Lessons learned from my first year as Artistic Fellow

It’s official - I’ve completed my first year as Imagery’s Artistic Fellow. This year has been one of the most rewarding, albeit challenging, years of my professional life, and with so much to digest it’s hard to put these thoughts on paper. The Fellowship is focused on three main components - arts administration, artistic leadership, and choreographic development - and I can proudly say that in all three aspects I’ve learned a lot already.

I’ve spent my entire career developing an understanding of the creative process, but until this year I’ve never really had the chance to immerse myself in administration. It’s incredibly humbling to discover what we don’t know.

I have to start by saying how jarring it is to shift perspective from that of a performer or choreographer to administration. It still requires a similar creative problem-solving ability, but the focus is entirely different. As creatives we dream big, finding inspiration and following our impulses, but transforming a vision into something tangible requires infrastructure to support that work, and that’s where the administrative perspective comes in. Administrators have to focus on building a foundation that can support any artistic endeavors a company hopes to produce. The burden of that responsibility for me is beyond intimidating. I’ve spent my entire career developing an understanding of the creative process, but until this year I’ve never really had the chance to immerse myself in administration. It’s incredibly humbling to discover what we don’t know. The truth is that we have to identify what we don’t understand in order to learn about it.

Arts administration is undoubtedly my least practiced skillset of the three focuses. Before this year I knew companies relied on their development team to raise funds, marketing to promote productions and events, patron services to handle ticketing and sales, and that all these pieces of the administrative team were typically under the purview of a managing or executive director. But I didn’t know how to write a grant. I didn’t understand the impact social media holds over emailed or printed content and how different the results can be when materials are distributed through these outlets in tandem. I also didn’t know how to access and assess metrics associated with ticket purchases that could ultimately improve attendance and exposure for major events. I certainly didn’t know how to take all of these items and evaluate their individual impacts on the success of any production. 

I did not anticipate how this added understanding of administration could shift my perspective on artistic leadership.

One of the first meetings I had with Annika at the start of my fellowship was at a little coffee shop in North Beach. We sat down, computers and notepads at the ready, and Annika proceeded to map out all the different tasks and responsibilities under her charge as Managing Director for Imagery. I was overwhelmed within the first 5 minutes, but her ability to guide me through the administrative structure was revelatory. It allowed me to feel for the first time that I understood what a company fundamentally needs to produce art. Over the course of the year I would be included in nearly every email thread Annika conducted, even chiming in on many of them with thoughts, questions, and offering possible solutions. This exposure has helped me feel more comfortable engaging in these discussions that prior to this year had been completely foreign to me. The greatest testament to this growth came during my attendance at the DanceUSA conference in Cleveland, OH. I chose to primarily attend sessions designed for executives and administrators, and the bulk of my networking centered similarly around the executive leadership of different companies. I was very proud and surprised that over the course of the weekend I consistently was able to engage in these conversations with confidence and understanding, so much so that other executives believed I was, in fact, a career administrator. 

I did not anticipate how this added understanding of administration could shift my perspective on artistic leadership. To be completely honest, I felt naively confident in my ability to take on artistic leadership, but the more I learned about administration the more complicated artistic decisions became. There’s a difference between producing a single project versus caring for an established company. My personal experiences in leadership prior to this year had been predominantly for individual projects, but long term company planning was never my responsibility. Working with Amy Seiwert this year I was able to observe how company history and context directly influenced her approach to future planning. It’s impressive. Amy has managed not only to produce inspiring artistic works but has also developed a company culture and vision that continues to build on the successes of each previous year. She’s able to prioritize immediate needs with long term organization success and in that balance has developed a company that continues to inspire new generations of artists. 

Amy invites everyone to share their opinions freely, and whether the entire collective is in agreement or not, every concern is welcomed.

If I had to identify a single takeaway from this first year of artistic mentorship with Amy it would probably be her openness to collective problem-solving. Whether at board meetings, conference calls, or emails, Amy invites everyone to share their opinions freely, and whether the entire collective is in agreement or not, every concern is welcomed. She values the different opinions in the conversation, and through that open discussion, everyone feels invested in their collective success. I do believe, however, that this approach only works because every individual Amy invites to the conversation is guided by similar ideals and values that align with Imagery’s mission. The specifics may differ, but at the center of it all everyone is working to realize the same dream. I have tried to take a similar approach in my own projects prior to this fellowship, but to be part of the conversation while Amy is actively considering how the company should move forward has been so validating. She takes such care respecting each individual, even in moments when a decision needs to be made that might not satisfy everyone. The conversation always directs back to “What is our mission at Imagery?” and from there we are able to keep moving the company forward. 

…there is no right or wrong way to make creative decisions - it’s an individual journey - but sometimes the only way to discover something is to venture into the uncomfortably unfamiliar.

This collaborative approach to artistic leadership paralleled directly with choreographic preparations for SKETCH 9. There were lots of unknowns and insecurities, but we had an incredible creative team that helped me find a greater depth conceptually than I’ve ever connected to within a choreographic effort. Digging so deep into the concept was liberating and brought its own sense of reward, but it also introduced unfamiliar challenges. Part of the SKETCH series is that it is truly condensed, so choreographers have to make lots of production decisions before the work is necessarily completed. What I found is that as my choreographic process continued to dig deeper and deeper, the different layers changed how the choreography would relate to the other production elements and it was difficult to keep them all aligned to deliver a cohesive vision. 

There was a day when I recall feeling completely overwhelmed. Truth be told there were many, but in this particular case I sat down with Amy and explained how I was struggling. I was trying to balance my creative ideas with those of my collaborators, and to do it all while still investing my energy towards administrative responsibilities for the production. I was trying to give my all on all fronts and was burning out. After venting my stress, it was so reassuring to hear that Amy herself had struggled with that balance in the past. The approach she offered was exactly what I needed to take a breath and continue creating. She reminded me that there is no right or wrong way to make creative decisions - it’s an individual journey - but sometimes the only way to discover something is to venture into the uncomfortably unfamiliar. Creating in unfamiliar territory with new stresses is scary, but the truth of SKETCH is that every artist in our collaboration is completely invested in each other’s success. With that support, we can embrace the newness of this process and ultimately celebrate the fact that we are going to learn and grown through it together. What it all boils down to is that the relationships we create with our collaborators can have an incredible influence on our work. Surrounding ourselves with artists we trust, being honest about what is causing stress, and identifying our needs will ultimately bring greater clarity and pride. 

As I said before, I’ve had a lot to digest in my first year as Imagery’s Artistic Fellow. One of the biggest gifts overall has been discovering how much more I have to learn. Stepping into year two I can continue focusing my energy on some of the missing links that may help me understand my own artistic and choreographic voice. Ultimately this process has brought me closer to realizing my potential, and I’m excited to see how that momentum will carry me forward into the second half of this fellowship. 

Ben Needham-Wood
Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, Artistic Fellow 2018-2020
Written August 18, 2019