If you go to arts conferences, then you may recognise this: you arrive, and there are always one or two people whose existence for living is to show the organisers how great they are by being "on message". When we first met at the Decibel showcase in 2003, Ty and I created a term for it: "peacocking". The delegate is eager to show his or her positivity, drive, innovation, courage, success. No one is ever scared; there are no failures, and everyone is heroic, sensitive and responsive.
This behaviour is usually in distinct contrast to the aims of most conferences, where the organisers express the hope that delegate will engage in honest [or at least, transparent] conversations about the agenda and topics cited. Within the environment of honesty, we all concede our shortcomings as well as our achievements; and through this sharing we reveal common problems, solutions, and methodologies. The discussion thus leads to a strengthening of our field and the way we create art [or help artists create art].
Perhaps the way we talk about failure or problems is an issue. The standard word in arts argot is challenge, which covers a range of situations from "how are we going to increase audience numbers" to "what are we going to do now that the director has run off with all the money and no one wants to work with us". The first is clearly a challenge in the traditional sense of a difficult task that you may even enjoy handling; the second goes beyond the word by a considerable amount and most assuredly is not enjoyable. Occasionally working relationships and partnerships do not go as one would hope. How to get through the partnership while working could be a challenge; how to politely and imperceptibly apportion blame after the work is completed [or not] really isn't that difficult. Yet in the language of arts infrastructure, these things are the same, at least within the earshot of other arts professionals.
I am sure this is a difficult position. The arts is being kicked from on high on a regular basis. Being a representative of an arts organisation carries a lot of "weight", handling the blows. The neoliberal emphasis on results means we must all been seen to succeed. Downplaying difficulties is a natural progression from amplifying success. There are two arguments I have to this.
The first is one that I have talked through already: what we do is developmental beyond commodity, essential to civilisation and thus outside any neo-liberal emphasis. The second is that leaders do not always have to succeed to be good leaders; they have to lead, and to lead you need followers who are convinced to go with you even when you get it wrong. Any number of books and sites on good leadership will explain that integrity and honesty are important attributes for good leadership: those two things are reflected outwards into the world you inhabit and inside the organisation for which you work. Perhaps if we were to remember this for conferences, we'd all reach our aims a bit quicker.