Going to Artist School

I majored in theater in college. But when I had the choice of a job making arts grants for the Ford Foundation or working on Wall Street, I went to Wall Street. It was part curiosity (I had no idea what the private sector was like), part pragmatism (with my BA in theater, when would I get another chance like this?) and part $$$ (I needed the hefty paycheck).

When I met my husband (the playwright and novelist Romulus Linney who died in 2011), I thought I knew a lot about the arts. But working at a nonprofit theater as a paper-pusher (aka arts administrator) is many degrees removed from being an artist. Living with Romulus and getting to know his friends — painters, composers, other writers — suddenly I had a window into the world of the originating artist. And it was a revelation.

The joy when one is working well. The generous community that artists make for one another, because they know they are each trying to do something hard.

The determination that forces your sweet children and beloved spouse into second place behind The Work.

The isolation. The self-doubt. (It was once pointed out that when I had a bad day at work, The New York Times did not print a review of my bad day for everybody to read.)

I learned that artists think differently, approach the world differently, solve problems differently than I do. Differently than the people I went to school with. Differently than the people I worked with.

Artists use their intuition first, and their intellect last. They don’t like to talk about what they are doing. Because creativity is fragile, and if they talk about it rather than do it, the creativity just might go away.

Artists are endlessly curious, democratic, open. They experiment. They take risk. Nothing is off limits. No experience is wasted. Artists don’t try to fit in.

Artists specialize in the human condition. They take big issues and make them accessible. They find the personal story, the family dynamic in the epic. Epics are too big. But we all have families.

Artists put things in context. They help us see ourselves in places we have never been, under circumstances we will never enter. This understanding is the first step towards empathy and action.

The watch word for artists is originality. They are looking for their unique, their own, their expressive path in the world. In the social sector we talk about “paradigm shifts”. Sounds fancy. It’s just another way of describing seeing what no one else has seen, and making it manifest. That’s what artists do every single day.

If you ask a painter about what she did after art school, she talks about forgetting what was taught (it will be there when she needs it) and learning to see. If you ask a composer, he describes learning how to hear. An actor talks about finding her truth. Social entrepreneurs describe apprenticing to the problem, listening to the community, participatory inquiry, and “framing”. That is their version of learning to see, to hear, to tap into what’s truthful.

I parlayed my experience on Wall Street into a career in impact investing, philanthropy and social innovation. In the last five years, I have talked and written about artists as “surprise social entrepreneurs”. Many artists do what social entrepreneurs do, and I believe artists and social entrepreneurs working together can do more than they can working alone.

Last year, I launched Upstart Co-Lab. Upstart is my way to honor Romulus and his generous artist friends who taught me so much about seeing and hearing the world.

One of our goals is to spotlight artists as innovators. Because that’s exactly what they are.