Are you an animal or are you a habitat?
Rambly Friday thoughts…
I’ve been pondering a bit about the last post on non-profit boards and the artists that do (or don’t) love them. Many of the response people have posted back on the old Facebooks have been rather positive (effusive even) on the ways in which the board has supported and pushed them further than they could have gone on their own.
For some, clearly, a board structure can work well. If you are an organization with an alignment of mission and artists within it and a board constructed in the right way, the power structure that worried me in the last post could be a non-issue, leading to a super helpful and beneficial relationship. So it’s nice to hear from these folks and take inspiration from what they’ve done that’s working.
There are, of course, examples to the contrary. (And I’d guess these folks are probably a lot less likely to proclaim it to the internet public.) And something I’ve realized that goes along with this question has something to do with the role of the artist in the non-profit sector more generally.
I think of it as the trade off between being an animal and being a habitat.
Ok, so first off, let me admit that I know that this metaphor was something I heard from someone else at some point in the past year. But for the life of me I cannot remember who or where and for the internet of me I cannot find a source to help reference. So fair warning that what you’re about to get is a rumination on someone else’s concept, possibly expanded or re-imagined out of its original context.
So back to animals and habitats. When we examine people involved with generating works of art we start to think about their place in the field by examining two extremes.
On the one hand we have artists: the lone writer slaving away on a novel or play, the painter in their studio, the choreographer crafting a movement sequence. These people are the animals – they are individual beings with individually motivated goals. Animals consume resources – they want studio or rehearsal or office space, they need money for their own time and possibly that of a collaborator, and stuff to make what they do like clarinets or clay or costumes – and mostly they only want those resources for themselves.
And on the other hand we have habitats. Habitats are places that animals occupy, sometimes for a short time and sometimes for their whole lives, to obtain the resources they need. We can think of an arts organization like a habitat – places artists occupy to get the resources they need to survive. The same way that a deer occupies the woods and takes advantage of the trees and streams and soft downy leaf beds, a doe eyed creator might plug into an arts org in order to get access to space and stuff. Audiences are also occupants in this imagined world in the sense that they come into the habitat to receive resource – namely the art that – as well. And for organizations that mix the arts with other kinds of services (social change, youth programming, education) there are likely other occupants with needs and influences on this place as well.
In the simplest scenario, a lone master painter (the animal) makes work and then a gallery (the habitat) exhibits and helps sell that work to the adoring public. A theater company presents a new ensemble’s work. A residency program houses a new novelist in the midst of their writing process. Animal gets resources to help sustain it and the habitat is made more vital through the animal’s presence.
So though they often work in tandem, it’s important to see that the larger goals of the habitat and the animal are different. The animal’s goal is to survive and get as many resources directed at it as possible to be comfy and well fed. The habitat’s goal is to support the ecosystem of all the animals and plants within it.
To extend this saccharine metaphor just a bit further, you can think of the non-profit board like a conservation club. They themselves enjoy the habitat and see the beauty and usefulness of it to the creatures in it even if they don’t directly pull resources from it. They may work actively in that habitat to keep it tidy and unpolluted. They may raise money to support and extend its boundaries. They may simply go and admire its worth and encourage other animals to take advantage of all the habitat has to offer. The board’s job is to make sure that the habitat is sustained for the many kinds of animals that interact with it.
The kinds of things a board does are good for the habitat as a whole. And generally that means it’s good for the animals in the habitat as well. But let’s say there’s a drought. It’s possible to keep the habitat from drying up completely a board would change the number and kind of animals it offers shelter to. If there’s an influx or if one kind of animal suddenly goes through a massive increase in its appetite, it may have to cut off a certain group for the good of the larder whole. They may even shift some aspects of the habitat to help ease the burden on some parts of it. In short, the goal of the board is to sustain the entire networked ecosystem into the future.
In my view, the vast majority of creators just want to be animals. But many of us at some point find that there are a scarcity of habitats in general or of ones that are hospitable to us in particular. And so we begin to start operating a little like habitats. Some people make that switch and realize that they actually like being habitats. Some even end up finding that the tired and constant scrambling life of an animal is happily left behind. For others, they are animals who don habitat clothing for a while in order to feed themselves in particular.
The problem with moonlighting in habitat world in order to support your animal self might now start to become obvious.
To run a habitat requires different skills than being an animal. To keep the habitat going you have to pay attention to the other animals that are interacting with your resource. And if you are one particular individual animal, the concerns of the habitat may or may not align with your own individual goals for survival and thrival. (I know thrival is not a word. But it should be, no?). To succeed at keeping the habitat going, you may end up making choices that cut off your own food supply. Your conservation league, with the best of intentions, may end up saving the habitat a little animal started at the expense of the animal itself.
Which is how, I think, some artists end up starting non-profits that feel like they lose their control over their work. Your aim to become more habitat-like to serve your individual animal self is for naught because you ended up killing the animal. These are the cases, I think, where artists can end up hating the boards that they serve under. It’s not that either is doing anything wrong. They’re just aiming at different outcomes. One is trying to sustain a place; the other is trying to sustain themselves.
The closer your goal is to being an individual artist and making work that is essentially the output of your singular vision, the less the work feels like a “public” good. What happens to you if your mission is to create works of a particular edgy theater or cultural dance style and you suddenly realize you want to start shifting your focus into something else? If you’ve built a habitat out of a mission, assuming you the animal will always belong there, you might find yourself frustrated and at cross purposes. And though one of the most wonderful things about the artistic impulse is its desire to innovate, change and grow this isn’t always possible in a habitat. And even when it is, it takes a far longer time and laborious amount of effort.
Which I think behooves the creator to really think hard about what they are trying to do before they sign that 501 c 3 paperwork.
Do you want to become a habitat or an animal?
And make sure you’re making choices that help you become that.