Artist as Entrepreneur: Conversation with Betsy McDermott Altheimer

Betsy AMcD ltheimer

This week MD chats with Betsy McDermott Altheimer, writer, visual artist, collaborator and strategic advisor about having a supportive professional network that lets your creative practice thrive. Through her consulting business Table Fort she catalyzes transformational change in individuals and works to shape vital, responsive, healthy organizations and communities. She has worked at Springboard for the ArtsIntermedia ArtsMilwaukee Symphony OrchestraLight House Youth MediaThomas Jefferson FoundationLoft Literary Center, and as a freelance consultant for education, design, art and health organizations. Table Fort is based in Minneapolis but highly portable. Right now, it is set up on a hill overlooking the city of Rome, Italy.

What is Table Fort?

Table Fort is consulting and strategy for creative visionaries and creative leaders. Some of the things my clients call themselves include Executive Director, Artistic Director, designer, CEO, innovator, academic, media producer, artist, creative entrepreneur, cultural manager and changemaker. Most people I support are in the midst of radical transformation, personally or professionally. I help people find the right tools and processes to thrive through their change and work with them to pause and refocus before the next big push.

How does it work?

It works just like throwing a blanket over a table: we make room for imagination, collaboration and possibility. We do this through strategy sessions – in person or on Skype – where I help clients clarify their purpose, map and strengthen their networks, do deep research, develop new language, clear debris and create the optimal environment for change. Usually I work with clients between 3 months and 3 years, depending on the scope of the project and how much support they need.

What made you want to start it?

For the last 15 years I have been in development for the arts and creative projects. Development in this sense usually means fundraising – but I take the largest definition of the word – which means GROWTH. Brain development, personal development, organizational development, community development, relationship development, leadership development, fund development, developing confidence and momentum.

I see a lot of the best creative leaders doubting themselves or burning out because their leadership approach doesn’t fit the traditional model of ‘lone genius’. They are collaborative, lead by mentoring and serving others.  These efforts need illumination and support. I help them develop resources and get recognition for what they’ve done.

I’m really interested in networks, complexity and emergence. If you zoom out and see the much larger system you are operating within, it is easier to see where exactly to exert effort to get the maximum return. Often the tiniest adjustments in language and positioning make things flow more fluidly.

What are the popular issues your clients deal with when they come to you?

Most creative leaders push themselves too hard – whether they are running an organization, managing a team or launching projects. The biggest thing they struggle with is learning when to let things go. We get very attached to roles, projects and identities that no longer serve us. Creatives need time and outside perspective to both recognize their accomplishments and honor their failures. I love helping people design a way of working and being that connects them with real joy.

How do you determine if a client is the right fit for you?

Usually people find me when they are right on the brink of major change. They are considering a major launch or a new direction that involves great risk. Their organization is shrinking, growing or reinventing. They are considering a job change or want to become entrepreneurs, start their own projects or step into leadership positions. I know they are right for me when they say: “I’m not sure I’m ready for this” but I can actually sense their heart learning towards it.  I know that I am right for them when I can see a clear pattern of next steps – like dominoes all lined up – and I know all we need to do is flick the first one and then watch it go.

Photo courtesy of Betsy McDermott Altheimer

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