Most people choose to work in the nonprofit arts because of their passions and commitments. Some assume that longer hours, greater stress, and smaller paychecks are part of that bargain. Everyone has deadlines, financial pressures, and organizational challenges on top of board members, coworkers, and funders. When you mix a group of passionate arts folks together with long hours and the stresses that come along with a nonprofit organization, the work environment can feel like the inside of a locked-down, sealed-tight, steamy pressure cooker.
Each of us has to decide for ourselves when our work is challenging and when it surpasses challenging and becomes toxic. I recently had a conversation with the leader of a nonprofit arts organization. As this person talked, I realized they felt undervalued and undermined by their board and staff. They faced most days with dread and heavy sighing. Regardless of how advantageously their position may be viewed by others, it is poisonous for them to continue working in their current environment.
While we may feel an incredible sense of loyalty to our art form, our organizational mission, and our colleagues, we owe it to ourselves to also take responsibility for our emotional health and well-being. Working in the nonprofit arts does not require that we spend our time in an unhealthy environment. We would not continue working in a building if the air was known to be full of dangerous particulates or continue drinking water that we knew to be harmful, so why would we dismiss the toxic effects of an organization on our health? None of us should accept ongoing disrespect because of our commitment to the arts or to an arts organization.
Learning to identify the differences between healthy challenges and toxic environments is critical. In the former, we learn and grow. In the latter, we are stifled and stagnate, Drawing the line does not mean that you are not committed to your organization or your mission; it can allow you to position yourself to find greater professional satisfaction and personal wellbeing. And there are plenty of healthy arts organizations out there! Don’t be afraid to take care of yourself.