Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Work of Art

YBCA film curator Joel Shepard's recent blog post about writing a list of things he hates inspired me to compile a list of nonprofit vocabulary words that annoy me. I know I'm not the only person who cringes a bit at hackneyed speech- at a grant retreat, friend and Youth Speaks director James Kass got our small group in on a little joke. After a week of intense conversations, every time someone said "an a-ha moment" in our seminar, our small group stood up. The gesture really brought the overuse to everyone's attention and added some much-appreciated levity.

Anyway, my list includes:

circle back
touch base
skill set
cutting edge
point person
"it's a pilot"

Feel free to add your own. Oddly, though, it was the last word "synergy" that popped into my head after completing the last of two lunches, the most recent one with Zoetrope Magazine editor Michael Ray and the one previous with artist Brett Cook. So maybe, like Joel, I should forgive the triteness of some of these words in favor of their usefulness. These two meetings ended up as a complement to each other, a way to explore the idea of collaboration from the perspective of an independent practicing artist and someone whose collaboration is part of a business model. As I'm learning about these kinds of meetings, both conversations spiraled into other interesting threads that won't all be covered here.

Part 1
A few weeks ago, Michael and I met up on a sunny afternoon on the back patio of Radius. I've been a subscriber of Zoetrope: All-Story at least 6 years but it wasn't until I met Michael's wife working on an event at Southern Exposure did I get to put a face to the publication. (Besides that of Francis Ford Coppola, who counts the magazine amongst his businesses including a winery, a couple cafes, and his obvious film work). In addition to working as the editor of of the magazine, Michael writes film adaptations and was truly gracious to my comment that there are some books I never want to see in film. (Not because I don't think they would translate. More because I love the images I created in my head while I read them. Most recently, I put Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann in that category. I do suggest watching Man on a Wire for related content.) Unfortunately, my digital recorder had run out of batteries but I did my best to take notes and enjoy talking to someone whose business is in finding the most appropriate words to express yourself.

I was attracted aesthetically at first to Zoetrope because each issue of short stories has a different designer- people like Tom Waits, Chip Kidd, The Clayton Brothers, Kara Walker, Mike Mills. As time went by, I was more intrigued by the business model of a magazine dedicated to being in print only and curious how each new designer fit into the process. Ultimately, I think FFC (Michael calls him Francis, but since we've never met I'm not terribly comfortable with the familiar) provides the magazine a unique position. As the primary backer, he affords the magazine the ability to come to the business model in slightly different ways. Michael shared that they have redefined what constitutes successes for them. Instead of just measuring conversions to subscribers, they're looking at smaller advantages like positive emails from patrons, blog references, and awards (Zoetrope won the National Magazine Award for best fiction in 2001). They have a 5-year outlook on breaking even instead of a traditional year-over-year analysis. Finances of course come into play in decision-making, but this longer view encourages creative risk-taking. 

Since they work off a FFC-approved list of designers, there's a pretty free reign in terms of layout. There is one rule- the design can't interfere with the stories. When I asked if he's ever run into problems in that area of collaboration, Michael smartly said that in those rare cases, he encourages an objective look for a solution that neither parties have thought of rather than trying to find concessions. (Words to remember). I really enjoy the sometimes surprising featured guest, but it is apparently rewarding in more ways than just to subscribers. After PJ Harvey did one issue, it seemed to restart her interest in painting and drawing. Michael said that whether it was her experience working on the issue or something else, he's happy to be able to provide these artists, musicians, directors and personalities with an alternate creative output.

Right now they're committed to the idea of only existing in print. Sure, there's a Facebook page, but the full layout and content is only available in the physical issue. Some people might say that could be detrimental to reaching more subscribers. But part of my attraction to the magazine is that each issue becomes almost a collector's item, although still fragile in its existence. (Michael commented that he liked the idea of collecting them at the same time that he liked the idea that they don't last and could be faded in the sun or crammed into a tiny mailbox). FFC's impresses the idea to the staff to remain who you are, and keep the magazine true to the original idea- and so, he doesn't want technology to make a facsimile of the magazine. The idea of mindfulness, however spiritual it sounds, replayed from my previous lunch with Brett described below. I think it is a valuable notion both for me as a person and for me working towards the mission of an organization.

Part 2
Before meeting up with Michael, I had lunch at the studio of Brett Cook, an artist, educator, spiritualist and all-around incredible human being. If I had to make a short introduction, I guess I would say that his work is rooted in social practice. But ultimately, I'd say that description is fairly reductive and I'll tell you why. The first time I met Brett, it was at a BBQ at Guerrero Gallery where we'd taken some donors on a gallery tour of the Mission. What threw me for a loop was the big hug I got as a hello from a total stranger and his chuckle when I asked later in the conversation "And what do you do?" Now, I'm happy to call him a friend and looking forward to that next bear hug. It's easier for me to understand that it's not what he does but who he is, that his art is the practice of his life. The laugh and roundabout answer I got makes a lot more sense - can you sum up your life and philosophies in a few sentences? Me neither.

There's a few things about our 3 hour lunch that sticks out in my mind. (The tasty vegan tamales from Flacos are surely one. The fact that we talked so long, I was left without anything else to say is another.) For starters, I'm constantly checking myself against his statement on collaboration to make sure I'm coming to it with the idea of making something together. [Brett said] "I used to think that collaboration meant I have an idea, you'll help me do it, we'll call it a collaboration. And from my own practice I've come to understand that collaboration means we all have different expertise, every person regardless of their age or class or social status, so a skillfully built collaboration is about integrating people's expertise in a way to make something together."

For me, there's also an understated fear about working collaboratively, since you must trust your partners with work you hold dear and ultimately your reputation that you've now tied together. I asked him how he manages expectations and outcomes, since it's not only important in the world of nonprofits and grant-funding but also in creating that sense of trust. Brett said his work has become less about the outcome and more about the process, and the relationships in that process that require care to build and maintain. These relationships then inform expectations about how people work and the expertise they have to offer. It's not that there isn't assessment, or standards, or points for reflection, but his collaborations are an ongoing practice. They don't end with a winner or a finite success. 

A lot of art-making and businesses run in those kinds of constructs, and in my experience at YBCA, we are responsible to concretely report to its stakeholders in limited time periods and create assessments for ongoing work. So we're going to have to synthesize a model that incorporates both hard data and the relationships we're building while still maintaining an overarching goal. When you're working, breathless, with your head down, it's not easy to keep your eye on the horizon. In a somewhat new construct, due in a large part to the democratizing effect of technology and the evolving expectations of arts participants on their cultural institutions, it will require the staff to consider our peers as part of the collaboration (not just helpers with the ideas of our choosing). I'm not sure how that works when we're not coming to the table on equal footing, where my job and livelihood is dependent on our work where others might not have such a responsibility to see it through. Something to think about, though.

Brett and I met at a time when I found myself busier than I've ever been and doing so willingly. I'd reflected that I had always wanted a position that I cared about and translated into my life outside of work. Although I wasn't resisting that collision of personal and professional, blurring that line brings its own set of challenges. In and outside of work, I am trying to maintain my identity by reflecting my own standards in an area where sometimes it puts me in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable position. I have to be mindful of where I'm coming from and what I want to stay faithful to. Brett approaches his collaborations modeling the behavior and life he practices. Yet key to that practice is being able to get away from the expectations he has for other people and the ability to be compassionate when he can't stand up to his own expectations. It's a deeply humanist perspective and one I quite identify with as I negotiate my life and work becoming interconnected.

As I left his studio, I wandered through archives of past work and memorable quotes on the wall. This one below by Thich Nhat Hanh, a buddhist monk and peace activist, represents how I see Brett and Michael's work and something I strive to incorporate into my own. Wouldn't it be amazing if we all considered our life a work of art?

True to his educator background and the theory of multiple intelligences, Brett always ends his emails with recent pictures of family or art-making highlights, and I love it. So, I'll end with some photos I took that afternoon in his studio.

These are part of Brett's Live is Living project.