I’ve had a front row seat for a year.
It’s funny, because seats are definitely a thing in my professional
life…maybe even a denominator in much of my lived experience. Prior to the
pandemic, I was obsessed with seats. At TRG Arts, the global arts
consulting company I own and operate, we’ve spent 25 years helping clients make seats
attractive…pricing them, packaging them…creating demand for them. As a consulting
professional, I bought airline seats way too often and arts events seats more than most. I
became skilled with seats.
But how often would I have described my seat as “front row”? Often. But
Now, I have a front row seat every day, during a pandemic, to executives in the
global arts and cultural sector. A bit of backstory might help: since 2014, I’ve convened
chief arts executives in regular intensives multiple times a year across the globe. By the end
of 2019, more than 200 leaders had engaged. We’d developed a tribe, of sorts…a
group that let me and TRG into their vulnerabilities and realities as we all reacted in shock to
the pandemic and the devastating impact it had on live entertainment and attractions. Revenues
fell to near zero, performances and venues were shuttered. The impact on artists, arts and
cultural professionals, and audiences has been profound.
TRG began gathering executives in reaction to the pandemic in April of 2020. We held weekly
Executive Recovery Summits that included leaders from any manner of business models and
multiple countries. We listened and shared everything we could that might help. As we got
into the late summer and fall we convened Adapt Now sessions focused on 2021 and the
activities and attitudes required to jump-start recovery.
All in, we’ve now listened to more than 300 executive leaders. I’ve had a front-row
seat to their realities, concerns, thrills and disappointments. I’ve been with them as
they’ve led their teams, strived to meet strategic plan milestones and balance budgets. I
am one. I can relate and react with the context of similar pressures, especially now.
What I heard surprised me: it was the minority of leaders who sounded truly,
honestly ready to use this time as a catalyst for major change.
I really do understand the context. The requirements of “stopping” everything
created a need to DO so much more, and often those things were emotionally exhausting and
complex. Laying off or furloughing artists and staff; supporting audiences and patrons who often
require more time and support than ever before; responding to the call for racial justice after
George Floyd’s murder; the relentless need to lobby governments... There has been so much
to do in a short amount of time. But as I studied the anecdotes from my session notes and some
real data—just 20% of the 500+ leaders accepted the invitation to participate in
discussions with me about change for our field’s sustainable future—I began to see a
shape. And it was this:
I continued to facilitate and listen and considered the context from my own business. TRG
Arts was affected mightily by this pandemic, too. My thoughts were similar: “How will we
survive? We can’t!”’ “We must survive…we will!”
I’ve lived through horrible personal and professional experiences…could I dig deep
and understand: what would feed my ability to support the field I love so much, my family and
I began studying, reading, looking inward, even as we were supporting outward. And
I kept returning to these three words.
Creativity. Resiliency. Entrepreneurialism.
The Inner Melody series, featuring an abstract design made of colorful human and
musical shapes on the subject of the spirituality of music and performing arts.
“Creativity” because it’s what we do, but it’s also what we require to
move through this time and past it to something new. The definition of
creativity is to bring something into existence through imaginative skill. Creativity fuels
innovation and solutions and inspiration. Creativity is the mental vaccine to our current
realities, I’ve heard said, and I believe it entirely. But creativity is
a resource. And I’ve also observed that it can be depleted.
“Resiliency” because we all need it now, personally, but also because we need
creativity to be resilient. We need it to bounce back, always, renewably.
“Entrepreneurialism” not only because I am an entrepreneur, but also because of the
leaders who were inspired rather than defeated by this pandemic and took action that I would
describe as entrepreneurial: comfortable with risk, optimistic even in the face of challenge,
and undeterred. They described being inspired by the potential in their post-pandemic
Today, leaders require all these things and more to move through and thrive beyond the pandemic.
I’d argue that creativity is the key driver to the other positive responses we
require. Creativity drives resiliency and recovery. It drives entrepreneurial
thinking and innovation. It will drive social transformation, political change, and more.
But I’ve learned through reading and listening that not all of us think of ourselves
as creative. Even as our global economies are increasingly driven and fueled by
knowledge workers and people Richard Florida calls “the creative class”.
Do we lack the creative environment required to fuel the sector’s recovery? In a
way that matches its fullest, most brilliant possibilities?
This front row seat to the arts and cultural sector’s struggle through the pandemic created
surprising thoughts and the beginnings of a theory: while creativity IS popping
up all around us (I mean, my heavens: have we ever seen art in so many forms,
distributed in so many exciting ways and locations??), I’m concluding that our field of
creatives doesn’t always have the right environment for creativity. Commercial operators
have produced masterful television series like The Crown, extraordinary performance art
like Cirque du Soleil, and some of the longest-running shows on Broadway and on the West End.
But just as often commercial requirements put a governor on positive community impacts, limit
diversity and subordinate risk-taking.
Then there’s the non-profit portion of the creative industries. The
intention of a non-profit/charity is to enable creativity and
innovation not always achievable in the commercial market. The JOB is to
innovate…make things happen that commercial entities can’t because they might not
be profitable. That specific job and remit is rewarded with special tax status and public
subsidy and private funding because it’s designed to be exceptional. Different.
Regardless of the business structure, where is the nexus of our shared creativity? In the
creative realm, within our creative teams and leaders who’ve studied creativity,
who produce rehearsals and workshops and coaching specifically to teach and learn. And
who use design theory and more to further their craft. But it is this creative realm that is
often not well-integrated into organization structure, operations or broader organizational
Yes: we’re in the middle of an epic crisis. And during crisis we react, we tunnel, we
fire-fight…all of which diminishes our creative energy. This is a TIME when we may not be our
creative best. But I’m starting to wonder, based on my 30 years of experience working in this
sector, if arts and culture has EVER been as creative as it could be. As it should be.
So I’m turning my attention to WHY, and I’d love you to join me.
This year I’m writing about my discoveries and theories. I’ll be presenting what I’m
beginning to see as systemic reasons why the arts and culture sector isn’t as creative or
resilient as it could be. Please join me here for
future postings. I would love to engage with you about what
I’m seeing, what you’re seeing, and what we might do to make a difference.
Join Me On An Exploration of
But to whet your appetite, here’s one observation: financial precarity, as
researched by professors Carrie Leana (University of Pittsburgh) and Jirs Meuris (University of
Wisconsin-Madison), creates a “cognitive tax” on people and systems. Their research
focuses on the impact of financial insecurity on people, their work productivity, and ultimately
the cost to business. But it’s not hard to make the leap to the financial precarity of
non-profit arts and cultural organizations, who coming into the pandemic, during a healthy
economy, held less than two months of
working capital on average.
This week, I begin gathering global creative leaders for a full year, and we’re digging
into these systemic issues with a goal of better understanding what personal and organizational
change is required to achieve sustainable creativity. Resilient creativity. Catapulting
Because our sector and communities deserve it. We’re capable of it. And I want a front-row
seat to that.
CEO | TRG Arts
Jill S. Robinson is CEO of TRG Arts (The Results Group for the Arts), a
renowned international, data-driven change agency and a ColoradoBIZ Top 100 Women-Owned
Company. As a driving force in the arts and culture sector, Jill has inspired leaders and
organizations for more than three decades, and her expertise and counsel are sought out by
arts and cultural executives worldwide. Jill believes in the transformative power of arts
and culture experiences, and that positive, profound change in the business model of arts
organizations leads to artistic innovation that can inspire entire communities.
TRG 30 is a bi-weekly 30-minute series of conversations and provocations
with CEO Jill
Robinson and invited guests. Open to anyone in the arts and cultural sector, the sessions
provide insight, counsel and inspiration.