The arts administration sociopath – a formula for success

I have worked in non-profits all of my life, and this post is musing on those experiences and observations of people in those situations – this is one of the reasons I am very happy to be out of the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) and non-profit scenses – though many friends are still there and still suffering. Because I do not work for anybody or any situation anymore (and never will again) where this is a reality, I feel it was safe and appropriate for me, in my usual satirical rant, to point out the reality of the scenario for many people. If you are a perfectionist, then this post is not about you – I will be composing a post about perfectionists in the not-to-distant future that will poke fun at you. So don’t worry 😉

If you have ever worked for a gallery, arts organization or even a charity then you know who I am talking about.

The boss who does not suffer fools gladly one moment but can light up the room with charm the next. The assistant who finds a typo and hunts down whoever who is responsible with frightening ruthlessness and efficiency. The gallery owner who bemoans the cost of rent for their gallery, hiding the fact it is their family who owns the building.  The co-worker who says more about you behind your back than to your face. The director of an artist-run space who stays forever and keeps it small and stunted to maintain control.  The curator oozing contempt and coldness when you are both alone and slightly less so when you are not. When control and opinion trumps understanding and trust in a working relationship, then you may be dealing with a person who is one step across the line of an arts administration sociopath.

The arts (and by close association, charities and non-profits in general) is a great area for a bully to excel – a strong personality is often beneficial to bring together disparate resources and mandates. They are charming and flattering being great students of people’s buttons and motivations. They can see the details of whatever you are working on, and force you to be very clear, concise and therefore honest when explaining what you are doing and why. They can, through a certain sternness and unpredictability of mood, get the best of their volunteers and underpaid employees – at least for the short-term. A sign is lots of staff turnover. It’s easy to dominate and push around young people – young people who are passionate about the arts and therefore already susceptible to tolerating conditions and stress to accomplish goals.

Art administration is not exactly a lucrative field financially, but does offer positions of status and influence and contact with very wealthy and powerful patrons. Working hard and obsessively will get you on the fast track to success and those are the hallmarks of a calculating and controlling disposition – isn’t it?  When an industry like ours needs people who show up and work hard and competently with deadlines and limited resources, the art administration sociopath with organizing skills sees an opportunity for a corner office and honourifics.  It’s a literal achievement measured literally by managing  real objects (this includes the concept of people) in a physical space.  The arts provides a veneer of nobility and irreproachableness to otherwise Machiavellian ambitions. This is very appealing to a sociopaths and goes a great way to explaining why there are so many unimaginative super-literals in the arts in general. But that is another post for another day…

How can you tell if your boss or co-worker is actually insane and without empathy? Try these handy metrics:

1. I find humour as the best judge of character – is the person laughing as a measured heuristic to a repeately observed social situation? Real laugher is easy to tell – that’s hardwired in all of us, insane or not. A sociopath has a hard time discerning what is fantasy and reality. This is reflected in laughing at jokes they are supposed to laugh at and not laughing if there is nothing to cue them to laugh. Or they just hate you. Tip: do they ever make creative, insightful and spontaneous jokes or do they react to obvious humour only?

2. Does the individual freak out over seemingly small, insignificant details and oddly not at large situations?  The sociopath can’t always judge the scope or significance of a mistake or obstacle – a small error can set off a sociopath because a bigger one is easier to gage how other people are reacting to it. It is the not knowing which creates the anger at not being in control.

3. Does the person acknowledge your contributions or ideas? Remember, sociopaths have trouble with the scale of things so it is better for them to err on the side of taking all the credit for positive developments and none of the blame for negative ones. You might find yourself listening to the  boss quoting you back to you without the slightest sense of absurdness or equally absurd heaps of blame on you for a mistake they clearly made.

4. Seemingly both intelligent and clueless. sometimes someone is very focused and dedicated on an area of knowledge and is very perceptive and intelligent about it – until you introduce a new concept or element.  Something they did not have time to research and prepare for. An arts organization run by a sociopath will often reflect a lack of innovation and risk-taking. Often, however, this tendency results in needed stability and conservative growth for an arts organization to survive.

Art administration seems like it should be relaxed, amusing and fun to work in and it really is *when* you are doing it right with the right people. But with a group of easy-going dreamers who are disorganized and talented by nature, a sociopath with organizing skills appearing on the scene is like a wolf among sheep.

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