I was asked to write a short piece on those small gestures that go a long way when running an arts organization, or I would expand that to: when working with other people in general. And here I am, writing this at the last minute, having already missed two deadlines. So I’m starting off by saying, I screw up a lot.
In the nearly twelve years I have been the director of Threewalls and working in the contemporary art community in Chicago, I have failed to deliver on several of those little things. So my first piece of advice—to myself at least—would be to stop biting off more than I can chew. Stop seeing every hour of the day as a possible slot that can be filled. I say yes to lots of things because I want to participate, stay in dialog with other people and their projects, but I often forget that I need real down-time to go for a swim or read a novel. I shouldn’t see that time as opportunity for more projects. If I keep doing that, I’ll disappoint people I might want to work with in the future, or, at the very least, remain on good terms with. Learning to say no might be one little thing we can all do for ourselves, and each other.
Stop seeing every hour of the day as a possible slot that can be filled.
Gratitude is a big part of working with others. It is the grease that keeps things working. Sometimes it is a card that says “Thanks for talking to my class when I dropped by the gallery!” Sometimes it is an artist honorarium that says “We value you and your work and even if we can only say that with a token sum, we want you to know that we are grateful.” Sometimes it is public acknowledgement to a crowd. Sometimes it is in print, in a dedication, in an introduction or an afterword. Sometimes its admitting that you were inspired by someone’s idea or project, rather than pretending you are working in a vacuum. And of course, these days, social media works as a pretty great place to make a shout out, if everyone isn’t going to get the hardcopy, hear the speech or get the check.
People remember those who are grateful and those who are contrite.
Depending on the circumstances, I have sent gifts if they were appropriate as thank-yous, and as apologies. Sometimes an email just isn’t going to cut it; it can seem like the easy, non-committal or even cowardly way out. Be old-fashioned: send a card. Make a phone call. Needless to say, people remember those who are grateful and those who are contrite.
On the flip side they also remember people who write hasty, angry and combative emails and those who operate with a sense of entitlement and lack of respect for other’s time, efforts and contributions. I’ve done all of those things, both when I was young and starting out and when I was old enough to know better. So sometimes the little things are really simple like: take a deep breath before you send that email/say that thing/make that phone call. Also, take a good look at what someone has provided you in terms of time and resources, in the long and the short term, and consider what you are now asking from them.
The little things are simply a practice in being gracious.
It is easy to forget that working in the arts is a long game: you never know when you will encounter someone again, when you will need their help, or when they may need yours. You never know when someone might be on the other end of a grant application you wrote. The list of ways you might encounter and re-encounter artists, students, teachers, curators, writers, administrators, collectors and gallerists goes on and on. Why not do a few little things for the people who are helping you lead a pretty phenomenal existence right now? (And of course, why not do them because you’d love to, not because of an anticipated quid pro quo?)
It seems safe to say that the little things are simply a practice in being gracious. Showing gratitude can be demonstrated by the few examples given here, but it can also be as plain as being patient. It has a lot to do with expressing one’s thanks, but also not having expectations for anyone else’s behavior. Assess the situation and go the extra mile: buy the coffee, send a gift, write the card, pay the honorarium, make the dedication, say yes, say no, turn the blind eye, forgive, forget, frame it, give them an extension, pay them, paint the wall, get the right equipment, throw the party, buy nice wine, make the introduction and so on. And remember: this is fun. It’s fortunate to get to live one’s life in the arts, so it should be easy to feel gratitude to everyone who pitches in to make this crazy endeavor possible.
Shannon Stratton is the founder and executive director of Threewalls, adjunct assistant professor at The School of the Art Institute and an occasional freelance curator.