In Pursuit of Perfection: 2 Weeks at Avrec Art House

This summer, in place of an internship, I am working with social entrepreneurs at 5 small businesses in my hometown of Salt Lake City. See the back story here.

“You will be fierce. You will fearless. And you will make work you know in your heart is not as good as you want it to be.”

— Ira Glass

Pre Script:

As I thought about what to share from Avrec Art House, I went back and forth and back again for a few months. There are so many awesome stories to tell about the Cervas, this space, and their members. Dallin and Jacquelyn (and many of their members) are wrestling with the ever-popular tension between following your passion and making a living. Dallin and Jacquelyn have made a major sacrifice by pouring their time and resources into creating Avrec Art House instead of pursuing their own film careers. Avrec represents an effort to create a culture in Utah where you can be both an artist and a member of the Mormon faith, where conservatism is not the enemy of uncensored creativity but provides another lens to tell your stories through. The space is a treasure trove of interesting and eccentric personalities who can be caught doing anything from arguing over the most effective way to defeat the evil spirit in It Follows to organizing a live reading of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. So many stories to tell, and I encourage anybody who is in Salt Lake to stop by Avrec and see the magic for yourself, because I’m going a different way with this post. Check them out here.

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I spent my first 2 weeks working with Dallin and Jacquelyn Cerva (and sometimes their chocolate lab, Sophie) at Avrec Art House, a shared workspace for independent filmmakers located in downtown Salt Lake City. Avrec Art House was born out of the Cerva’s vision for a more vibrant, collaborative film community in Utah. They imagine a future in which talented filmmakers feel like they can build their careers here rather than leave the state in order to be successful; where passionate artists can tell the stories they want to tell rather than leave the industry to make a living; and where storytellers choose to collaborate to create a better film than each could make alone rather than competing because they feel there is not enough success to go around. Dallin and Jacquelyn believe that we should be able to make a living out of our passions and that a community can come together to build something greater than the sum of its parts. They believe in these ideas so much, in fact, that they chose to put their own creative aspirations on hold in order to open Avrec Art House, and provide fellow filmmakers with the resources and the community to be able to chase their dreams.

The more time I spent at Avrec, observing and asking questions, the more two things became clear. First, there were so many potential areas for us to build on together. We talked about tools for recruiting members, alternative revenues streams like events and workshops, strategic partnerships in and outside of Salt Lake, fundraising campaigns, target markets, competitor analysis, and more. The more we talked, the more I realized my expectation that the “right” scope for our project would become obvious in the first week was a fantasy. There would be no clear project to work on and no easy way of confining the bounds of any project to something simple enough to be completed in one week.

Second, Dallin and Jacquelyn were hesitant to roll anything out to members until it was perfect. This went counter to my enthusiastic and overly eager desire for them to open things to members as soon as they were remotely functional or feasible. They waited to post an office space for rent until it had the right furniture, they held off on a launch party until they had enough funds to “do it right”, and they invested capital up front in components of the space that felt to me like they could come later.

As we scoped over the first week, I felt all of my business school bells and whistles going off. Buzzwords like “minimum viable product”, “pivot” and “fail early, fail often” were floating in my brain as I willed them to roll things out before they were perfect and get feedback from members so they could adjust. I willed it, but did not vocalize it.

As my time with Dallin and Jacquelyn crept into the second week, I knew I had to start in on deliverables. I picked a topic to focus on, and half finished it before abandoning it for another. I began to feel a sense of panic that I was not working on the right things and wasn’t going to give them anything of value. This was my first business in a series of 5, and I was terrified of underperforming. I spent the entire first part of that week with my head down, furiously starting and then abandoning different deliverable formats that attempted to capture everything without committing to any single focus. I made powerpoints and spreadsheets and word documents with bullets and charts and formatting.

What I did not do, was check in with Dallin, who was sitting roughly 20 feet away, to get his input on any of my work. I didn’t want to show him something half-baked out of fear that he would think it was crap, decide I was a phony who was wasting his time, and rue the day he had ever agreed to meet a strange student from Michigan who wanted to come and work for him for free. I realize now how ridiculous that was, but at the time, I felt a need to prove myself because I had lofty expectations, and I didn’t want to fail.

I was doing my best to articulate this to my friends/slightly crazy team of volunteer business and spiritual advisors during our mid-week check-in, when they stopped me to say, “you sound just like your entrepreneurs.” I was so fixated on the perfect deliverable that I was undermining my ability to do quality work. I was so desperate for Dallin and Jacquelyn to think I was smart, that I refused to show them anything I had produced for them. It made no sense. But at the same time, it made total sense. I suddenly understood their hesitation to open new parts of the space before they were “ready.” Avrec Art House was their baby, a product of their imagination, and sharing that with others was scary. But in both our cases, perfection had become the enemy of something that was already pretty good.

The next morning, I sat down with Dallin, and we went over everything I had worked on so far. I cringed each time I showed him something incomplete or questionably coherent, but instead of throwing me out and telling me I’d never work in this town again, he shared which parts were most exciting to him and which could be tweaked to better align with Avrec. All in all, it was a very uncomfortable, very productive conversation that turned my deliverables from mediocre-looking documents full of generic recommendations into mediocre-looking documents that map out a plan for growing membership at Avrec and building a stronger arts community in Salt Lake City. My work wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t horrible, and sometimes good enough is enough to go on.

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Thank you to The Center for Social Impact and The Erb Institute for making this project possible, and to the amazing entrepreneurs at Avrec Art House, The Chocolate Conspiracy, The Utah House, Jed’s Barber Shop and Buzzed Coffee Truck, who trusted a crazy stranger to come and work with them for 2 weeks.