Open Door Collectives

Thoughts on artists, FTH:K and particle accelerators

The internet is a good place for ideas. It’s sort of like that Hadron Collider thingy, smashing bits together at high speed to see what does or doesn’t come out. Here’s an interesting sentence I tripped over in an article on New York theatre troupe Superhero Clubhouse:

“Superhero Clubhouse describes themselves an open door collective, embracing both the value of longstanding relationships as well as the transient nature of artists.”

I’ve seen a number of companies get formed and break up. This week I heard the official news that FTH:K was losing two more of its key people: Rob Murray and Liezl de Kock, who’ll be heading out to work with Ubom! in the Eastern Cape (their blog for more about this). The company is emphatically not breaking up, but it does put the question of its future into the scrum. But there definitely will be a future.

As captured in the quote, artists are transient. They like collaborating and creating, they don’t like repetition. After 6 years it’s probably time for a change – it’s good for the company and good for the artist. Much like the particles in that super collider thingy, artists need to move about and come into contact with new ideas and people at high speed if they’re going to change (I’d say grow, but that’d definitely be mixing up the analogy).

Like Superhero Clubhouse, our institutions need to understand artists and let them move, the problem being that for any company less than 10 years old it is a monthly, weekly, daily struggle to survive. Finding funding is hard. Even what we think of as established companies like Magnet and FTH:K aren’t immune. What will happen when the founders move on? Will there still be a company?

FTH:K has always emphasized the management side of its operations. It has everything in place to continue, having mentored and nurtured the next wave of its ranks to take over. Could this be the first South African ‘open door collective’ in a truly sustainable sense? The next couple of years will tell, but I have faith in the staying power of a good idea well executed.

2 thoughts on “Open Door Collectives

  1. Wow. Well, no pressure there, huh, Jono?! 😉

    It is good to see you asking a question out loud that I’m sure many people are asking behind closed doors or over drinks at Roxy’s. I think the thing that leaps out for me is the innate link you seem to see between the co-founders of an organisation and its “struggle to survive” in SA’s arts world. I’m not really sure it works like that. In fact, if this weren’t a public platform, I’d list a couple of examples of founders who have clung to their management positions to the detriment of the organisations they started and are meant to serve. Messes that had to be cleaned up after their final departures that seem to go against what you are suggesting. Having your co-founders on board doesn’t mean more or less success. What they actually do there, however, does; but no more than any other employee, really. Obviously, the exit strategy is all-important, and I’m speaking generally. But everyone, founders included, is replaceable; it’s more a question of how easily it is to do so.

    This changing leadership question is a relevant one. In many of the Arts Management courses that I have been on, whenever the topics of Boards, Governance and Leadership are discussed, this issue comes up: that in SA, Arts Leaders hang on to their positions (both managerial and creative) for dear life, often to the detriment of their organisations. It is interesting to look at the many reasons for this. Not all of them are about ego, of course; many have to do with various challenges within the arts environment in SA. However, there is an argument to be made that if they all moved after a certain number of years, they would create a system of creative flux and change where positions regularly opened up and so the thought of moving on from one place wouldn’t be as scary – for the founders, the remaining employees, and the organisation’s supporters. The opportunities for real collaboration and personal development would be opened up in a very exciting way. However, there are only so many positions and the fear is that there are more people than positions. I’m not sure I agree here, especially when talking about Arts Managers, but this is the fear. In some countries, academic leaders aren’t allowed to stay on at their positions for more than 4 years or so; they have to move on to another institution. But because this is the norm, people are better prepared for change psychologically, and there are regularly openings to be had. In theory.

    Anyway, I say all of this because I think it is important to note that if FTH:K’s success depends entirely on the vision or personalities of a handful of people, or only the co-founders, then none of us in the company has done our jobs correctly. Real success for FTH:K means that it stands alone as an entity in and of itself, not just as the Tanya Surtees or Rob Murray or Liezl de Kock company. Similarly, it shouldn’t be the Ana Lemmer or Jayne Batzofin company. It is FTH:K. Despite how kak that name is. And in time, if we look after the baby well enough – and I believe we both can and will – people will understand that it exists independently of the people who might be driving it at any given time. And I think that’s a very, very special achievement. Especially within SA.

    I look forward to revisiting this blog post in 5 year’s time to see how the saga unfolded. Place your bets now, folks…me, I’m backing the little train that could…just like I did 6 years ago.

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