Arts Triage


By: Kim Pensinger Witman

A career in arts admin presupposes a strong work ethic and an insatiable appetite for challenge. There’s always more to be done than hours in which to do it. That’s when 21st-century productivity apps take a back seat to this 200-year-old strategy from the Napoleonic Wars.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with triage: sorting the work that lies before you based on how much your effort will reap. It involves zeroing in on the problems and opportunities that will benefit the most from engagement. It was originally a battlefield strategy that separated victims into 3 categories – those who will recover even without intervention, those who will die even with intervention, and (the third and most important zone) those whose fate depends on our help.

Presenting concerts and producing opera aren’t exactly battlefields, but we kid ourselves if we believe that we can tend to everything. So let’s be honest.

1. It’s All Good

Thankfully, there are things that will be just fine – heck, they might even be better than fine – if we don’t engage with them. Perhaps they truly are in good shape. Or maybe they require delegation. But we must resist the urge to futz with them. They don’t need us, and our efforts won’t make a significant difference.

2. Point of Diminishing Return

Not every initiative deserves to live forever. There are lost causes, and abandoning them doesn’t mean they weren’t valid while they did flourish. And (this is possibly the hardest for us to stomach) there are projects that are brilliant and worthy, but we are not the right people to shepherd them. It’s hard to step away, but it’s ever easier when we keep our eyes on the prize… category #3…

3. Zone of Influence

Welcome to this place where our talents are perfectly suited to the task at hand, and that task is critical to the core mission of our organization. These are the projects and people in whose future we can make a critical difference. Whenever we are saddened by walking away from the first two areas of triage, we take solace in knowing that we make an even bigger contribution here because of the time and resources we’ve saved.

Put the Machine in Motion

Choose your weapon. Use a digital tool like Trello to keep your triage prioritization nimble and fluid. Or go analog with  index cards. No matter your interface, revisit it daily and allow your categorization to reflect your changing landscape.

Now go wage war. Do battle. Raise the money, negotiate the contracts, make the magic. And perform triage every chance you get.

Arts Triage

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Kim Pensinger Witman
As the Wolf Trap Foundation’s Senior Director of Opera & Classical Programming, Kim Pensinger Witman has the privilege of running a small but prestigious opera company that is also a young artist development program. She started her career as a freelance pianist, adjunct university instructor, assistant conductor, registered music therapist, and music administrator. Since 1997, she has run Wolf Trap Opera and overseen the division of the Wolf Trap Foundation that presents orchestral and chamber music concerts. Kim has produced over 60 operas, ranging from undiscovered baroque gems to world premieres. Under her direction, the WTO earned a 2009 Grammy nomination for Best Opera Recording, for a live performance of Musto’s Volpone. For over 20 years, she has traveled the country, identifying the brightest talent for Wolf Trap Opera, hearing over 10,000 audi tions in the process. She is a frequent adjudicator for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and has served as a panelist with OPERA America, the National Opera Association, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
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