How to make hard decisions as a creative
A difficult email and discussion with one of my artists today got me thinking about how we make decisions as creatives. This artist had a successful exhibition with me last year (our best ever, in fact), and was due to have another show next year, which I’ve been excited about. But the work she has proposed is fundamentally at odds with the values I started this gallery with, and she is very clear that this is the work she wants to do. I had to tell her the exhibition can’t proceed, but that I hoped we can stay in touch.
Financially this might not have been the best decision, given how successful her last show with us was. But in a decision like this, there are more things to consider than short-term financial gain, such as the loss of existing and future customers (and artists) because of the reputational damage and change in what we as a business stand for, and of course, being able to live with myself.
Making decisions is hard enough at the best of times, but when it comes to your creative practice, there’s often a lot more emotion involved, especially when the work is particularly personal. Most decisions can’t be made on money alone, but have to factor in a range of things. Thankfully, if you get stuck, there are some tools you can use to take a lot of the angst and guesswork out of the decision-making process.
Normally when my coaching clients are facing a big decision, I recommend they do a cost-benefit analysis to help the process along. This involves looking at the hard and soft costs and benefits of the decision, and seeing either which column is longer, or which one jumps out at them as the right thing to do. Hard costs and benefits are tangible things such as money and your time, while soft costs and benefits are intangible things such as reputation and opportunity costs – that is, what else you could be doing with your time, such as spending it with family or generating different types of income. In my situation, the financial benefit did not outweigh the costs, in terms of lost future revenue from reputational damage.
I also suggest my clients go back to their vision, mission or values statement and see if the decision aligns with that. Everything else being equal, what do their values suggest they do? And if things aren’t equal – for example, being offered good money to do something against your values – can you live with that decision? Here you need to be clear about what you stand for, and what is non-negotiable, as opposed to just something you don’t want to do. In my situation, I knew straight away this was non-negotiable and I could never exhibit work dealing with the proposed topic. If you don’t already have a list of things on your ‘do not cross’ line, it could be a good time to sit down and examine your values and commit them to paper.
Finally, if the decision is still not made, I ask clients to consider other people – whether that’s their family, friends, clients or strangers. Will this decision hurt or negatively impact other people? Is the impact reasonable in the name of your art and independence, or does it cross a line? Once again in my case, if I had let this exhibition happen it would definitely have hurt others, including my wife, my community and the public more generally.
I started my gallery to do good in the world, by promoting the work and voices of traditionally under-represented artists, especially women. I prefer work that has a positive social message, work that challenges and pushes for change. For me it was quite easy to choose my values over all other considerations, but I know this decision is not as simple for everyone, especially when it comes to making a living.
For creatives struggling with decisions, whether that’s picking up a temporary job while things are slow, or dealing with a difficult client, or taking on a commission that goes against your values, or prioritising more commercial work over your conceptual work, taking a strategic approach will help. Do the cost-benefit analysis, reflect on your values, think about others – and let that inform your choice.