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Goals and Objectives? Again?



The new year has come, and the parties are over. The tree and tinsel have been stored away, and the lights have come down in the yard. The post holiday lull is a welcome time for me. I feel like I have earned a rest after all the chaos, poor dietary choices, and postponed projects. It's a time to relax, refocus, and find all those things that have slipped through the cracks. It's certainly no different in our art business. As we turn our gaze to those end-of-the-year duties: catching up with paperwork; closing out annual processes; and looking forward to taxes, reporting, and the goals and objectives that should guide us through the months to come. Perhaps" looking forward to" is the wrong phrase. I'm not sure that I can say that I'm looking forward to taxes, but I am forced annually to look ahead to finding the ways in which this year will be better than the last.

It's funny that I should include goals and objectives as being one of those tediums of the new year, but I think it's pretty accurate. It's infuriating, because creating goals and objectives is something that I really love to do. I come from a long career of working in organizations where the importance of strategic planning, and goal setting was crucial to our success. And yet, when it comes to my own business, I seem to stink at it. Oh I do it, every year, and drag Bogdan through the process each January, but this year (like most years) I look back on our goals and objectives as if I'd never seen them before. It's funny, last year we even decided to post our goals and objectives on the mirror at home to remind us daily of our trajectories. I know that I did post them, but they're gone now. I suppose they lasted only until we needed to clean the bathroom and were never replaced. 

We take the process pretty seriously too. Every year we make some sort of trip, away from home and the studio, to give ourselves uninterrupted time to spend on the task. Two years ago we drove down to a beach house on Padre Island, while last year we ended up in Austin for a couple of days. The hope was always to highlight the importance of what we were doing, and to remove the normal distractions from our day to day lives. This year, we just sat down at the dining room table, and stared at the list as though for the first time. Some of the bullet points looked great to us, and we thought we should migrate them over to this year's document, while others looked completely foreign to us. What in the world were we thinking? And of course we felt somewhat betrayed to realize that we accomplished so much in the past 12 months that were in no way reflected on the page before us. I get it, something's broken.

The first gut reaction we both felt was to question why we do this process if it turns out to be so meaningless. But the considered response is quite different. After we pass that initial shame and fatalism, we realize that goals and objectives ought to be central to our business plan. We assume that there's just something wrong with us, and we vow that we will do better this time around. I'm a bit skeptical though. I think there is something else going on. I get the impression that we're using the wrong tool somehow. In my career in libraries, some of which were large organizations, we relied on strategic planning, goal setting, and work plans to keep the ship moving in a direction that was effective, reportable, and motivational to the many, many people involved. Is there a chance that we're just over-managing the process? Are we trying to plant a seed with a backhoe? 

The general principals for strategic planning are used for large corporate organizations, for manufacturing companies, for government agencies, libraries, schools, and small town shops. I've read enough to understand that every industry thinks of itself as being unique, and that standards and norms must be adjusted to account for the peculiarities of each enterprise. I guess that's largely true. I don't suppose that there is any question that a large law firm will need to plan very differently than a shrimp boat captain. But is there less need for shrimping entrepreneurs to have a version of goals and measures appropriate to their jobs? I'm assuming everyone will answer that question affirmatively, so then, the shrimp fisherman must determine how to create a plan that will best address the needs of that particular, special, niche business. I'm here today to make the same case for creative businesses as well. Are we as artists able to use the standard methods of planning and evaluation that are used in all sorts of businesses? And if the answer to that is no, then how do we determine what to keep and what to throw out?

I have always thought that the only test of an planning activity is a clear understanding of what success looks like. That supersedes even any discussion of mission and vision statements. If I don't have a good understanding of what success looks like, I can't possibly craft any value statements around my business. Almost any profit based enterprise will be the creation of wealth. Success then will be largely based on financials. Our shrimp boat captain and the large law firm share that model, and therefore some of the benchmarks will be the same between them. More money earned will be a strong measure of their success. Of course, for nonprofits, that measure will be quite different. Even if fundraising is core to their survival, they will have some other mission that is independent of accruing wealth. As a visual artist, I must know what success looks like to me, before I can hope to know if my planning will get me there. 

I sincerely believe this is where we have been missing the mark. Let me be very clear, there is no question that the only reason we have an art business is to earn enough money to live off of. This is our career, not just our passion. The difficulty is that I would create art even if I didn't sell a thing. There is a distinction between my goals as an artist, and those of my art business. Those two realms are not mutually exclusive, but they must be approached differently. While someone may become a doctor to fight disease, or a lawyer to fight injustice, one opens a law firm or a medical clinic to earn enough money to make those things possible. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think there are attorneys out there who bemoan having to earn money when all they want to fight crime. I have met many, many artists who just want to sit and paint, write, sculpt, or compose... and this whole money thing is nothing but a distraction. If we are trying to earn a living from our creativity, we must distinguish between the business of art, and the art itself. That's apparently harder for us than it is for others. I know academics who would rather spend time on their research than to teach undergraduate classes, but they know that's the job of a professor. They can distinguish between their teaching roles and their academic achievement. Both can be important.

As an art businessman then, I need to make a distinction between my artistic life, and my business goals. How do I measure success as an art business? As I see it, my business breaks down into three main categories; quality; celebrity; and income. Maybe those three words are what should be hanging on the bathroom mirror. If I'm going to make a living off my creativity, I have to be good enough, have enough people see my work, and sell the art to collectors. These three elements have always been core to my business goals, and yet, I'm not certain that I can quantify any of the three. Having a goal to do more, better, is hardly a measurable outcome. I must be able to understand how I will determine that my work is good enough, and improving. I have to have specific plans as to how I will increase my reputation and recognition as an artist, and know how much money I will need to make the endeavor pay for itself and earn a profit. If I can view my art career through this lens, perhaps some of the universal planning strategies will begin to make more sense. 

If I imagine my goals being built on these three pillars, then I can understand how to formulate meaningful and measurable objectives around quality control, publicity/marketing, and financials. I can safely remove my personal, developmental goals from those of my creative business. Certainly my "brand" as an artist is intimately tied to me. I am the business. But that branding can be separated from my personal life and reserved for my professional, creative product. Anyway, that's my strategy for the new year... I'll let you know next January how it turns out.


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