Thursday, December 31, 2015

Can an Arts Organization Meditate?





Health experts define self-care as any necessary human regulatory function that is under individual control, deliberate, and self-initiated. Examples include making time for one’s self, maintaining a balanced diet, meditation (I use an app for that), exercise, and actively avoiding harmful behaviors and habits. The emphasis here is a conscious effort of observing yourself and making changes that will improve your situation.

This post is not about the self care of staff and volunteers working in an organization. That is an extremely important topic that gets a lot of attention, and for good reason. Without leaders who are rested, trained, and ready for what the day throws at them, the organization will suffer.

Instead, let us focus on the self care of the organization as its own entity. Many of the same principles will apply, but the implementation of them is drastically different, challenging, and involves members at all levels of the organization.

Why is this important? Why treat an arts org like a human being? Because it’s a living, breathing, changing, flexible, emotional entity that has power over its own fate, and is at the same time helpless against some outside influences like the economy, a snowstorm, occasional bad actors, and media scrutiny.

One element of self-care that I have found useful is meditation. In it, I take time to shut off the noise, stop the activity, ignore the email, and focus on the most basic element of my life – breathing. That’s it, just sit and breathe. It’s akin to practicing scales as a violinist. If you can do the most basic thing frequently and with ease, then you can build on that.

Arts organizations rarely meditate. When are emails not flying? When is a concert not being planned? When is an ad not running on Facebook or in the local paper? When is a board not giving time and money, and when is a staff not expected to work? It begs the question - can an organization meditate?

Absolutely. It just takes a little planning, and a unified answer to a central question. What is your most basic element?

What is your breath, as an organization?

I know I know, how are you supposed to decide on the one thing that you can’t live without? If you are a community orchestra, can your org survive without fundraising, and instead rely on ticket sales and a volunteer staff? If you are a singing organization, can your org survive without rehearsed singers, and instead rely on an eclectic audience to show up for sing-alongs?  If your organization promotes Cuban artists, can you make an impact online instead of having physical inventory ready to sell in a storefront gallery?

The answer is different for every organization. So let’s take an example. The organization I serve, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC, is a $1.1m non-profit with 7 professional staff and roughly 300 singers on the roster throughout the year. A lot of planning, resources, email, money, emotion, time, and music go into all of that. But what is our breath? Our singular element that is the only attribute we can’t live without?

Can we live without staff? Yes – we did for several years at the beginning of our 35-year history.

Can we live without ticket sales? Yes – we did that at the beginning too.

Can we live without a Board? Yes – see above.

Can we live without a conductor? Yes – we didn’t have one for our first rehearsal.

Can we live without rehearsals? Yes – many of our singers are great sight readers.

Can we live without singing? …

We are a chorus. Our most basic element, above all, is people singing together. That’s what we do, and it’s so much a part of us that the back of my business card reads, “Use Your Voice.”

I will be the first to lament that meditating is a weakness of our organization. The artistic quality is world-class, but notice I did not define our meditation as good singing (thankfully we have that). Our meditation, our breath, is simply the act of people singing together. And in the midst of ticket sales, increasingly beautiful and complex choral arrangements, fundraising events, international concert tours and live albums, this writer all too often forgets that the organization needs to take time to meditate, just like he does.


So, in our real world case study, how does an organization implement meditation once it has defined its breath? That may take more than one blog post, but my gut says the answer will be well worth the time it takes to uncover it.