The Post-Jerk Era

Posted by Lex Leifheit On November - 8 - 2011

Lex Leifheit

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about jerks.

Steve Jobs Was A Jerk. Good For Him. writes Forbes contributor Gene Marks.

Al Davis, all-time great a**hole, was Slate editor Jeremy Stahl’s take on the passing of the infamous owner of the Oakland Raiders.

Marks wonders if embracing his inner jerk would make him more successful. Stahl asks, “What do we do when a legendary figure who was also kind of a jerk dies?”

As an arts worker, I frequently fantasize about a Post-Jerk Era. One only needs to read a newspaper or favorite blog to see that a “jerk” model of leadership and programming is still embraced in the arts.

Consider:

  • Jerks are dictatorial…and so is a lot of our programming. Seasons and exhibitions are decided by one curator or artistic director. Community initiatives are sidelined rather than central to marketing, programming and education.
  • Jerks are narcissistic. They put their name and image on everything and emphasize the importance of their vision. This is true for many of our most influential arts leaders.
  • Jerks sensationalize whatever they are selling you with words like “premier,” “best,” and “new.” In the arts, we are experiencing a moment where some funders are putting innovation (new!) and physical expansion ahead of community impact.

The Jerk Model works for many reasons. Jerks are charismatic. They are talented. They make you feel important or insignificant, included, or excluded.

Jerk Programs emphasize excellence and status. You either get it or you don’t.

And yet…shifts in the landscape have given us the opportunity to change. What does the Post-Jerk Era look like?

I saw a glimpse of it last week at “Beyond Dynamic Adaptability,” the culminating conference of the Wallace Foundation’s arts participation initiative in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Dante Di Loreto, executive producer of Glee, spoke about how easing up on content restrictions helped Glee sustain and grow an audience between the pilot and the launch of their first season (and the audience loved this example of a fan-made dance video by “Chunky Hunks”).

Writer and activist Jewelle Gomez spoke of her experience marketing for a television station in the 60s with branding guidelines so strict, they were ostracizing a Black audience for a Black television show. She emphasized the importance of communication and flexibility outside the shadow of dominant culture. “People of color cannot think of themselves as monolithic and therefore their communication skills must be more finely tuned,” she said.

One of my favorite ideas from the day was Nina K. Simon’s creative use of Post-It notes. In the Museum of Art & History, they installed a few surfboards and used sticky notes to gather questions and ideas from the community as a guide for creating exhibition labels.

In the spirit of the Post-Jerk Era, I feel I should refrain from bragging about SOMArts. But I can’t write about a more collective approach to programming and leadership without acknowledging—from experience!—that it comes with its own set of challenges.

Establishing clear communication around programming that blurs identities, responsibilities, and boundaries is hard. It’s all well and good to talk about listening to your audience and programming late-night performances in a warehouse (an example suggested by Alan Brown in a great article about artistic vibrancy).

However, if you are the organization who does that, you will encounter some scenarios that you never imagined. Some of which are hilariously depicted in this video of a biennial performance event at SOMArts, 100 Performances for the Hole.

So, in the spirit of Animating Democracy, I ask:

What’s your fantasy of the Post-Jerk Era? Or, if you are living it already, what are your challenges?

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