Take Control of your Artistic Mission

by Daniel Wood

Whether your artistic business is a sole proprietorship, a partnership, or a not-for-profit corporation, you need focus to make things happen.  You need to know why you are doing the things that you are doing, otherwise you may steer way off course and not get anywhere.

At the same time, you need to be adaptable to the market and try different things out, see what works, and develop a list of best practices.  Where to begin?

Start with your mission statement

Unfortunately, nothing drums up a feeling of dread more than being locked away in a room for hours with your colleagues mulling over the significance of this word and that as you develop it.  However, it needn’t be like that.

You can successfully put a mission, vision, values and aesthetic core together in an hour.  In fact, you probably shouldn’t spend any more time than that in the beginning!!

I started giving these ideas some serious thought after attending a basic presenting workshop led by Ken Foster at the Western Arts Alliance Conference in September 2000.  I will use his definitions of these terms while adding my two cents.

MISSION – A short, comprehensive statement of purpose; identifies what we do and for whom it is done.

Essentially, the mission has to describe what you do as succinctly as possible.  For example:

 MISSION: The XYZ String Quartet performs and sings 21st Century jazz and Afro-Cuban music in small venues throughout the United States and Central America.

From this mission we can gather that all of their music will be written in the year 2000 or after, that they sing in addition to play their instruments, and that their audience probably speaks Spanish and/or English.  

VISION – A compelling conceptual image of the desired future; a picture of the organization’s ideal future.

Now, your vision serves as a motivator for your audience, community, staff, and if you are a not-for-profit, your board of directors.  To continue with our example from above:

VISION: The XYZ String Quartet seeks to bridge the divides that often separate the United States with their counterparts to the south.  Through language, music, and presentation, the quartet produces programs that seek reconciliation and inspire collaboration for future generations.

The quartet’s vision is well-defined and inspiring while being broad enough to leave the door open to a variety of artistic approaches and programming decisions.

VALUES (PRINCIPLES) – Core values and philosophies describing how the organization conducts itself in carrying out its mission.

The values often touch upon essential ideals that you want for your business.  Most people want their organization to have high standards of quality, be financially prudent, embrace creativity, and be passionate.  This is where you can list your priorities for the organization and decide what is most important for your business.  For example, the XYZ String Quartet could use the following values for quality and financial health:


  1. We are a quality organization.  We are committed to achieving excellence, and hold ourselves to the highest professional standards in the field.
  2. We are a financially responsible organization. We understand that our financial health is dependent upon our ability to execute our annual objectives and be opportunistic to any unplanned alternatives.

Now, once you have hashed out a draft of your mission, vision, and values in 30 minutes, set it aside for a week or so.  Then, return to them and make some refinements as you see fit.  Once that is done, let people know who you are by putting them on your website or running them by your board of directors.

The most important thing to remember is that this document is flexible and should change with the times.  Every month for your first year, return to it and see if the statements still ring true.  If not, adjust them.

After a year, return to it annually.  After a while you will probably find that these simple statements point you in the right direction when your organization is facing tough decisions financially or artistically.

AESTHETIC CORE – It is the artistic point of view and vehicle by which the organization realizes its philosophy as well as the context in which artistic choices are made.

You can think of the aesthetic core as helping to more specifically guide the artistic decisions made by the organization.  I would spend 30 minutes putting this one together.

This is where the XYZ String Quartet can talk about their reasons for repertoire choices and venue locations.  For example, let’s say that the XYZ String Quartet chose to: 1) commission 4 new works annually; 2) perform music by women composers 25% of the time; 3) collaborate with two other disciplines annually (eg dance, theater, juggling, magic, visual art, etc.); and 4) work in schools 50% of the time.  Their aesthetic core may have the following sentences in response:


  1. We believe in the creation and promotion of new music.
  2. We believe in the performance of music composed by women composers.
  3. We seek collaboration with artists of all disciplines.
  4. We strive to serve the communities where we live and recognize the need to offer affordable music education.

 Again, this document is not designed to hinder the activities of the quartet but rather help steer them in a positive, artistic direction.  As with the mission, vision, and values, it should be constantly reviewed and adapted until a brand identity has been established.


As with any journey, it helps to have a map.  Depending on who you are, you may look at it a lot or not very much at all.  However, without the map, it’s really hard to know where you are going.  Think of your mission, vision, values and aesthetic core as the map and enjoy your artistic journey.  It can be quite a trip.

DanielWood2About the writer: Daniel Wood is an entrepreneurial musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Since 2000, he has worked and mentored large and small arts not-for-profits in the areas of management, marketing, development, and board governance.  As a founding member and executive director of the horn quartet Quadre (www.quadre.org) and teacher at the Community School of Music and Arts (www.arts4all.org), Daniel publishes his music with Solid Wood Publishing (www.solidwoodmusic.com) and lectures on the business of music nationally as a “Savvy Musician” advocate.

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