aren’t working for lots of organizations. How can we help them do things differently instead of sticking with old assumptions? Defining quality more broadly, so that it includes quality of life in the workplace and quality of relationships, may be crucial now.

  7. says

    Great piece, Diane, as usual. These are at the core of our search for success. The arts are at our heart about the people involved. Not paying playwrights living wages, not giving young artists and arts managers a voice, etc., are a sign of our inability to reconnect with those people and our calcification as an industry. If we’re to adapt and thrive, we absolutely need to reengage and reexamine our ethics. Thank you.

  8. says

    This is such a great article. Poor ethical practices pervade the industry, especially the arts. People are dishonest in their dealings with artists and other organizations in an effort to better their own careers and/or the organization’s standing. They perceive commercial entities as cold and ruthless, but the fact is that nonprofit organizations often run more like their perceived commercial counterparts than do the actual commercial entities! It is a feeling of entitlement – we have so little, and so much less than the rest of the world – we DESERVE more.

    As for paying people a living wage – that goes across the board, from artists to managers. Paying managers $15K a year, refusing health insurance and expecting them to perform full-time positions, but labeling them otherwise, is simply appalling. Paying people under the table to avoid union contracts is also reprehensible. There must be a balanced equity in pay and creative input that must be addressed across the board. Nonprofit means you keep the earnings – that’s the only difference. We must function as professional businesses, held to the same standard of checks, balances and respect that corporations are held to. To perform otherwise is to undermine the mission of the organizations and the human capital that supports it.

  9. says

    This is a super important discussion as it relates as much to the actual failure of important organizations as it does to the purpose (and public good) of our work. And, that is probably the exact context that you meant us to get. Now that so many artistic institutions are established in a way that they were not 40 years ago or even 25 years ago, we have a new paradigm that cannot be reasonably re-shaped by old school thinking and hierarchical patterns. I really love the example of the ‘I cleaned the toilets…’ mantra from us Babyboomers. That resonated for me, and well, made me laugh. Those early experiences are etched into my psyche and I do find myself feeling a little resentful at times of the more entitled seeming millenials I often work beside. But coming to my senses I realize that I never really left that mentality behind as the art form, my organization, my own work and the field has expanded and evolved. And, therefore, I imagine I am not alone in having to overcome an ingrained mindset. Thinking about it, I believe that the organization that I have the privilege of leading has grown in large part as a result of the ever evolving generations of artists and artist-administrators that have shaped it — and in fact — changed it. By listening to new ideas, acting (sometimes counter intuitively) on those ideas, we have grown in unexpected ways. I say counter intuitive simply because, as I said earlier, I believe I still operate with an old school mentality as a leader, and I have to work against that mentality to be open to a new paradigm where the artists we are there to serve may also want to weigh in on a fundraising strategy, or our wonderful, eager assistants and volunteers have very valuable opinions about our blog or, even better, can compose far more pithy twitter messages than I’ll EVER be capable of ….
    I digress.
    You ended your commentary talking about ethics and pose a philosophical conundrum: there is an ethical issue at the core of our institutional demise. One that places the tender of our artistic products over the value of the people who are making the work happen. For old schoolers, this was an expectation… a non negotiable reality entering this field. Shift. The consequences of that thinking. Something to really give thought to, in each of our circumstances and find ways to shift… yes, to do good, yes to look less like jerks, yes, to nurture and encourage young leaders, artist administrators, and artists, and yes, to survive.

  10. David Dower says

    As usual, a single post from you goes in many directions in my own life in art. Some observations from the theater world that I live and work in.

    Cleaning the Toilets
    I am one of those bootstrappers. As I am too-oft telling my young colleagues and incoming Fellows, I worked for twenty years in the professional theater without a salaried position. And until coming to my present position at Arena Stage I had only worked for theater organizations I started (with others). And even in my more formal training years as an actor I was a ‘work study’ kid. So I cleaned a LOT of toilets. Literally. At Michael Howard Studio that was my actual job in exchange for being able to take classes there. So I worry out loud with the many younger folks I work with– how are they going to manage their own development from inside a salaried position in a major regional theater? How are they going to successfully fail forward, for instance? I made a slew of mistakes in my first decade. But since I had set my circumstances and created the resources I was putting at risk each time (the donations, the friendships, the livelihoods) I could make those mistakes within a consequence-world that I could both feel (so I could learn) and contain (so I could survive to fail another day). People trying to learn inside a larger institution don’t have that same freedom or access. So how do we create the spaces in our organization for both the learning/teaching moments AND for the discoveries and innovations of the younger colleagues to contribute to the institution’s evolution? This is always, always, always on my mind and frequently on my heart (especially when I fail to create and protect that space for them). So much of what we’re doing around the whole #newplay conversation is being dreamed up, funded, and executed by people under 30. And, at the same time, we have many in their peer group grinding it out day by day at our organization without ever engaging their original impulse toward theater– neither learning from nor contributing to the process of our progress, toward our doing of “good”.

    Mentoring and Impatience
    On the other hand, one of the continuing challenges I face as a mentor is the sometime impatience of the mentee for the part of their journey that is the gathering of experience. I see, for instance, young recent graduates of MFA programs coming into many organizations with a sense that they know all there is to know having finished their degree program and that they are now ready to be an equal contributor. Many seem to come armed with a sense that they’re going to have to assert their ready value against an environment that is going to try to trap them in entry-level servitude. The most frequent area of tension in my regular travels in the #newplay world is around the development of new works. Something has happened where the newest groups emerging from our training programs assume and assert their readiness to tell experienced writers, directors, and actors how to improve their plays. The degree seems to have been conferred with the implicit implication that this was all the background they’d need and they should settle for nothing “less” than a spot at the rehearsal table. It took me many years and many trips around the block to reliably have something of value to contribute to the development process and then only through many opportunities to try and to fail. It’s much harder to make the space for artistic trial and failure in an organization like mine– the space we can make is really more one of developing chops through observation, proximity, and through constant back and forth with the mentors. But the energy is a different one in many cases. It’s an entitlement that is a bit reckless, that can even be destructive to future opportunities. I RECOGNIZE THIS IN ME, though I had no degree, from my own early days. But my early days, again, were on my own time and my own balance sheet. Can people really expect to develop their ability to consistently contribute to the artistic process of an experienced set of players by starting out with the perception of being on equal footing in that process? My whole department is current or former mentees, so balancing patience and autonomy is a challenge I enjoy and continue to accept, and the returns can be wonderful (see above) but the times I’ve failed at it have consistently been those times where the person on the other side of the conversation over-valued their readiness and under-estimated the learning potential of the situation.

    The Generational Divide
    I was just at a breakout at TCG’s annual conference that was about Livestreaming and Theater. The average age in the room was probably mid-forties, maybe older. The bulk of the group seemed both intrigued by the possibilities and entirely unfamiliar with the current landscape for streaming. A couple of people, (were they all the younger ones? perhaps…) were already conversant with the tools, the rules, the benefits, and the history. What was remarkable to me, as I mostly just listened, was how much the older generation, leaders in their own contexts, were contributing from the perspective of pioneers, as if there had been no work done in this arena of any consequence over the last five years. It was the reverse of the mentees assuming there is nothing of value that’s come before them. This is the mentor-class assuming there’s nothing of value happening because they are not yet in the loop and definitely not in charge there. Here is a wide-open space where we can empower the digital natives at work in our organizations and reverse the mentor/mentee relationship. It takes work to remain in balance with what’s coming along behind us but we risk being in the way of it if we don’t aim for it. Someone recently tweeted that they were pretty sure dinosaurs had an interest in sustainability, they just didn’t adapt. Our mere interest in sustainability is no guarantee we’re any better off than the dinosaurs. We have to do things about it if we’re going to move in that direction, and those younger than us do have way more experience in the world as it is now than we do. We’ve been so busy living in the world as it was when we started, that we’re not really the best people to diagnose where it’s headed without authentic avenues of engagement with younger people.

    The Work Culture/Environment
    I’ve been wrestling with ways to make the work environment more like the rehearsal hall, since it’s a stated core value of the organization I work for. It strikes me that every employee of the theater can and should have a sense of themselves as contributing to the narrative of the place. They should be able to think dramaturgically about their role and how it contributes to the whole mission and purpose of the place. And we should make the space and time for developing that ability in everyone, just as we make the resources available for health care and pensions, we should be able to make the theater a place of continuing development of the whole staff as stewards of the mission and purpose of the company. We develop people’s capacity to manage the tasks of their job: track budgets, make sales, hit goals, write donor letters, keep the building clean, serve patrons, place ads, etc But are we developing their sense of “why” and asking them to embed that question in each task? It seems that the more we isolate the tasks and exclusively reward proficiency in those tasks, the less like theaters we feel and the more like working in any corporate environment it becomes. I don’t know that many or most people working in administration at arts organizations started out to be artists– though that’s a common claim, I’m not sure we have data on that– but it is my experience that most employees PICKED an arts job on purpose, not just because it was available. So how are we developing that innate interest in our “doing good” throughout the company?

  11. says

    A lot of good comments here. One piece of advice I also give aspiring artists and arts administrators looking for work in the theater–start your career in a small or mid-size organization where you will have the opportunity to be a part of a lot of conversations, where your work won’t land in a silo, and where you will have the opportunity to shape the thinking of the organization. I tell them never to start in big theaters where they will learn more often about what is NOT possible than what might be possible.

    I find the fact that I give this advice disconcerting because I also know that those jobs in smaller institutions will pay less, have fewer benefits, and less prestige. But I guess I think it’s worth forgoing that kind of security to develop a full sense of what you’re capable of from the beginning of a career–sad to think this feels less possible in larger places.


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