Core Values & Arts Businesses

We spend a lot of time in our arts organizations talking about the mission statement. To know where we want to go, goals to reach, how far to climb, we also spend time crafting a clear vision statement. But what about our core values? How do they help us in business planning?

Don’t sell out!

I remember, years ago, my high school male friends would often complain about a favorite punk band selling out, or becoming bubble-gum pop. When I think of a “sell-out,” extreme characters like Vanilla Ice come to mind. So… what is a sell-out? You’ve heard the term before. It almost always mean a person or group of people have taken an obscene amount of money to betray a certain ethos, or agreed upon set of standards.

Selling out is not getting paid to create art. Selling out isn’t even using mainstream marketing tactics to sell art. Selling out is about not being honest. It’s about not staying true to your core values. Image of magnifying glass over the word "honesty" in dictionary

What are core values?

It’s funny. I performed a Google search for the term “core values.” In the top listing was Whole Foods. A value statement can be corporate speak, but why should it only belong in that sphere? Artists and arts organization who align themselves, and stay accountable to, a set of core values will be less likely to stray from a mission or set of goals. I found an intense definition from the U.S. National Park Service:

The core values of an organization are those values we hold which form the foundation on which we perform work and conduct ourselves.  We have an entire universe of values, but some of them are so primary, so important to us that through out the changes in society, government, politics, and technology they are STILL the core values we will abide by.  In an ever-changing world, core values are constant.  Core values are not descriptions of the work we do or the strategies we employ to accomplish our mission.  The values underlie our work, how interact with each other, and which strategies we employ to fulfill our mission.  The core values are the basic elements of how we go about our work.  They are the practices we use (or should be using) every day in everything we do.

Wow. Deep stuff. But think about it. It is a guiding principle that we should be using EVERYDAY. One of C4 Atlanta’s core values is to respect the artist. If we decide to not pay an artist for a project then we have grossly violated a core value. It is one thing to ask for a favor or volunteer time…to a point.

Photo of an art figure I would encourage artists and small arts businesses to write down a set of core values. Go over them with your team, partner or friends. Think about what is important to you. Where do you not compromise? How does this align with your key stakeholders’ values? This may help you, for example, make decisions about to whom you donate art, how you market your art, who you work with, etc.

Keep to your core values and you won’t sell out…or get used.


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