I’m always fascinated by arriving at the headquarters of an influential, well known organization that has impacted my daily life indirectly for years and finding an insignificant looking, bland little building from which so much influence flows. It was somehow refreshing to arrive at what is considered one of the best state arts councils in the nation, if not the best, and to find it housed in a humble little converted Victorian. It lent a sense of open-mindedness to my attitude as we walked in to sit in an under-heated room for an interview with the man who had more or less defined the Ohio Arts Council (OAC) for three decades.
The interview was a short hour, and it was followed by a perfectly contrasting interview with a bureaucratic subordinate. The director was tanned, dashing, well spoken and he seemed to know exactly what to say about the motivations and processes behind the OAC. In contrast, the bureaucratic subordinate was less than plain, spoke in sporadic over-detailed garble about the admittedly complicated functioning of the organization, and was almost unbearably boring to listen to. The sales pitch was much more pleasant than the product, after a fashion.
The director went right to the point and spoke about the OAC’s commitment to public value based on qualitative rather than quantitative criteria. He spoke about the recent shift of the organization from a transactional process to a transformational one. He mentioned significant and exciting programs that sent Ohio artists overseas and brought foreign artists to Ohio. In a description of the political difficulties faced by an organization such as the OAC, he told us about the Appalachian phenomenon and how he dealt with the political goals of those in power in the state legislature, and how these goals shifted continuously. He spoke about the difficulty in judging public good – how a mural on a river wall in a small town in eastern Ohio had to be almost directly compared to the needs of the major orchestral symphony in the state’s largest city. One could easily tell that the director was a master salesman and politician. Nobody that white tans that well unless they are a master salesman.
The subordinate, as mentioned above, rattled off an endless stream of organizational details, budgets, grants panel processes and errata. I sat back and wondered where the true nature of the organization lay. As I had no direct experience working with the OAC, I had only the opinions of colleagues who had to guide me, most of which were not completely positive. According to the director and subordinate however, the problems about which my colleagues had complained had been recently resolved. As a matter of fact the subordinate explained these solutions in intimate and excruciating detail. So, all in all, I wasn’t quite sure what to take away from my visit to one of the best, or the best, state arts council in the nation. Other than maybe that they had been led by a director very good at directing, and who believed in the mission, and that satisfying the numberless constituents necessarily attached to such a public organization was a very complicated and ever-changing process indeed. It gave me a mixture of inspiration and dread.
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