Category Archives: Arts & Ethos

HERE | NOW: Notes from Emergence

I wrote the following as notes to prepare for a keynote discussion at Emergence, an annual convening organized by Emerging Arts Professionals San Francisco/Bay Area, which was held at The Women’s Building on June 2, 2014. The theme of the free-to-attend keynote was State of the Network: Tactics Towards Action. The opinions are my own.—Lex 

Panelists: Michelle Mansour, Executive Director, Root Division;  Lex Leifheit, Executive Director,SOMArtsRamekon O’Arwisters, Social Practice Artist – Facilitated by Melonie and Melorra GreenAfrican American Arts and Culture Complex

SOMArts (South of Market Arts, Resources, Technology and Services) turns 35 this August. Right now, we are perceived as a thriving mid-sized organization in San Francisco. We have studio spaces including a print studio and darkroom that are used by working artists. We provide fiscal sponsorship, professional development and technical support in the form of stages, wheelchair lifts and pa systems for festivals such as the Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival in Oakland and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Easter Celebration. We provide deeply discounted space for 10 or more classes each week including martial arts, photography for people who are low-income and homeless, and after-school classes for teens.

Many people know SOMArts for its exhibitions and artistic partnerships. Between 50 and 60 organizations and artists produce their exhibitions, events and other activities annually at SOMArts and they range from fully-produced stage performances such as Man Dance Company’s Harvey Milk-inspired NutcrakOr ballet, to bicycle art fundraisers and Xicano graduation ceremonies, to the Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits third annual powwow.

Like many of you I’ve been closely following the news about organizations contracting, moving, and—in a few cases—embarking on ambitious capital campaigns. The role that SOMArts has played in the Bay Area arts ecosystem has shifted over the years in direct response to the needs of artists and organizations. For many years SOMArts was best known for our staging and support services, the organization was founded with the name “Friends of Support Services for the Arts”.

Six years ago, following several years of a support-services-mostly model, we owed $50,000 to individuals and organizations, and $20,000 to the bank. CONTINUE READING ]

A Few Thoughts About ‘Lean In’

Seven weeks after I had my son Ewan in late January, Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” was published. I originally thought I’d be able to catch up on a lot of reading during maternity leave—now I know better. Between sleepless nights and 6+ hours of nursing each day, baths and pediatrician appointments and finding childcare for when I return to work, there is not as much free time as I had hoped.

And yet … the discussion  and emotions around”Lean In” were so intense I felt I had to read it. I downloaded the audiobook and finished it in two days while breastfeeding.

Because I listened to the audiobook, it’s hard to write a proper review with detailed quotes and excerpts. Which doesn’t matter, because I have a newborn and can only type with one hand these days, and because my main takeaway is Read. The. Book. The content of “Lean In” is far superior to the commentary, and more entertaining. Just do it. It’s only 6 and a half hours long as an mp3 and is very well suited to the medium.

Here’s my one-hand-typing review of the book: CONTINUE READING ]

The Profession

Michael Zheng is opening a next exhibition of video documentaries in which he asks his former classmates five years out of a studio MFA program, “What’s it like having a career as an artist?” They speak of their creative and financial challenges, expectations and the professionalization of the contemporary art world that is partially the result of the proliferation of MFA studio programs.

This is a different side of the NEA’s  “Art Works” slogan and the Artists in the Workforce study, a more engaging window into the lives of artists … and yet one that encompasses a group of people and will (hopefully) speak to the bigger picture of what life as a working artist is like, from an artist’s perspective and from the perspective of  his peers, competitors and collaborators–people who mostly went through bachelor’s degree programs and then took on a further commitment of time and resources to be working artists.

I am very excited to see the results of Zheng’s research. The exhibition opens May 21 with a reception from 6pm to 9pm at the Marina Abramovic Institute West, 575 Sutter Street, San Francisco.

120 Day Blog Death … and Yosi Sergant

According to Doug McLennan’s recent San Francisco talk about the Culture Business in an Attention Economy, if a blog isn’t updated for 120 days it dies. Officially. And while I haven’t been updating this blog lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about blogs, diplomacy and directness. I’ve also been thinking about what happens when emerging leaders who embrace new models and radical action take on highly visible roles in long-esteemed institutions. Emails go viral. Sentences are taken out of context. Rules and regulations are in force (and enforced).

I’ve been thinking a lot about Yosi Sergant, and reading the debate on Jeff Chang’s blog. I’ve been thinking a lot about politics, and provincialism, and wondering if it is possible to write an interesting blog anymore if you are The Administration.

Why do we become The Administration? I say this, half-joking and half-horrified, because a grassroots leader I know is referred to that way by her staff. “The Administration” refers to just one person.

I know a lot of emerging leaders who want to be the director of an organization someday. I don’t know any who want to become “The Administration.”

Sigh … in a perfect world the Yosi Sergants would wield ongoing power and have infinite connections to serve their mission without joining the NEA. But that is a tough row to hoe. In a perfect world we’d all be making art in the service of an insurrection, by the people for the people. But in this world, we can’t even use the word insurrection without having to defend it. And the most talented insurrectionists I know are also talented at finding money and administrations to back them up.

Back to the blog–I guess I’m feeling a little doubt these days about what’s safe and what’s fair. I’m not giving up the blog. But it merits more thought.

And on “emerging leadership” … I’ll be giving a very short talk on behalf of the San Francisco Bay Area Emerging Arts Professionals as part of Friday Nights at the de Young, this Friday night. If you are wrestling with these same issues, come join us–it will be good times!

Contract Disputes in the Dance World

There are few good resources for thoughtful, specific writing about conflicts between artists and institutions. Plenty has been written about successful collaborations. But when things go awry, nobody wants to talk about how and why on the record. Often it’s very painful, everyone’s afraid of losing money and other support, and there are legal complications. I wish there were a book of case studies about collaborations-gone-wrong and what was learned by all parties. It would be useful, particularly for emerging leaders (on both sides) who know about best practices but have not yet learned from experience when to prioritize a gut feeling or a red flag, when to seek outside help, and when to compromise.

With that in mind, Claudia La Rocco’s New York Times article about negotiations between the 92nd Street Y and choreographer Pavel Zustiak is a fascinating look behind the scenes of a contract dispute.

On Women, Plays and Pulitzers

Last Saturday, I went to BRAVA! for Women in the Arts for the final night of Brian Thorstenson’s Over the Mountain. The play, directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, is hard to describe, as so many truly compelling plays are. But it takes place in a war-torn country, our country, and the characters are linked by their relationship to a poet who is eventually jailed and likely killed for her insistence on continuing to write and be read, despite all odds. 

In BRAVA’s lobby, the playwright had posted photos and biographies of wartime poets who inspired him. Looking at that wall of photos, it struck me that I knew and loved poems by most of the male poets on the wall, but could not quote or name the title of any poems written by the women. 

After all this time, women writers still aren’t in our canon. Do we think about that as often as we should? Journalist Laura Collins-Hughes does. I recall a conversation we had when I was working at the O’Neill Theater Center … she noticed that the O’Neill had selected a majority of women playwrights for the Playwrights Conference, and wrote a story about it. Now, she has written an article about the significance of a Pulitzer shortlist “bursting with women.”

Given the scarcity of arts features these days, it is even more significant that Collins-Hughes seizes upon this subject matter. Here’s hoping it is linked far and wide.

Word-of-Mouth, I Hardly Know Ye

Not long ago, I spent a few days drafting a grant application for marketing support. A big part of me loves marketing, which–when done well–is simply finding the best way to share news of an experience with the people who are most likely to enjoy it. But after ten years as a Communications Director/Press & Marketing Coordinator/Marketing Manager, writing an eight-page grant narrative for the privilege of attending two long sessions of  “Marketing Boot Camp” seemed about as appealing as paying the dentist for the privilege of a root canal.

But a funny thing happened on the way to submitting that grant application. I started getting excited about marketing again. Specifically, the potential for breaking open a tired old myth (Full-Time Marketing Director + Hotshot Publicist=Stellar Attendance) and doing things more efficiently and effectively. I used to scour the newspaper and online listings for interesting things to see and do, but here in San Francisco, that means sifting through 435 listings on a lazy Sunday, and those are by no means comprehensive. The grassroots innovators rarely show up in the newspaper anymore, and the most compelling invitations come from artists, curators and collectives.

I get dozens of Facebook invitations each week and I’m still not sure I know a single person under forty who can entice even fifty people to an arts event where there’s not free booze. How large is the disconnect between new technology and true relationship building when it comes to arts participation? I hope the gap is narrowing, but I fear there is a schism that puts small and mid-size arts organizations at a disadvantage.

As a friend reminded me this weekend, going to the theater (or any arts event) is an adventure that requires effort and risk … and in an era of empty pockets and full schedules, the best publicist in the world can’t compete with word of mouth when it comes to filling a room. Logic would say that facts and accuracy count for more than opinion, but science is proving that wrong.

So … whether or not I attend Boot Camp, I am left with a few questions:

  • Can relationship building with technology be taught? Who should do the teaching?
  • How can Institutions (defined as: more formal organizations, often with more formal relationships and more liveable compensation to artists) blur the lines between marketing and art-making without sucking up all of the time + energy of artists, aka making them “jump through more hoops” just to have a show?
  • What are the intergenerational  aspects of new technologies in marketing (positives and negatives)?

And, on a very micro-level … what does this all mean for my organization’s database, website, budget, et cetera?

Any answers out there? Advice, links, book/study recommendations welcomed.

Maeda Mania & Creative Leadership

I am hoping to stop by the Web 2.0 Expo today, but I missed the event I would have most loved to attend–a keynote by John Maeda. Maeda is a voice for creative leadership, collaboration, and simplicity in the digital age. The simplicity piece, in particular, makes him the ideal person to follow on Twitter

Lately Maeda re-tweets have been popping up everywhere. As frivolous as “tweet” sounds, the brevity lends itself to sharing wisdom. There are two pieces of Maeda twisdom (tweet-wisdom) that have been running through my mind all week:

-Maeda Twisdom #1: I was taught to embrace adversity by leaning *in* (vs out and away) to changing circumstances. My back aches with all of you leaning in now.

-Maeda Twisdom #2: “recalls his father’s life mantra of the Japanese aesthetic of “mada dame” (maw-dah dah-may) — “It’s not good enough yet.”

Maeda’s website,, compares “Traditional Leadership” to “Creative Leadership.” The first thing I thought of when I read the list was the common theater model of having a Managing Director and an Artistic Director. And how rarely that works. The second thing I thought of was how the Creative Leadership approach and the accompanying ambiguity could be applied to financial management or a city lease (have you seen one of those? they are huge).

My third thought was not my thought at all, but instead comes from Jan Masaoka, via the Nonprofit Law Blog: “A leader may best serve his or her organization by being the type of person who the organization needs him or her to be at that time.”

Sometimes it is hard to step back from one’s organization and look at the big picture and think about the best approach. I NEVER thought that Twitter would help me be reminded of the need to do just that, but–thanks to John Maeda–it does.