Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Essay: Jacob Niedzwiecki on the future of artists and arts organizations, Part III

“Build no more fortresses, build railways.” Part III
by Jacob Niedzwiecki
(reprinted with permission)
Performance photos by Vish Hansa, featuring the cast of Jacqueries, Part 1

We hang together, or we hang separately
I’m at a point in my career where I’m getting asked more and more frequently, “Are you incorporated?” As I see it, I have been lucky enough to avoid that fate. As a young artist, I watched several creators go through that process only to emerge with an incredibly cumbersome organizational armature that actually made it harder for them to make work. Since leaving the National Ballet in 2007, I have fiercely defended my independence and my creative initiative. But I also can’t overlook the way that my relationships with established companies (large and small) have made my independent career possible.

From my ballet career, I have gained access to studio space, workshop opportunities, and creative and organizational mentorship from talented professionals. Small and midsized companies like The Chimera Project have generously acted as umbrella organizations for Jacqueries. I’ve been inspired by Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie, which — by working with a very lean administrative staff — creates a negative space and an inwards pressure, pulling volunteers, collaborators, the community, and the company into a closer relationship.

So I have the freedom and creative control of an individual artist, and support and mentorship from companies. This good fortune leads me to a question: how can I best pay forward what the community has given me? I’ve already talked about how pro bono work and an open source ethos are pillars of my practice. But that’s focused on sharing my results of my work, not the advantages of my position. How can I help other artists find their own balance of independence and support?

I’d like to help foundations, councils, and philanthropists understand that the progression from individual artist > small company > big company is just one axis in a multipolar arts ecosystem. There’s an old company / young company axis, there’s a broad / niche axis, there’s a local / global axis, and more. Umbrella agreements are one way for artists working at different scales and on different paths to support each other: let’s find more.

I’d also like to work on ways to build collegial relationships across these scales. My current favourite idea: ‘Team-up Poker Night.’ Start with five proposed collaborations between artists, each with a sponsoring company (large or small), and a (let’s say) $1000 ante; each team fundraises their ante, with their sponsor company kicking in seed or matching funding towards the total. The culminating event is a public poker night that serves as an additional fundraiser, where a representative from each team plays at the ‘head table’. The winning collaboration takes all the money raised to create their proposed project; every collaborator and company has gotten a huge boost in profile and a lot of experience with social fundraising techniques for a small investment of time. The companies who take part can use it as a ‘fire drill’ for their social media teams and development teams, and can pool the donor information and lessons learned.

Accelerator support
One aspect of the startup environment that I think might be useful is the idea of accelerators. These are VC-funded organizations that provide working space, organizational support, and some funding for batches of promising young startups. The relationship is almost always for a limited period of time: the idea is to give teams a chance to work for an intensive period in a really supportive environment, and to make sure they’re working in daily proximity with other teams. It’s basically a chance to try something really ambitious (and maybe fail), with support in place to make failure a badge of honour and immediately amplify successes.

I would adjust this model to also act as a ‘decelerator’. I see a lot of experienced / established artists who suffer from burnout. Sometimes as a creator you just need to escape to a nest — a cozy creative process, where you’re looked after a bit rather than having to do everything your damn self. This model would see nurturing, revitalizing residencies for established artists hosted in the same space and organizational structure as challenging, high-expectation ones for emerging artists.

Those are some notes towards a vision: I should say that I’m inherently skeptical of “vision” as a valuable commodity. Ideas are cheap, execution is where they become valuable. And when I talk about this vision, people tend to get nervous, or look at me like I’m a mad scientist. They hear “mobile devices” and “theatre” in the same sentence and picture the delicate cocoon of a theatre ripped apart by a sea of glowing, beeping invaders. So I try to show, rather than tell: I live my vision as a creator, and work enthusiastically with individuals who seem to get it, or with companies like Anandam Dancetheatre which have forward-looking leadership.

I recently had a conversation with Robert “Bob” Sirman, director emeritus of the Canada Council for the Arts and Canada’s National Ballet School. As a student at the school, I had a front-row seat to Bob’s sustained, successful, decade-long campaign to build the School an ambitious new home on Jarvis St. Our chat revolved around his vision of ‘non-directive’ leadership. Directive leadership (he said) is the traditional ‘military’ model: one person at the top creates a plan and tasks their subordinates with responsibilities. The huge weak point here is compliance; as a leader, you will spend most of your time monitoring what your subordinates do and disciplining them when they stray out of their lane or fail to comply with your directives. In contrast, a non-directive leader convenes a team and works with them to generate a vision and associated goals, allowing team members to claim responsibility for the tasks that get them fired up. This engages the passion and vision of the whole group and allows the leader to act as a shepherd (or sometimes sheepdog) rather than an enforcer. A weak point is that from the outside, this does not much resemble our traditional ideas of what a leader looks like; but, Bob pointed out, we should judge leaders not on appearances, but on accomplishments.

This view of leadership really aligned with my experience creating Jacqueries. My creative role as director / choreographer means that the overall vision starts with me — and that if a decision bubbles up to me, it’s my job to decide — but I worked successfully to make sure that the vision didn’t end with me. My working metaphor of creative leadership was of a small wellspring, a trickle of sweet, clear water, being joined by a series of tributaries to form a powerful river: the hardest work being to keep the huge river as sweet and clear as the tiny spring was.

“Build no more fortresses,” said the great military strategist Moltke the Elder, “build railways.” In the first decade of this century, Toronto enacted a vision to build world-class homes for our arts organizations. Buildings are important; theatres are vital. But what do we do now to reach the people outside the walls?

Read Part I of this series

Read Part II of this series

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