I've been thinking a lot lately about William Morris, the Arts & Crafts movement, and their credo that artisans should design and build their own work. It was a belief hearkening back to the craft guilds of the middle ages, which they romanticized as a golden age for creativity and personal freedoms; and rooted in a dislike of the increased specialization and mass-production of the industrial age, where workmen were assigned one small aspect of a large, centrally administered project. It's a concept that applies in some interesting ways to the opera world, where specialization allows for the production of large collaborative works. If the singers spent the rehearsal process fighting with the director, for example, while the stage-hands were off rewriting the score, we'd all be in a lot of trouble. But in the entrepreneurial world there is a lot to be said for pitching in at every level of your organization. Now that Heretic Opera has been in business for a few years, I have learned at least a few things about running an arts start-up:
1) The best way to build a new business or organization is to focus on your core mission (in our case, producing new operatic works and finding ways to make them profitable in the marketplace). When Heretic Opera was first founded, there was some discussion about how to provide the services that are common to more traditional opera houses. Over time, we realized that the best way we could contribute to our community was to leverage our resources into developing emerging formats and cross-disciplinary ventures. The bigger non-profits haven't figured out how to maneuver in these fields yet, which gives us a chance to experiment and innovate in a way that's not often available in the classical performing arts.
2) No one is going to be as passionate about building your dream as you are. While friends and supporters are usually pretty happy to help out in areas they know well (and everyone loves pitching in at the exciting, this-is-so-cool moments), there are going to be a lot of days or even months where it will be only you, in your tiny office (should you be lucky enough to have one), just building the company bit by tiny bit. There are moments when it is hard to believe the work you're doing will ever make it out into the real world. So keep yourself and your company moving forward on the core mission. Here is what will keep you motivated and feeling connected, all those late nights in your office: the promise that, pretty soon, you will have something cool to share with your project partners. Maybe even the world, someday. And then it feels like meaningful collaboration again.
3) While strong creative partners are indispensable, it is best to keep the day-to-day operations of the company well in hand. When we first needed a website for Heretic Opera, I cajoled someone into designing one for me for free, and another person into maintaining it. (I am nothing if not thrifty.) Here was the problem: it didn't really represent us very well, because we were still evolving the best way to communicate our mission, work, and goals for the future. Over time, it became more and more impossible to ask people to donate hours to our website updates when they had their own lives to live. Our website languished, and the multi-media content that we prepared never made it online at all. I considered hiring someone to build us a new website, but that would have used money intended to support the development of Valentine. And I still would have had to pay them to make regular updates. So I decided to see what my options were for basic website design on my own. Much to my surprise, my web host offers a drag-and-drop builder that supports multi-media content. Who knew? While the customization options are limited, I was able to build a nice-looking and easily navigable website without too much trouble. The best part is, I can update it at any time, from anywhere, all by myself.
Like William Morris, I think we all still dream of a golden age for creativity and personal expression. I don't know if the dream of the medieval craftsman is still attainable, if it even was. But I do think that with focus, hard work, an understanding of the tools best suited one's hand, it is still possible to create personally meaningful work. Which is why we all get into this in the first place, yes?