Thursday, May 28, 2009

In Which I Get Institutionalized

There are certain things that occupy significant portions of my brain, but that I don't tend to write about here. One of them is my day job, which I've kept basically off-limits, not only for the sake of privacy, but also because I don't have much to say about it, especially not on a theater/books/arts blog. Another thing I don't really comment on, even though this is a theater blog, is the ongoing conversation about how to improve the American Theater--ensuring better pay for artists, cutting down on bureaucratic bloat and unimaginative programming, etc. I enjoy following this topic on other blogs, but I usually don't have much to contribute to the discussion. Unlike these other bloggers, I'm not really out in the world making theater. I absorb and consider what they say, but I rarely come to any conclusions, and even more rarely share them. (I also don't want to say anything that might jeopardize my future career!)

But when I saw a certain headline on Parabasis a few days ago, I knew I'd be breaking my silence. The post that caught my eye was called "Should Theater Artists Encourage Shareholder Activism?"

See, okay, the company where I've been working since October is in the shareholder and proxy voting industry. We make voting recommendations on corporate shareholder meetings for the benefit of big institutional investors, who want to know how best to cast their ballot (and can actually make an impact in a way that individual investors can't). In this job I've learned stuff I never expected to learn, about corporate governance, the stock market, etc. But none of it seemed to have any relation to anything I'd learned about before, or to my ultimate goal of working in the theater.

So I never, ever, expected to see, on one of my favorite theater blogs, a post that mentioned the words "shareholder activism" and "proxy voting rights," drawing an analogy between how activist shareholders can attempt to influence a corporation and how donors to a theater company might influence its board of directors.

I was fascinated by how the post introduced me to Saul Alinsky's concept of shareholder activism (I frequently deal with Shareholder Proposals in the course of my job, but I think that's a little different from what Alinsky was doing), and actually laughed out loud at the sentence "Companies try to limit the influence of their shareholders by doing things like holding conferences in strange locations and not publicizing them that well." Don't I know it, and isn't that what makes my job difficult sometimes! But, more importantly, this post allowed me to see that there is a connection between my current job and my theatrical aspirations. Corporations are institutions. Theaters are institutions. And much of the blog conversation about improving the American Theater is about how to cut down on the institution's "institutional-ness"--how to make sure that it's always about the art and the artists, and not just about building up the theater company's prestige or constructing a snazzy new theater space.

I feel like an idiot for stating something so obvious, but the Parabasis post made me understand that institutions are everywhere. The company where I work--an institution. The corporations we report on--bigger, more complicated institutions. Our clients--"institutional investors." The place I spent four years of my life--"an institution of higher learning." And if you are familiar with the workings of one kind of institution, you can draw parallels between it and another kind of institution. In short, there are broader lessons to be learned from my job than I had ever before considered. I do like how working in this industry has given me a close-up perspective on the financial crisis--that is, the failure of some of America's largest economic institutions--so does that lead to new ideas about tackling the problems of other American institutions, like, say, the theater?

I still haven't reached any conclusions. But this has given me a new perspective on my job and what I can take from it. I know I'll be pondering this in the office tomorrow...

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