That’s Entertainment

A friend recently stepped down from a three-year stint running a major international arts festival. She brought cutting edge, challenging performers and artists to town, and basically blew away the arts patrons and cultural community of a large cosmopolitan city.  Among the visiting artists: Laurie Anderson, Merce Cunningham, dumb type, Philip Glass, Patti Smith. You get the idea. World class. Big thinkers.

She ran the festival for three years.  First year, rave reviews.  Second year, raving mad attacks in the press and from some of the city’s elite.  What happened?

The second year of the festival was, if anything, even more ambitious than the first. Artists pushing their limits, and those of the audience.  And this was precisely the problem. (Actually, there was one other relevant issue; we’ll get to that tomorrow.) The first year had been novel.  The city was excited by the challenge of keeping up with some of the planets most fertile and febrile minds. By the second year, they wanted a break.  The wanted to take it easy. One year of hard work as an audience was enough.

The festival had run smack into Hedges’ Empire of Illusion.  Even the cultural elite wanted their bread and circus. Give us comedians and talking heads to make us feel smart, instead of raw persistent explorers to make us think harder.

The festival director persisted. The third year was a tour de force – the culmination of the trilogy. By this time the city had gotten it. No backing down. No compromise.  City cultural leaders finally understood, and the leading regional university asked the director to stay on as head of the school of performing arts, offering her a long-term contract.  She agreed on one condition: cut the contract length in half so she’d have a sense of urgency to accomplish their agreed-upon goals.

So here’s an example of ‘keeping at it’ in spite of the appearance that you’re making no progress (worse, the prospect that you may be sacked). And then stepping to the next challenge and intentionally painting yourself into a corner that you’ll have to innovate your way out of.  The lesson is obvious for those of us frustrated with our infantile pop culture, and the huge task before us in getting life right on a challenged planet.

All together now: keep at it, know it won’t happen overnight, but structure your effort to give yourself and your partners a sense of urgency.


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