#TBT: How to Save Your Arts Organization in One Easy Lesson

Happy #TBT. In light of the recent Brexit decision and the uncertainty of its economic impact, we’re sharing this oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: How Not to Wipe Out on a Jet Ski AND Save Your Arts/Entertainment Organization in One Easy Lesson.

"Jet Skis on Koh Samui," © 2005 Bert Dickerson, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

“Jet Skis on Koh Samui,” © 2005 Bert Dickerson, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

I’ve only been on Jet Skis a few times in my life, but once, quite a number of years ago, I was jet skiing on a muddy South Carolina river with my younger brother. He was a pretty seasoned hand, and I was a total novice, and I think he enjoyed being able to run circles, literally, around his big bro.

Everything about my jet skiing experience was fine except one little detail: I pretty much just kept falling over sideways, unceremoniously dumping myself in the slightly swampy, no doubt snake and leech-infested waters of the Little Pee Dee River. All strapped into the life vest, and with a 300-pound Jet Ski doing unimpressive little circles around me, it was a bit humiliating.

But why was it happening? What was my brother doing to prevent himself from looking like a total jackass? What was I doing to cause everyone to have to circle back for me every couple hundred yards? I could practically hear Nelson saying, “Ha Ha!” every time it happened.

Pride swallowed, I asked my brother what I was doing wrong. I knew he was going to enjoy being able to tell me, and really, we had ground (er, water) to cover, so it was important.

“When you start to feel yourself going over, fight the urge to take your hand off the throttle and instead, speed up.”

Well, I’ll be darned with a needle. That’s exactly what I was doing. Once the tipping of the Jet Ski started, I’d instinctively throttle down, which meant that the natural forces that were already conspiring to unbalance my Jet Ski were the only things at play, and so over I’d go.

Now, by contrast, gravity wasn’t counting on a fossil-fuel powered blast of energy pointing this object in the direction I wanted it to go. When, instead of doing what felt safe, I did the thing that seemed the boldest, that kick of energy took over, and I was on my way, dry, and leech-free.

Sure, I was running a different kind of risk: With all that extra speed, I could have crashed into a rustic rock on the riverside and scattered the Jet Ski (and probably my innards) over a couple hectares of Richland County, or even worse, I could have inadvertently hit some natural ramp in the river bottom and gone sailing into the backwoods and found myself in some kind of latter-day Deliverance type of scenario (and I mean that in the best possible way. I love South Carolina.).

But both of those were pretty unlikely. It’s a wide river, and all I was trying to do was stay in it, upright and pointed north.

And isn’t that what all of our organizations are trying to do right now, particularly in parts of the economy that are in crisis [circa 2010]? Stay afloat, upright and moving north?

Doing what felt natural and safe (throttling down) assured me of getting a taste of Ol’ Swampy.

Doing what felt, at first, unnatural and risky kept me moving forward. You could practically see a cartoon thought bubble over my head saying, “This might be a life lesson.” Or it might have said, “Is something crawling around the front of my life vest?” Maybe both.

Safe is risky. Risky is safe. It’s not an original thought. A couple of my favorite thinkers have talked about this recently, and that’s what jarred this story loose from the distant recesses of the mid-’90s. This is practically a Seth Godin mantra, and he’s been talking about it long before this big, bad recession brought the wisdom of that into sharper focus.

There was a piece in the Washington Post about Kennedy Center director Michael Kaiser, talking about Michael’s recent tour of the country, helping arts organizations think about addressing their crises. Here’s the money tidbit:

“Kaiser said he was discouraged by two trends he found. In programs across the country, he said, well-known and reliable material was offered again and again. ‘There is a lot of repetition, programs that are safe,’ he said. ‘And a lot of [suggestions] are coming from the boards. I always ask what is the performance that excited you the most. Few of them say Cats. Instead it was an amazing dance from a small dance company.’ In the arts, he added, ‘our job is to lead, not follow. Our job is to be adventurous.’”

In other words, safe is risky. Risky is, well, if not exactly safe, certainly a much better bet. Before the recession, a lot of live entertainment organizations thought that the same stuff that earned them a “B” and kept them in the game up until the age of the internet-empowered consumer would be enough. It’s not and it never was, but up until the economy turned down, they could persist in that delusion for a little while longer. I think it was Warren Buffett who said that downturns are like a low tide, which exposes who’s been swimming naked all along.

Possibly after falling off a Jet Ski.

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