Artists and Uncertainty

Laura Zucker, Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, blogs for Arts for LA



Laura Zucker, Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, guest blogs on why artists and arts administrators are well-suited to handle our uncertain environment.



There’s been a lot to be uncertain about lately. Are we really on the way to an economic recovery or headed toward a double dip recession? Will the state figure out a way to keep its doors open and pay the bills? Will our school districts have to lay off more teachers and specifically, more arts specialists?

Although this kind of uncertainly is very stressful for most people, I’d argue that it’s less so for those in the arts. That’s because instead of thinking of all this as a swirling cloud of unknowns, we are trained to approach the world as a series of complexities. This is something we know how to deal with because the arts have taught us how to hold contradictory ideas in our head at the same time: to be or not to be. You have to be able to visualize both at the same time in order to ponder the choice. 

Angels Gate photo of a dancerThe other evening when Bonnie Oda Homsey and I were enjoying Mark Morris Dance Group at the Music Center, she remarked on how much seeing the performance made her miss performing because of the joy of dancing to live music.  "You know the marks you’ve got to hit," she said, "but how you get there is different each time." The same is true for any performing art, of course—dancing, acting, or playing music. All those possibilities exist for the artist simultaneously and as s/he selects one path to follow the other choices fall away as half-lives.

This is what makes artists and arts administrators fundamentally good strategists. We’re always playing out a game of chess in our heads with multiple possible moves at our disposal. Each piece that advances down the board slowly eliminates other possible moves until the final move clicks into place. And it's done.  Until the next time when it will be completely different.

As we know, artists and scientists think a lot alike. "The Possibilian," an article in the April 25th New Yorker by Burkhard Bilger about David Eagleman, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, approaches this same phenomenon from a scientific perspective. "Part of the scientific temperament is this tolerance for holding multiple hypotheses in mind at the same time," Eagleman said. "As Voltaire said, uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one."


We want to hear from you: Please use the Comments section below to respond to the blog.  How do you deal with uncertainty in your life, work or artistic practice?


Laura Zucker has been Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission since 1992. The Arts Commission provides leadership in cultural services of all disciplines for the largest county in the United States, encompassing 88 municipalities. Ms. Zucker oversees a staff that administers a $4.4 million grant program that funds more than 300 nonprofit arts organizations annually; a multi-disciplinary summer festival at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre; manages the County's Civic Art Program for capital projects; funds more than 40 free music concerts in public sites annually; and provides informational and technical assistance services to arts organizations and municipal arts agencies. The Arts Commission also helms the implementation of Arts for All: Los Angeles County Regional Blueprint for Arts Education, a plan to restore sequential arts education to all 81 school districts in the County. Ms. Zucker is also the Director of the Master in Arts Management Program at Claremont Graduate University.

Image: "Joceyln Foye - Ballet Abstracted Test - Kelly Valignota Dancing," Creative Commons licensed for fair use by Flickr user Angels Gate (Angels Gate Cultural Center).

Empathy & Uncertaintly

In this day and age, I have learned to embrace challenge and uncertainty. It means that inherently we are on our toes and never bored.  My lived experience in the arts has allowed me to meet uncertainty and challenges head on. Perhaps no other environment allows us to experience this in such a chaotically fluid way.  I openly admit that I don’t always have “the” answer but I have “an” answer.  My goal is always to be part of the solution and not the problem.  Laura’s absolutely right when she speaks of those of us in the arts and our capacity to adapt and strategize in parallel universes.  By holding both realities of what is and what isn’t, what could be and should not be, we circle the problems we face not so much vertically, but closer to horizontally, always orbiting back to the foundational basis and passion of our chosen field. For me to do this, I must approach any problem with empathy.  

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the uncertainties we face in our world and in my own personal and professional life; in fact, I can give myself every reason to fear the future and every reason to remain hopeful that as a team of art supporters and creators, we can get through this challenging time. Laura’s post reminds me that our response to the uncertainties we face is our choice, and as artists and arts administrators, we have an advantage.

To deal with life’s uncertainties, I have to remind myself that nothing is forever and that I am just passing through this world; this puts life into perspective for me. We are fortunate that our roles call on us to inspire beauty in our lives and to re-invent the way we experience the world through art, whether it be through theatre, poetry, muralism or dance. Our role requires us to think on our feet and outside of the box and remain open to new possibilities everyday.

We are often reminded that we may be at the forefront of what seems like a fundamental change in economics, politics and community relations; will it go back to what it used to be or will we have to re-invent our world? The uncertainty can be overwhelming, but as Laura points out, as artists and arts administrators, we have the tools to see us through this challenge. I believe we will come out of this a stronger and more unified L.A.


Felipe M. Sanchez
Operations Manager
Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC)


looking from all angles

Artists and those for whom creativity is a way of life are better prepared to negotiate this unpredictable universe - you're right. You quoted Voltaire, Laura; I'll quote local playwright Bryan Davidson, who, when I was out of a job a while back, assured me wisely that “artists land on their feet.” It was comforting, and I knew in my gut that it was true.

I also wholeheartedly agree that creativity is far from the absolute domain of artists (obviously). It is a key feature of science and philosophy, political debate, teaching, research, sports competition... of business. Creative people in any field pick up what has been dropped at their feet by primordial uncertainty and turn it round, peering from all angles, until a ping is heard and a useful idea emerges from the chaos.

Maybe we should spend more time teaching it. Wouldn’t it be ideal to teach creativity in school in such a way that the fine arts could be seen as simply one set of forms among many…? (Great ones - monumental ones - without doubt.) The arts might be a rather intense and refined set of forms, but only one room in a palace of creativities…


Nathan Birnbaum

Cultural Affairs Supervisor
City of Santa Monica