Bullying in the artistic sector

Recently I was contacted about a significant bullying situation in the organizing of a visual arts program. It confirmed for me how these behaviors are so universal, cutting across occupations and avocations.

The person who contacted me (let’s call him Walter) was teaming up with another arts enthusiast (let’s call her Eloise) to co-organize the event. Although Eloise initially exhibited great enthusiasm for the partnership, she soon began to push Walter to the side and took over key decision making and outreach for the event. Eloise’s behaviors began to look like a textbook list of common workplace bullying tactics:

  • Excluding Walter via behind-the-scenes machinations
  • Withholding necessary information from Walter
  • Refusing to reply to Walter’s requests and inquiries
  • Stealing credit from Walter
  • Wrongfully blaming Walter for overlooking details that were Eloise’s responsibility

Eloise’s persona suggests that she’s a classic narcissist, one of the most common descriptions for workplace aggressors.

More prevalent than in the military?

Walter’s experience is hardly unique. Lyn Gardner, in her theatre blog for The Guardian, wrote about bullying in the arts a year ago:

For many people working in theatre, bullying is a fact of life. The whispers about it are constant. One theatre chief is famous for the strops taken out on staff. People working in jobs seen (wrongly) as less “creative”, such as press or marketing, are frequently victims of this high-handed behaviour; but it can happen to anyone from stage hands to actors. Do the victims complain? Often not.

I’ve come across playwrights who have been bullied into silence and made to fear for their future careers by the very theatres who commissioned them. I’ve heard of producers throwing their weight about, and directors who treat theatre buildings as personal fiefdoms.

Gardner highlighted the work of Ann-Marie Quigg, author of Bullying in the Arts: Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power (2011) :

When Anne-Marie Quigg investigated workplace bullying in the arts, her 2011 report revealed it was more prevalent in the arts than in the armed forces and the health service.

Whoa, that’s saying a lot…

Bullying of volunteers

This particular event was organized solely by volunteers, so technically it’s not a case of workplace bullying. On that note, last year I wrote that bullying of volunteers is a neglected subject that deserves to be studied more closely:

…(V)oluntary associations are a societal cornerstone, and a lot of folks devote time to them. Their experiences as volunteers not only impact them personally, but also have a ripple effect on our communities in general. It follows that we should understand the significance of when and how working relationships among volunteers become dysfunctional and even abusive.

Expectations vs. reality

So there you have it: An artistic event fueled by a love of the arts, organized by passionate volunteers. It sounds incredibly appealing, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, in this case at least, not for Walter…and possibly for others bullied and manipulated by Eloise.

3 responses

  1. I could write a book on bullying among volunteers in a community nonprofit organization. I experienced it in my own neighborhood a few years ago. I hoped I could remain in a project that I was committed to and know I committed something of value to, but I found no good recourse for resolution within the group (I tried a number of them). I finally left the group and have focused on personal resolution and healing. That has been a valuable process, but I no longer am willing to be active in my community in anywhere close to the same way, and that feels like a loss to me that I continue to grieve. I would give anything if someone would do an in-depth study of this topic.

  2. I don’t think it’s been a secret that bullying can occur in any work (or volunteer) setting. Any work (or volunteer) setting involves some or all of the elements that enable bullying – people, power (perceived or real), positioning and, sometimes, permission. Permission being what is knowingly allowed by the culture of the agency.

    I truly believe the only way our society is going to change is by starting with the very young. And, even then, those in “power” (however that is defined in each situation) will push against any kind of change that tries to level the playing fields.

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