Bureaucracy in the Arts … Surely Not

The Practice Collection

I have been curious lately …

For years, I have pondered the dilemma of toxic bureaucracy and how it continues to choke institutions of public service, business and community service.

After retirement from the career side of bureaucratic tussling, I now find myself more drawn into the arts world, a world I assumed was about creativity, freedom and open collaboration. Surely the noxious traces of bureaucratic behavior did not live or even short term rent here.

Years ago, it was obviously not easy being Van Gogh, Shakespeare or Woody Guthrie for all kinds of reasons, but I am struggling to imagine them having to deal constantly with entrenched bureaucracy as they created some pretty fine art.

Today however …

Lets go back to the start line, real early days. I believe that the bureaucratic propensities start to infect quite early.

Little Suzi likes to paint, Billy likes to sing and Marsha loves telling stories. In a supportive family, they could, of course, flex their visual, musical and writing muscles to all sorts of levels, the sky is the limit.

Unfortunately, many humans don’t always get great art initiation in the home and many have to rely, much later, on more formal institutions for their arts introduction. The first formal institution might be the church … lets skip that one for now. The second of course is the school. By Grade Two, they may start receiving some art opportunities, but of course, those initiations come directly from the highest peaks of the academic catechism … credentials (the accredited teacher) strategic planning (the holy writ of curriculum) and the way it has always been done (pedagogy) … the holy trinity of any self respecting bureaucratic organization.

Yessir … don’t expect that little fella to be indecently exposed to a paint splattered artist creating a six foot high still life in their classroom or a blues musician introducing a three chord prison tune in the class or a high energy poet introducing them to ferocious spoken word beat downs in Grade Two … not really curriculum fodder.

Please, please write me soon and tell me I am so wrong here and that today’s classrooms are so very close to this vision.

Unfortunately, I still hear stories of no painting of the walls, no fog machines in drama productions, no ukuleles, we have always used flutes and they are cheaper.

The janitor, the power source, always gets to say no.

Speaking of no’s … no budgets these days either, unless its artwork for the football team.

By the time Suzi, Billy and Marsha get through high school and all those policy handbooks, their experience of art is often one of navigating the system more than having continuous expression through the heart and soul.

Of, course there have always been those who can make it through institutional bureaucracy and come out the other side, still in love with the arts, so they sign up for Art School or a BFA at the university.

Universities … I recall the kick I got when I was asked to teach at a University years ago. It was brand new at the time and billed itself as a fresh approach to higher learning. Well, lets just say that as one who was in the bureaucracies of public service a long while, I never saw anything there that matched our institutions of higher learning. Red tape, getting a decision, finding permission, risk adverseness, political correctness, entitlement, ass kissing and so on and on roll the elements of great bureaucratic swaddling in our highest learning institutions.

But are they great places to do art?

In fact, in the past years I have noticed that the curatorial content of much of our art seems to reflect more the academic institutions demands for extended narrative, backstory, philosophy (hello postmodern theory It seems like its almost an theoretical art they encourage. There seems to less, “I love this, its beautiful” and more “I think what he is trying to say …”

On top of this is administrative obsessiveness with metrics and trying to make everything show value by return on investment and bottom line. Another reason to posit that perhaps these centers of higher learning may not be the hotbeds of creativity, imagination and freedom that we lay people tend to believe.

The great painters and musicians I know and love today in my life will often suggest that the lack of an MFA in their resume may actually be a positive distinguishing feature in their work.

So let’s say you get through the all-inherent bureaucracies of learning institutions … and you still want to do some art.

Well, now you face the acquired bureaucratic intricacies of the public galleries, the museums, the concert hall, the theaters, the funding agencies, and all the other assorted gatekeepers of the sacred spaces. Again, I am not in the arts world, but it seems to me that navigating your way into, through and around the art bureaucracies could end up becoming a way of life for the practicing artist, musician, actor, dancer, writer or whatever.

I do see some interesting developments though …

For example, in my day when artists and musicians went pro, they often tried to circumvent bureaucracy by hiring out the nasty bits to producers, managers, agents, public relations people and so on. Todays emerging artists have the same bureaucracy to wrangle, but in most cases, none of the resources to outsource the solutions. Or perhaps, like me, they have just read the new Joni Mitchell biography and they are deciding that they may not really want to lose large chunks of artistic control and even larger chunks of cash to outsiders.

I have seen at least three great signs of the future here …

  1. The New Economy. The big one of course is technology. We are all aware of the double-sided effects of the tech revolution where technology took away income (records, books) while at the same time increasing accessibility to production, markets and promotion. Justin Beiber starts out on YouTube … not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

One good thing showed up the morning I listened to a ninety four year old man on the radio, with a voice full of love and compassion and fierceness for equality in the world that I have not heard in a while. The good news was that he had his own podcast that allowed his voice to go out to thousands.

Voices are getting out there … monetizing your voice, perhaps not so much, which brings me to …

  1. The New Learning Models.   A while back I attended a reception for a brand new music initiative launched by Studio Bell here in Calgary. The AE West program is an exciting, game changing concept in the world of youth music education.

Less about the role of the diminished fifth in music composing, it is focused on helping the young musician deal with the famous quote of Tommy Banks … ”the music business is 1% music and 99% business.” With a focus on mentoring, social media, new approaches to funding and touring, the musician gets to hang with. learn from and be challenged by folks in the realty stream of music rather than the academic stream. It appears to be affordable, relevant and real. The mentorships continue after the program, which again may distinguish it form, the education institutions.

  1. The Collaborative Entrepreneur.   As I tentively stepped into the arts, I was struck by a culture of smiling competitiveness. Everyone seemed to be a friend to all but there were some elbows in the corners. The business of music seemed to be framed in the old “toughest lion eats first” and the tough lion gets to continue eating sort of mentality. There was a small pie out there and it was a fight to retain your minor share these days. There was not a lot of talk about working together to bake a bigger pie.

I believe that can and will change. There may be an exciting development in the notion of music, musicians and the music business becoming more community and collaborative driven rather than totally star and profit driven.

Caveat: I love both stars and profits but I am not so sure that these two core values are all there is to creating a vibrant music culture.

I saw an interesting sign of this new shift a short while ago. I attended the inaugural concerts of a couple of new Music Mile music venues and art galleries that were artist designed and artist managed. I found another venture is a business app that is linking musicians and venues.

Bureaucracy is no respecter of person or work, I guess. It can infect any type of enterprise … private/public, big/little, and boring/creative. As we move into a world where there are no more classic definitions of anything, we perhaps should be more curious, caring and connected as we try to once again, to reinvent our lives and culture, especially in the arts.

The arts simply cannot afford the old models of doing business and making magic … we need a place for both opportunity and brilliance.

We cannot afford less.