If you’re reading this article, then chances are you’re a working artist, or you’re well on your way to articulating your creative vision and following your creative career. You already know that you can’t do this alone. Finding the right team of collaborators and building creative community is crucial to your creative success.
Welcome to Building Creative Community, a new series in which I profile writers, artists, performers and thinkers who are redefining what it means to develop creative community. These creative artists are finding new ways to exercise their craft and gain support for their work. I’m eager to see how they do it, and you might be too.
To start the series, I decided to profile someone whose business is helping artists clarify their vision and achieve their best work. His latest book is focused on helping artists find their natural audience. I’m talking about creative development advisor, Marc Zegans.
Marc helps artists, writers, performers and other creative people thrive and shine. With 26 years of experience working with artists and innovators, as well as his own body of work as a poet, playwright and spoken word artist, Marc brings to the table a confident blend of business acumen and frontline artistic experience. He has a unique gift for helping creative individuals get past personal obstacles, and make crucial transitions from one stage to the next in their creative lives. One part muse, one part business advisor and one part shaman, Marc shares his insights in blunt, caring and penetrating fashion.
Marc’s book, Intentional Practice & The Art of Finding Natural Audience is what initially brought him to my attention. In Finding Natural Audience, Marc offers a concise outline for expanding the footprint of our creative work while strengthening the integrity of our vision. He shows us how to resolve the conundrum of wanting to promote our work, but not wanting to appear too “salesy.” We know that we need to develop a way of working that allows us to remain authentic, but still generates a sustainable income.
In Finding Natural Audience, Marc maps out a thoughtful and deliberate path to connecting with the key people who will help us build our audience and client base, and to reaching our true audience directly. In essence, Marc has created a how-to manual for developing vibrant, supportive, creative community – community in which all relationships are intentional, mutually beneficial, and based on good communication.
When we build a network of individuals, organizations and companies who share common standards, ideals and intentions, and are eager to think in terms of mutually beneficial outcomes, we kind of obviate the need for product-pushing sales methods. If we see our job as forming mutually beneficial community and bringing what we can offer to it, our role as connectors becomes transformed from an abrasive sales role into a matchmaking game. The more we know about each other, the more we are likely to find the people with whom we truly want to work and play, and they us.
One way I go forward is by sharing conversations, stories and other personal insights with prospective clients, collaborators or audience members. That’s why I started this series. It gives me a chance to speak with people with whom I want to form creative community.
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Here are some excerpts from my conversation with Marc Zegans:
Deborah: Although you are a poet and a seasoned performer, you also have an extensive background in innovation, strategic management and public policy. What parts of that experience do you bring into your current work with artists?
Marc: I spent many years studying and working with public managers who learned to innovate under some of the toughest conditions imaginable. University of Chicago Professor Lawrence Lynn describes their work as, “Impossible Jobs.” Despite the difficulty, these amazingly inventive and resourceful people are wonderful at discovering and capturing opportunities to do good. It might surprise you, but I discovered that the really excellent ones are profoundly concerned with the poetics and aesthetics of program design. They innovate by changing the implicit structural metaphors that have hitherto guided thinking in their fields. That’s what gives them their edge.
Deborah: That sounds intriguing, but what makes it important?
Marc: When an innovator or artist reframes a problem with images and language that are both novel and appropriate, new solutions emerge. The best solutions tend to be both deep and elegant; that’s where design aesthetics come into play. Again and again, you see the best innovators bringing a strong aesthetic to their work, one that drives them to discover bold, novel, persuasive, elegant and robust solutions to wicked problems. Artists face similar challenges, so my years of working with successful innovators in impossible jobs have given me a perspective that artists find both resonant and effective.
Deborah: Can you tell me a little bit more about this?
Marc: Artists are by nature interventionists. They dig deep in order to find something new and original to share with the world, but often they don’t have good tools for figuring out where and how to intervene in the larger system to produce the effects they are hoping to achieve.
My work in public policy gave me the ability to analyze complex social and economic systems and to understand how to create elegant interventions in these systems that make a positive difference. My work in strategic management showed me how to get things done on the ground under conditions of ignorance, uncertainty, scarcity and risk.
Now, artists tend to be very good strategists. They deal daily with scarcity, risk and the unknown by developing artistic strategies for producing under tight constraints – they have to, or they couldn’t make original art. I help them see that these strategic capabilities are resources they can recruit for themselves as they learn to thrive in the social and economic aspects of their artistic lives.
Deborah: We artists can be such a sensitive bunch, and it’s so easy to get paralyzed by the elements of our work that happen outside the actual creation of our art… So, when artists are looking to build a natural audience, what are the main considerations they should keep in mind?
Marc: That’s a great question. The first consideration to keep in mind is that finding people who will genuinely connect with our work is part of the creative process. Our creative process does not end when we finish the piece. Our work has to find its way into the world. Now we can use proxies like agents, publishers, galleries and the Internet to do the heavy lifting, but finding and developing an intimate connection with people whom our work will genuinely move is a tremendously important part of the creative process.
A second thought to keep in mind is that passionless promotion won’t make for good results. Often, artists recognize that they have to sell their work or find an audience, but they’re introverted, or perhaps they’re disdainful of people who aren’t artists, yet they feel like they need to promote, so they hold their noses and do it. There’s no fun in that, and it doesn’t lead to good results. If you want to attract great readers, collectors, clients or audience members, think about who really might get something out of seeing your work and why.
Where do they live? What do they do? Where do they hang out? How would you like to meet them? How would you like them to encounter your art? What are clever, creative and delightful ways to introduce your work to them? How can you use the tools of promotion to deepen the resonance of your work and the world’s connection to it? And how can you have fun with the process?
Deborah: Well, I’d say the best projects are the ones where everyone is having the most fun. The excitement and enthusiasm you can generate when you really enjoy what you’re doing is priceless. And I think that energy totally translates to the people you are trying to reach.
Marc: The key thing you said is “everyone is having the most fun.” When we’re creating authentic connection with people, they’re reaching back, bringing their own energy into the room. The energy flows in both directions, and that’s when it gets really exciting.
Can you feel it? This energy? I know I can!
If you’re excited about what you’ve read here, we’d love to hear from you!
If you’re an artist or an innovator who wants to thrive and shine, and if you’d like help strategizing your career or getting through some difficult points in your creative process, contact Marc at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have creative work or a new project that you are ready to share with the world, and you’d like help building a strong audience, a supportive network or a robust collaborative circle, or if you simply want to be an email subscriber to this series, contact me at email@example.com.