How Do We Prevent The Great Resignation From Becoming An Extinction Event For The Arts?

Workplace culture and job satisfaction have been regular topics here at Adaptistration for nearly two decades and while change moves at a glacial pace, I am seeing more positive change over the past three years than the decade prior.

Case in point, Tom O’Connor recently posted something at LinkedIn on that topic that comes across as a combination of processional statement and call to action (emphasis added).

So much content about the so-called Great Resignation in my feed this morning that it’s hard to digest it all. Most of it centers companies, which I understand considering the sources. I prefer to think of it as the Great Boundary Setting—workers are telling you/us what they will and will no longer tolerate, because for larger economic reasons, the leverage lies with them. We have the opportunity and the mandate to create better, human-centered companies, and to be places where people feel respected, seen, heard, and cared for. This concept is not in conflict with the traditional bottom line or with our missions—particularly in the arts, I want the care of our humans to be a critical part of both, and it can be. Any element of the status quo that we fear losing more than our people is worth interrogating, and is yet another statement of what we truly value.

The part that jumped out at me was the bit I highlighted toward the end. While there’s traction when it comes to acknowledging the soul crushing workloads and unrealistic performance expectations that that drive staffers and artists into closets to cry, there’s still a disconnect between that and the fact that the field is undercapitalized when it comes to stakeholder compensation.

But that’s exactly the uncomfortable, but essential, conversation nonprofit arts and culture boards need to have.

How does the field get past “the spirit is strong, but the flesh is weak” syndrome in the wake of the Great Resignation?

I don’t see that the field has a decade or more to slowly chip away at improvements; it needs a Henry Ford tipping point where boards and executive leaders internalize that they can’t expect workers to do far more for far less. While attitudinal adjustments are a prerequisite to reach that stage, they can’t be the only part of the process.

I’ve been preaching this gospel for two decades and the only positive movement I’ve seen transpire has come at the very top of labor food chain: executive compensation and benefits. While they’ve grown at parity level speed, it’s fair to point out there’s still plenty of room for adjustments when it comes to unrealistic expectations and pressures.

Unfortunately, that improvement comes at the cost of creating an even more dangerous negative byproduct in the form of executive pay gap resentment. Simply put, the people earning most have made far better gains than the people working under them.

This doesn’t exactly make things better for the field as a whole and to move forward, we can’t avoid those uncomfortable conversations. We also need to see more overt effort from the service organization sector. If they aren’t able, or willing, to stake the sort of position and use their position to keep the topic front and center, it only serves to impede progress.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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