Saturday, March 29, 2014

What's in a Chair?

I've been thinking a lot about culture, lately. But not the kind of culture that you might expect from an arts lover. I'm not talking about art museums, music, design, fashion and architecture. I'm talking about internal culture.

Every organization has a culture, right? If you visit the Apple offices in Cupertino, you see a much different internal culture than one you will find in the offices of The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. This is easily identifiable in the style of furniture, the number of walls per sq. foot, the music or lack thereof playing aloud in the space, the types and locations of rehearsal rooms (oops, now I am talking about music, design and architecture), and what employees are wearing (okay, fashion too).

But what are those things? Those bouncy ball chairs, high cubicle walls, free Kashi food machines, and dress codes? They are expressions of the people that work and create in those organizations. That's what all culture is, the expression of people. Culture happens naturally all the time in the types of flowers people plant in front of their houses, or the cars they drive, or the types of words they use in a heated conversation.

Culture also happens intentionally, albeit not enough.

There are some organizations that have the unique opportunity to create culture - like Apple and the Kennedy Center. In doing so, these organizations need to think really hard about how the internal culture they create reflects the culture they are creating externally.

I suspect the "culture question" is not asked enough in many small arts organizations. Who are we as people? And does this reflect who we want to attract in our audience, board members, and guest artists?

In my own organization, the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC, we are being forced to ask this question because the LGBT culture in the United States is shifting around us. I find myself reflecting on many of our internal cultural identifiers.

Does our office-hour trust policy reflect the type of honesty we expect in employees? Does our rehearsal space reflect the sense of fun and surprise that our mission statement tells us should be integral to our artistic product? Does our website reflect our commitment to community outreach, and project the professionalism necessary of a $1.1m organization? Do my own actions and time spent at rehearsals and concerts reflect the type of organizational perception my board expects? Are the singers and staff as caring and inclusive of each other as we expect our audience and donors to be?

I was advised last year that in a position of leadership, your personality begins to affect the personality of the organization. Thus, the idea of culture is necessarily personal for me. Shortly after hearing this advice, I created a cultural identifier in my organization without even realizing it. I bought a red office chair.

Why red? It's fun, and a bit surprising. Why tufted? It still shows an ability to be serious. Why leather? It shows style. But shhh, it's not real leather, so why faux leather? It shows I care about the bottom line. Why armless? It shows openness and friendliness.

I didn't realize any of this when I bought the chair, so there was a lot of subconscious messaging in this purchase. It is perfectly indicative of some of the cultural traits my organization has and aspires to grow.

We want to be fun and surprising, but make no mistake - we are serious musicians. We demand good style, but we need to maintain a financial responsibility to our board and donors. We also need to open our doors wider in the context of a changing LGBT environment. And, as the chorus has heard me philosophize a few times, "just be nice." It's good karma.

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