Is taking risks risky?

by Jini Stolk

The Executive Director of the Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery says she has a mantra in her dealings with artists: “I always say the answer is yes until it has to be no.”

I love that attitude – open and supportive of experimentation and risk – and the New York Times does too: they called Judy Hussie-Taylor one of the city’s notable “Movers and Shapers.” “Under her calm watch, tension is not cause for alarm, but something that opens up the possibility for new ideas.”

Andrew Taylor says that our outlook on risk is based on how confident we are when facing an uncertain outcome, whether we think we’re capable of bridging that uncertainty, and what consequences we expect from success or failure.

There shouldn’t be any such thing as a risk-averse arts organization (it seems like a contradiction in terms) – or a risk-averse arts board – but it’s easier to maintain a “calm watch” if you have a process in place to understand, analyze and plan for the consequences of taking decisions.

Ron Dembo, the author with Daniel Stoffman of Upside, Downside and Seeing Tomorrow: Rewriting the Rules of Risk spoke to Creative Trust members some years ago about risk and decision-making. His recommendations for managing risk were both obvious and profound, and involved creating scenarios to analyze the benefits and harm of taking – or not taking – an action. He was aware that regret or, in the arts, lost momentum or a reputation for timidity or complacency, carry their own risks.

That’s why financial reserves – working capital or dedicated artistic reserve funds – are so important. One of their main purposes is to protect a company’s ability to take risks by offering an option to mitigate the downside when things go wrong.

Of course, there’s another discussion going on as to whether some arts organizations or indeed the sector as a whole, either defensively or without reflection, use risk aversion as an excuse not to confront gender inequity or lack of diversity. But that’s for another post…

I never thought I’d line up firmly on the side of capitalists, but this is from John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization, his 1995 Massey Lectures about corporatism, capitalism, humanism, and citizen involved democracy: “Most business leaders who preach about free markets, personal initiative and risk are not capitalists: they are managers, bureaucratic employees specialized in methodology. A capitalist has more use for other human qualities – common sense, intuition, creativity.”

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