I recently attended an Americans for the Arts conference in St. Louis, Mo. Among many interesting points at “Artists at the Community Development Table,” one really stuck with me: the idea of “with, not for.”
In the context of the conference, that phrase meant having artists at the table, working with them from the beginning to develop a new building, a city strategic plan or a community process. It meant not waiting to install some art after the building is up, or realizing that once you’ve developed the plan or process, it’s too late to get an artist’s perspective, which would be likely to help you think through things from a new angle or two.
In the arts, business people are routinely asked to serve on boards and committees, and arts leaders attend business training and use business terms because we see the absolute value in adopting and adapting what works in that sector for our own purposes.
We know that our work is better if we have a number of perspectives and approaches to problem-solving, generating ideas and strategic thinking. We know that working with businesses is better than simply believing we are working for the needs of businesses.
So, what skills do artists and arts leaders bring to larger, community tables? They bring an astonishing ability to create smart, creative and useful programming with very lean budgets. In other words, they know how to “do more with less.” That’s an asset regardless of your budget size.
They know how to make hard decisions because… again with the lean budgets. Those in the arts have to make tough decisions and leave good programming opportunities on the cutting-room floor all the time. That means they know how to deeply evaluate all kinds of options and make smart, calculated decisions.
They aren’t afraid to take risks. The very nature of claiming to be in the arts means thinking outside of the box, so there’s less fear in taking it a step further and really going for something.
As a relatively conservative community, a little nudge to think bigger and take some well thought-out risks is a good thing. A number of our arts leaders have lived and worked in other, considerably bigger communities, regularly attend regional and national conferences and are part of networks that provide continuing education in their specific fields. This means they are thinking from an outside-in perspective, which has real value in planning.
Many of our artists are true entrepreneurs. This gives them flexibility, an ability to network and a real eye for opportunity. Plus, don’t forget their spectacular creativity — their way of thinking produces stunning art and asks unexpected questions and provides out-of-the-ordinary answers.
Again, it’s a strong asset when bringing the community together to ask questions and solve problems. My hope for 2019 is that the leaders from other sectors in our community will take a look at who is not sitting at their tables and what skills and assets are missing from the conversations.
Then, go out and invite the arts leaders and artists they believe will assist in bringing about the kind of growth and change this community needs and deserves. That would be working with and not for the arts, and we would all benefit from it.
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and originally appeared in print on Monday, December 31, 2018.