The Lessons of Polyamory for Arts Administrators

Loving multiple people is work. #Facts

As I’ve said before, I think it’s important to recognize that who you are informs what you do. I am an arts administrator who believes in the power of the arts to transform communities and to affect positive change. I am also a person in a committed, polyamorous relationship who believes love is infinite even though time is not. Simultaneously loving multiple people and managing an arts practice are surprisingly similar in ways I didn’t expect. At their core, both are about building relationships. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way:

Honesty and communication are the only ways to success.
Nothing highlights the moments where you’re lying to yourself (or others) faster than being in a relationship with more than one person except being an arts institution that suddenly closes its doors (or worse). The accountability necessary is uncomfortable. However, in both cases, the only way forward is to know who you are, what you’re offering and what you need.

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Arts organizations tend to be good at understanding who they serve to varying degrees. What they are often less adept at is owning the reasons why they don’t serve everyone they wish to serve. Wanting the more diverse is noble; acknowledging the work needed to accomplish that is difficult; getting to that honesty is the goal.

Know what you can afford to give — and if that’s what your audience wants.
In my past romantic relationships, I recognized a cycle in my behavior: I would give until my resources were depleted, then resent my partner for not being grateful. One of many problems with that approach is that it is not a sustainable one. Yet this approach is not only the relationship model for many people, it is also the programming model for many arts organizations. Tell me if this sounds familiar:

To quote former Guthrie Theater Artistic Director Joe Dowling, from an interview in April of this year:

…we found that the appetite for new work in larger theaters simply wasn’t as strong as we would like it to have been.

The Guthrie threw all of its resources at a problem its audience didn’t have: that’s not the audience’s fault. Just like it’s not my partners’ fault if I exhaust myself in the service of needs they don’t have. Learn what the people want and invest your resources there.

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Michael Kaiser at the White House for the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors / Source
Michael Kaiser at the White House for the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors / Source

You can’t recognize good advice if you don’t know what your values are. 
Michael Kaiser is a widely-respected authority on what it takes to manage arts organizations. He has walked into many different types of institutions and turned them around. That’s why I feel very comfortable in saying that his most recent round of recommendations for the field are, at best, ill-advised, and, at worst, outright racist. However, those assessments are almost impossible to determine if you don’t know whether or not you value a diverse cultural landscape. “Good” advice from the “right” source can be terrible if you don’t know who you are and what you value.

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When I first came out to people as polyamorous, everyone had advice. Most of that advice consisted of ways to minimize the perception of having multiple partners or ways to ignore the fact that my partners may have had multiple partners. While it was well-meaning, the point of polyamory is being available to multiple people. Advice that minimizes the impact of my polyamory undermines its core concept.

Some stuff is just worth trying.
When I began my polyamorous relationship, I had only ever been in long-term, monogamous, heterosexual relationships. I had no sense that poly was even an option, let alone a relationship I wanted to develop for myself. There was an abundance of reasons to not get involved and keep doing what I was doing. However, there was one great reason to not continue in that same path:

What I was doing wasn’t working.

I had to be honest with myself about my goals and the impact of my choices to that point. I was unhappy and not connecting with the love I wanted. The things I knew to do had failed me: it was time to try something new.

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Arts organizations often struggle with finding new audiences and developing new programming while never fundamentally changing what they’re doing. There is much lamenting the state of the arts but, on the ground, the same type of work is still being produced.

Sometimes you need to do something different just to know what you’re capable of. In both love and the arts, you need to create the space to try something new.

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Can you scale what you do? / Source
Can you scale what you do? / Source

If it doesn’t scale, consider why not. 
Being polyamorous changed the way I operate in my romantic relationships for the better, regardless of its structure. Loving multiple people allowed me to identify my bad habits and adjust. The communication, honesty, clarity and boundaries I’ve developed will serve me well no matter the number of people I’m with. In other words, good relationship skills should scale.

My employer, Fractured Atlas, has a research and development pipeline for new programs and products. One of the phases of the pipeline includes scaling as a parameter. This phase recognizes that while not everything an arts organization does has to scale exponentially, the possibility should be considered. If you’re doing good work, you should be able to scale that work for maximum impact. If it can’t be amplified, is it worth doing?

How does your personal life inform your professional life and vice versa? What lessons do you feel others can learn from you? Let me know in the comments below.

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