Share Your Office Love: Bridging the Gap
Between Artists & Staff

Today’s guest blog post is written by Alex Pagano, Education Specialist, Patron Technology. 

Welcome to part two of a blog series all about pulling back the curtain on the inner workings of your office. The first blog post in this series helped you get closer to your patrons, and today I’m writing about how to get closer to your most important partners — your artists. After all, the partnership between you and your musicians, your actors, your artists, etc… is at the very core of your organization; it should be about your strongest bond, right?

While researching for my last post, I found plenty of articles on the right ways to connect with your patrons — but not a single source focusing on the best way to open up the conversation with your artists. Worse, when I work with performing arts non-profits, I occasionally hear comments from artists disparaging the office workers, unclear as to what the staff does for the organization.

This apparent disconnect between artists and office staff, if left unchecked, can cause undue stress on your organization. So to learn more about this delicate dynamic, I spoke with a couple of long-time musicians with experience in multiple organizations to get their insight. Together, we came up with some winning strategies.

An Ounce of Prevention

Just like with your patrons, transparency is the best policy for communicating with artists. However, you’ll need to go much deeper than the occasional, short-but-sweet social media posts reserved for your patrons; you have to build trust from the ground up. For the musicians I interviewed, there was nothing more important than the transparency of the budget.

For years, one musician lamented, their CEO would intentionally conflate budget items and become defensive when asked for more details. Besides being a terrible and shady business practice, this behavior (rightly) made the musicians feel as though they were being taken for fools and that the office staff was, under no circumstances, to be trusted. That’s not exactly starting off on the right foot.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, another musician absolutely glowed over the way their budget conversations were handled. Twice a year, their Executive Director held a mandatory budget meeting, and artists were encouraged to ask questions if they had them. Staff members, not just the ED, were on hand to answer department-specific questions like “What happened to that educational program we were running last year?” This personal, direct interaction was invaluable in getting everyone to feel like they were on the same team.

Perhaps even more importantly, more than one musician emphasized how vital it was to be able to speak to the CEO/ED directly. Even if they had no intention of actually starting a conversation, the positive impact of that open-door policy could not be overstated; it “puts out a lot of fires before they have a chance to get started”, one artist claimed. Keep those lines of communication open!

On the other hand, make sure not to overdo it. “We don’t need to hear about the day-in and day-out of the development team. That’s too much,” reasons, one musician. Keep your artists informed, sure, but they don’t need to get “in the weeds,” as the artists themselves put it. This goes for the positive and the negative. Just nailed down a $50,000 donation? Great, but don’t interrupt rehearsal to tell everyone about it. Lost a grant you thought was in the bag? Just adjust the budget and prepare to talk about it at the next semi-annual budget meeting with your artists.

True Conversation

Too often, the conversation between a non-profit’s staff and its artists turns into a one-way street, according to my interviewees. For one musician, a string of questionable artistic, programming, and community outreach decisions created a combative, “artists vs. staff” environment. The biggest change between now and then? “[The current CEO] is actually smart enough to ask the musicians questions”, they laugh.  

Make sure your artists have a chance to pitch their own ideas about the direction of your organization. Of course, no one expects you to rope in the percussion section every time you send out a hard mailing — you’d never get anything done. But giving them the floor during the semi-annual budget meeting, encouraging them to ask questions that start with “Have we tried….”, is a great way give your artists the chance to be heard.

Opening up the flow of ideas also gives you and your staff time to talk about what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it — it’s a two-way conversation, after all. As one musician recounts, “If [someone suggests] a bad idea, [our ED/office staff] will say, ‘We’re not going to do that, and here’s why.'” That’s a heck of a lot more compelling than a slide deck detailing the benefits of your new membership program.

Short and Sweet

But what about when something big happens? A staff member is leaving (or worse, is let go); an event is cancelled; a donor event where you’d like artists to appear is scheduled. You can’t wait for a semi-annual meeting to talk about these things, and your org moves quickly. That communication should come straight from the CEO or ED, and a simple email will do. If it comes from someone else, “it feels like [the CEO/ED] couldn’t be bothered,” and that’s not a good feeling.

Make those emails short and to the point; no need to unnecessarily pad it with fluff. When an education director left, “we got an email saying ‘so-and-so left, it’s OK, here’s what we’re gonna do.’” Again, you don’t need to send a monthly email with the minutiae of your team’s efforts — you just don’t want your artists to hear about it from someone else first. Transparency is the key.

Start Talking

Opening up your office to your artists is assuredly more nuanced than opening it up to your patrons, but your organization will be stronger for it.

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