March 26, 2009

A group of artists I’m involved with is starting an artists cooperative in Stevens Point. This is the second cooperative effort that I’ve been involved in, and two years of experience in a cooperative arts organization has taught me many things. I have been trying to thoughtfully apply the lessons learned to our efforts to establishing the organization on sound footing.

One of the biggets things that stuck with me is: Don’t Let the Function Define the Organization

Organizations exist for defined purposes. A purpose could be as simple as “make money” or as complex as “to support a vibrant community of fine artists, to provide an opportunity to exhibit and sell regional fine art under a juried system, to enhance professional development among artists, and to benefit the community as a whole.” (Q Artists Coop purpose). The purpose, and mission drive the organization and are what should define the organization. Essentially, what you do and why you do it. The tricky part of that statement is the “what you do” part. “What you do” too easily becomes literal. For instance, I am employed at a retail establishment. What I do there is greet customers, scan merchandise, clean, stock product, etc… However, What I do is strive to better myself as an artist, help others realize they too have an artist within, raise awareness of the importance of art to our lives and society, and make Central Wisconsin an arts destination.

One of the problems that existed in the first cooperative was what we did and how it defined us. We conceived, opened and ran a cooperative art gallery. This was the purpose that brought us together. The problem was that was all that we focused on, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. We became so focused on the gallery that we boxed ourselves into that function and definition; and then became overly engrossed to the point of burnout. So much so that we gave no time to exploring new ideas or approaches to our mission and purpose. We lacked focus and a connection with our mission, which in no way specified that we had to own, run or operate a gallery. So despite our mission and purpose, which were imbued with latitude, we were stuck in the rut and definition of the gallery. When the gallery became unsustainable, the organization fizzled.

When I became involved with this new cooperative effort, it was a little like deja vu. I kept thinking that the trap was right there! Here we were, talking about a coop gallery. There’s the cliff! So I started talking about this and about how we should keep a separation between the organization and the gallery. Link them take credit for our efforts, but keep the gallery clearly defined as a specific undertaking by our organization. This may seem like splitting hairs, but the truth is with that fine distinction we could scrap the gallery at any time and move on to something new. The organization is still the organization. It’s as much a frame of mind as it is a clearly deliniated position.

It could be taken that I’m suggesting that you can’t do one thing and do it well. I’m not. If your organization exists to be the best damn gallery in the world, then soldier on! Indeed, there’s something to be said for doing one thing and doing it well. Take Microsoft for example. The one thing they do extremely well is make software. (The merit of that statement is debatable) They do it so well that 95% of the computing world uses Microsoft products. Now Microsoft does many things, in varying degrees of effectiveness, but if you ask just about anyone in the world what Microsoft does, they’ll answer you with Windows, and/or Office. Those products define Microsoft.

For comparison, take a look at Google. Google started out doing one and only one thing. Search. They did it so well that they quickly became the king of search. A title that they still hold. Despite that, if you ask someone what Google does you’ll likely get a multitude of answers. Search will undoubtedly be the top answer, but you’ll probably also hear Gmail, photos, software, documents, news, calendar, and on and on.

The funny thing is, when you look at Microsoft and Google* side by side, they do pretty much the same things. They do them in very different ways, but they both do search, they both do email, calendars, photos, documents, software, news, on and on…

The difference is simple. Microsoft let itself be defined by two things. Windows and Office. For years they focused solely on taking over the world with Windows and Office. They succeeded too. They took over the world and now they’re standing on top with no real clear idea of what to do as all the new companies and innovations keep encroaching on them. By way of comparison, Google took over the world with search, and quickly started doing all sorts of different stuff. They still focus on, maintain and improve their search function, but they don’t let it define them. That diversity of effort and natural growth has led them to a near iconic status and success offering a very similar portfolio of products as Microsoft.

With this idea baked into our organization’s DNA we have crafted a strong and well defined mission and purpose with a clear understanding that what we do is not necessarily who we are. We have built into this organization the flexibility to go back to the mission and purpose and redefine what we do in order to achieve who we are. It’s something I’m very excited about!

-Spyros Heniadis

*Full disclosure, I love and use LOTS of Google products. Not so much Microsoft.

Q Artists Coop recently incorporated and is working with an eye to the future as they prepare to open their gallery located at 1108 Main Street in Stevens Point.