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The Arthropologist

Life goes on: Why it's OK for arts groups to downsize, take a break or — gasp! — even go away

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News_Nancy_Fatique_Bonnie Collins_Hope Stone
Bonnie Collins and members of Hope Stone in Jane Weiner's "in situ." Afer Weave Dance Company ceased operations, Collins went on to dance with Hope Stone and is its lead grand writer. Photo by Simon Gentry
News_Nancy_Fatigue_Liz Lerman Dance Exchange_The Matter of Origins
Ted Johnson, Keith Thompson and Benjamin Wegman in Liz Lerman's "The Matter of Origins." It was Lerman's last dance as artistic director of Dance Exchange. Photo by Jaclyn Borowski
News_Theater LaB_Jamie Geiger_John Dunn_Shelley Auer_Beth Lazarou_Lydia Williams_Brad Goertz
Cast from "Gone Missing" presented at Theater LaB Houston and directed by Linda Phenix; After running Chrysalis Dance Company for several decades, Phenix became director of development at Art League Houston and directs plays for Theater LaB. Courtesy of Theater LaB Houston
News_Nancy_Fatique_Amy Guerin
Amy Guerin performing at the Divergence Music & Arts soiree; After Nova Arts Project faded away, co-founder Guerin now teaches theater full-time at Texas A & M University. Photo by Dave Nickerson
News_Nancy_Fatique_Jennifer Decker_Mildred's Umbrella
Jennifer Decker in Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company and Bobbindoctrin's production of John Harvey's "ROT." Decker says she's slowing down the art to focus on writing grants, raising money in other ways and strengthening the Mildred's board. Photo by Anthony Rathbun
News_Nancy_Fatique_Bonnie Collins_Hope Stone
News_Nancy_Fatigue_Liz Lerman Dance Exchange_The Matter of Origins
News_Theater LaB_Jamie Geiger_John Dunn_Shelley Auer_Beth Lazarou_Lydia Williams_Brad Goertz
News_Nancy_Fatique_Amy Guerin
News_Nancy_Fatique_Jennifer Decker_Mildred's Umbrella
News_NEW HEAD SHOT_Nancy Wozny_column mug

After listening to a tale of woe from a fellow cultural warrior, I said, "We need to talk more about fatigue in the arts world."

Looking at me with a set of piercing eyes, he replied, "You need to write about it."

So here I am, writing openly and frankly about when artists and arts administrators do too much because there's no one else to do it. Now is a perfect time to address the issue, as summer offers a bit of a respite for business as usual.

As audience members, we go see a show, clap, and head home. We may not know that the choreographer was up to the wee hours of the morning sewing costumes, or that the playwright had to rent a van to move the set. Life for small arts organizations is as DIY as it gets. Oftentimes, there's a day job to show up to as well. Over the years, I have heard heroic stories from artists working at many levels, even the ones with Guggenheims. There's work to be done, and if you don't have a staff to do it, it's usually you. It gets old. People get tired. Our labors of love can easily shift into labors of dread.

 There's work to be done, and if you don't have a staff to do it, it's usually you. It gets old. People get tired. Our labors of love can easily shift into labors of dread.

 As someone who has ceased making art, I want to say it's OK to stop. Sure, I'm known as a serial quitter, having quit three professions so far. Threatening to quit writing about the arts is my hobby at this point. I do it once a week or so, and it's usually met with a deafening "go ahead" silence. 

Being an artist is not a life sentence. People have stopped making art and gone on to other meaningful professions. Former choreographer Linda Phenix is a perfect example. After running Chrysalis Dance Company for several decades and teaching at Rice, Phenix moved away from the dance field back to her first love, visual art, along with trying her hand at directing. She's now the director of development at Art League Houston.

 "I love my new life at Art League," says Phenix. "Chrysalis did a lot of outreach programming for kids in schools, so those skills have been beneficial to Art League, especially regarding a program we implement in Houston ISD Title I schools."

Phenix is also a frequent director at Theatre Lab Houston. Her last directing gig, Gone Missing by The Civilians at Theatre Lab, totally rocked the house. "I get to simply focus on the art part of a production, something I seldom experienced in my past dance career," she adds.

I was deeply saddened when I watched Nova Arts Project (NAP) fade away; this was the theater company that produced Thom Pain, the first Will Eno play in Houston, setting off a string of Eno mania, next at Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company with Eno's The Flu Season, followed by Stages Repertory Theatre's production of Oh, The Humanity and other exclamations. Thom Paine turned out to be the last Nova Arts event. Recently, I was elated to see NAP's co-founder Amy Guerin perform at the Divergence Music & Arts opening. Currently, she teaches theater full-time at Texas A & M University. She's survived non-profit hood with bounce back moxie.

During the '90s, Weave Dance Company held the scene spellbound with its high technical level and collaborative approach to crafting evocative evening-length works. The company ceased operations after a successful run of several years. Bonnie Collins went on to dance with Hope Stone and is now its lead grant writer, while Jennifer Lawson went to grad school at Harvard University. She is now a State Department officer and still involved in dance globally. 

 What to do? First, recognize the warning signs of fatigue: a drop in interest in your work; a nagging feeling that you are never done; a lingering physical exhaustion; and a sense of bitterness, especially about the money part. I have experienced all of these.

 One cannot talk about things stopping without mentioning the imminent end of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I was in the audience at Jacob's Pillow during the last performance of his company the very day Cunningham died. When the company's legacy tour wraps up this December, one of the most seminal troupes in modern dance history will cease to exist. It's hard to even fathom the loss. 

The biggest "move on" in the arts world this year happened last month when Liz Lerman, a 2002 MacArthur Fellow and an internationally-known choreographer with strong Houston ties, stepped down from the Dance Exchange, an organization she founded in 1976..

Lerman handed the reigns to Cassie Meador, the very choreographer who enchanted the UH Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts audience during the Systems of Sustainabliity (SOS) conference. Lerman has recently completed her book, Hiking the Horiztonal: Field Notes from a Choreographerand her last dance as artistic director, The Matter of Origins, which Houston got a glimpse of during SOS. This fall, she assumes the role of artist-in-residence at Harvard University. 

See, life goes on.

Is it so strange to think an arts organization would have a life cycle too? Many have come and gone on our shores, some we remember, others just disappear, to become part of our collective memory for those involved. Who here remembers the tiny glossy ArtsHouston, which lasted over a decade before the recession hit print media with a wallop? Fly Dance Company closed its doors a month after a feature article in The New York Times. Permanence may not be in the plan.

What to do? First, recognize the warning signs of fatigue: a drop in interest in your work; a nagging feeling that you are never done; a lingering physical exhaustion; and a sense of bitterness, especially about the money part. I have experienced all of these.

Stopping is not the only answer. There's the old "asking for help" solution, a dreaded proposition for many arts people, yet important. Then there's the kicking your board in gear approach. So many small arts organizations have name only board members. What if they were replaced with people dedicated to your vision? 

Taking a break is a great idea. Let your fans miss you. Be mysterious. Why can't you disappear for a while? Does your season need to be so long? You determine the amount of activity you can handle, not the other way around. Sometimes an artist needs to let go of the expectation of being an organization and move toward project-based work. Go for quality, not quantity.

Downsizing is also an option. Mildred's season has, at its highest point, produced five plays, along with a festival and readings. Next season, there will be just three plays along with the crowd favorite, The Museum of Dysfunction, and a new reading series. Mildred's artistic director Jennifer Decker is most certainly one of those "do it all" types.

"The choice was as much about money and lack of administrative support as it was about me being tired of it, but it all contributes to the fatigue," says Decker. "Mildred's isn't going away at the moment. I'm hopeful that things are going to evolve so that if I go away, it can keep going."

For Decker, the workload crept up on her, but now she is taking a level-headed plan. She explains:

I was working for free for about 40 plus hours a week pretty much all year, in addition to my full-time teaching job. I was tired, crazy, and really over it. I was also exhausting some of my key people without being able to give them much in return. The turnover of people to help me with the grunt work is high because I can't pay them salaries, and they leave for paying jobs. So, I'm slowing down the art, so I can focus on writing grants, raising money in other ways and getting my board and staff built up solidly."

Decker is on the other side of fatigue, figuring out how to manage without sacrificing herself.

Up the self care. Don't skip your yoga, Feldenkrais or meditation class to finish that press release. Re-frame healthy activities like eating well, getting enough exercise and rest as part of your commitment to the arts.

If you decide to stop, remember there's no failure in career change. I wish you well on your next adventure. It turned out fine for me. I'm even considering not inviting my laptop on vacation. Wish me luck with that.

Plus, I haven't talked about quitting in at least a week.

An excerpt of Liz Lerman's The Matter of Origins.

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