The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Michael L. Royce is currently the Executive Director of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). We sat down in NYFA's headquarters in DUMBO, Brooklyn to discuss his career trajectory and how NYFA is empowering artists around the world.
Founded in 1971, the mission of NYFA is to empower emerging artists across all disciplines at critical stages in their creative lives, and to provide them and emerging arts organizations with professional development training. NYFA’s programs extend throughout the US and the international community.
Brett Wallace: Where did your passion for art begin?
Michael Royce: That’s a really good question. I think if we go with the assumption that art is the creative expression of our humanity and that it lends itself to things that don’t necessarily have verbal articulation, but somehow communicate idea and thoughts and aspirations to one another then my discovery of that was when I was five years old and I was playing with the mud in the ground seeing what my fingers could do in the mud and how the mud, as it folded into the things I drew, changed the shape of it which then connected me into the mud, so we were dancing together and then I started packing mud really hard and constructing a little building to relate to the lines and drawings in the mud and then deciding as a little boy that I was going to walk away from it intact so that other people could discover this part of me, the part that didn’t have words. I wanted people to know me and to speak to everyone through this. That was the first time I came upon that experience, which led to a passion for artistic communication.
BW: What is NYFA’s vision?
MR: It’s a collective vision that comes from a weaving together of thoughts and ideas and strategies between me and the board of directors and staff and the artists we serve which is ever changing into a set of services and programs that responds to the individual artists and resonates in a way that helps them move forward. In return, because of what they do and what they produce, civilization moves forward.
BW: NYFA's mission is supporting artists in critical stages of development. Could you elaborate on that?
MR: Every artist has his or her own path and they have to decide for themselves what the next step is for them, so what may be critical to one person may not be critical to someone else and so what we hope we do as an organization is to have all kind of resources for artists to avail themselves of whenever they get to a nexus in their life where they need a particular resource, such as funding, or professional development or online information or to connect to a colleague in a different discipline for a project or need an introduction to somebody who can exhibit, produce or support their work. Each person has to define what that critical moment is in their life.
BW: What first attracted you to the organization?
MR: When I was in junior high, one of the assignments we had was to make a collage and present it to the rest of the class. I was going through some difficult times then and I was very afraid to do this assignment and stand in front of my peers and explain where I was in life, but I found by working on the collage, I went to a different place inside myself that I couldn’t have found by writing my thoughts out on a piece of paper or talking to someone. It gave me insight into myself that I didn’t know about until I did the collage and it was that experience and never forgetting it which triggered my need to be part of an organization where the mission and activities done are partly responsible for replicating that experience, maybe hundreds of times a day for any artists throughout the United States or the world because of the services being provided. I wanted to be part of an organization where I am part of the wheel that makes that happen.
BW: It seems like you have a personal mission that is almost tied to the organization, which is really inspiring.
MR: I am part of an amazing group of people who believe sincerely in the transformative process that can occur when you have art in your life and that is something very special and exciting to wake up to every day and is a gift to be part of.
BW: What is the culture like at NYFA?
MR: You know, we truly, from board to staff to constituents, we are truly a collective of people who really believe in thinking through things in multiple dimensions and taking risks with those thoughts and making works out of them and presenting those to the public to advance all of ourselves forward, sometimes in ways that are turbulent or provocative or lift off the veil of denial, or simply beautifully inspirational. However it is done, from my perspective, it is moving us all in the right direction.
BW: Are there one or two moments that you are most proud of that you and the team have accomplished over your 10 year tenure?
MR: There’s a lot. You know we went to Guatemala two years ago to do a week long intensive workshop with over 70 artists from Central and South America, though the core group were Guatemalans, I learned there that peace accords for Guatemala were very recent, dating only back to 1996. Prior to that there were many dictatorships, and lots of civil strife and military juntas, consequently, people born in 1996 or after weren’t incarcerated or murdered or deported for their beliefs and expressions. So now you have what could be termed the first generation of uncensored artists who are trying to understand how to take their ideas and thoughts and works into the marketplace but don’t have the access to the type of professional training that we have in United States, which is why we went there - to provide an introduction to branding, marketing, social media techniques and so on for artists to learn about and use. From that point forward, many different collaboratives have been formed and one of the results of those collaboratives is the exhibition now in our gallery - they are all Guatemalan artists, and for most of them, attending the opening of the exhibition was their first time in the United States showing their work. When something like that happens, when somebody crosses boundaries of languages and cultures to make something beautiful happen that we all benefit from, that to me, is a moment we can all be very proud of.
BW: NYFA recently launched an incubator program. Could you share more about the work your team is doing to launch startups?
MR: Sure, thanks to the Rosin Fund at the Scherman Foundation, we were given significant funding to go in that direction at NYFA. We do a lot of entrepreneurial training for artists, and for emerging arts leaders, but what we haven’t done, though there seems to be the need for is creating businesses out of their desire to express themselves in a more complete way. They don’t necessarily want to write a one act play, they want to have a theater or they don’t necessarily want to choreograph and pick up dancers, they want to have a company or they don’t just want to just talk about the arts with their friends, they want to create an app that introduces everybody to the arts. We thought wouldn’t it be great to put together a program and give artists the resources they need to incubate a business, which hopefully launches them with a solid foundation.
BW: I love that. Launching new innovations is so vital for value and job creation.
MR: We’ll see where this goes. Right now we have identified seven start-ups though a very competitive process, much like Shark Tank, and we have five non-profits and two for profit organizations because we were very open to might come our way. With the Scherman Foundation we have a lot of flexibility with how this project might evolve.
BW: What advice do you have for emerging professionals or artists early or mid-career?
MR: I believe all artists are intrinsically entrepreneurs because they create something out of nothing all the time, that’s what they do. It is their light, their DNA, how they create. While I don’t think I need to tell them that because I believe they know they are I do think we can help them define what that looks like for them and knowing that and putting that to work allows one to have freedom and independence and not be dependent on one company or benefactor or collector. For people that are not artists, the greatest thing they can do for themselves is to immerse themselves around conversations about the creative process and understanding how artists think because if you understand how artists think you’ll hopefully be able to capture some of that thinking yourself and use their logic or framework as way of thinking, just like what happens when you go to law school.
I used to speak a lot faster and I used to speak with a lot more certainty and I used to have a clear sense of where I am going to end my thoughts in a conversation and would often know what I was going to say before the other person finished what they said, but I don’t do that anymore. Now I really listen and think through everything that they said and then see how that shifts inside of my frame before I respond.
BW: I think what you just said is one of the most important lessons in how to talk to anyone - to fully listen to what they say before you jump in and respond.
MR: I think we’ve been generally taught to constantly show how smart we are or prove our worth in conversation, especially in a business environment and I think it is better to actually listen and just see what comes up for you rather than to prove your worth because the fact that you have a job means everything, you have a seat at the table, so let that be and really develop yourself and tap into the different ways of thinking that other people bring to the room.
BW: It was striking walking in and immediately seeing the wall here with all the memos posted. Could you describe this thinking process?
MR: Sure, so I have a wall that is about 12 feet by 18 feet, and for all my long term strategies I paste up thoughts about them and as the days and weeks and months go by, I think about them from different perspectives and jot down notes upon them and once we get to a completion date of a particular strategy, I take it down but it is inevitably replaced by other things, so it is my own artwork, if you will. It’s like writing a story in chapters on the wall. I know it’s not attractive, but it works for me.
BW: What is some of the best advice you have received?
MR: Someone offered me a job that I had no experience or qualifications for and doubled my salary and I was very afraid of not being able to do the job and I didn’t want to take the job but I did want to double my salary and this person said to me just show up every single day and the let the rest take care of itself. It has helped me enormously and it has given me so much courage to just show up, I didn’t have to know the answers and I didn’t necessarily have to be prepared and I didn’t have to pretend to be somebody who went to some MBA program, I just had to show up. That I could do, I could get dressed every morning and show up.
BW: That’s great. You have a wonderful book collection here. Do you have a favorite book or a favorite author? And, are any projects out there that inspire you?
MR: Well, my favorite book is To Kill A Mockingbird, so I have always admired Harper Lee and I have read the book probably 20 times and could still read it every day.
As for the projects out there that are fascinating to me right now, I like those that have to do with the green economy, watching nature and understanding the physics behind things, to see how we might be able to manufacture products or industries through mirroring what nature does, like humpback whales creating air bubbles nets to fish. Maybe we can learn from them an alternative way to fish so that we are not either catching things in nets that die for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or scraping the bottom of the ocean floor leaving it bare and sterile.
BW: Focusing on the green for a second, there’s a lot of macro economic things going on in the world, one of which that strikes me is youth unemployment which is north of 50% in some countries in Europe. Is NYFA looking at those economic challenges and how to help?
MR: NYFA is certainly concerned with helping artists in all economic spheres. In fact we have an immigrant artist program which looks at, among other things, the issue of economic equality, and a newsletter that reaches artists coming from over 50 countries and some of those places have very few economic opportunities. However, we are not structured to serve youth unemployment. At the same time , we are a national and international organization so we have worked in Central America, Ireland, and China and will continue to work in countries where economic sustainability is challenging for artists.
BW: What is one thing you’d like aspiring professionals to remember?
And if you can’t actually connect to someone, read everything they’ve written or go to their lectures or talk to people who know them and ask them what do they say. It is a way of opening up the mind and bringing into thought things one is not able to put together for oneself because it isn’t where you come from.
BW: Were there any critical mentors you have worked with or read about who have reshaped how you think about things?
MR: Yes but I couldn’t do it in one sitting, I could talk for days here, but I think the two people who inspire me the most are my children, Ethan and Lyndsey, because sometimes I have the privilege of seeing the world through their eyes. Ethan is thirteen and Lynsey is nine. Their presence in my life creates speculative pauses in my thinking whereupon I must re-examine what I am thinking because they see things so differently from how I do and the way they see it is usually much more positive and much more innocent and much more trusting. I learn so much from them. So, if I had to do a top ten, with my children being first, then I would say those that inspire me the most are Strive Masiyiwa, the Chairman of Econet, Derek Walker, the President of the Ford Foundation, Ambassador Earle Mack, Basil Alkazzi, the painter and philanthropist, Abigail and John Adams, the author Vandana Shiva, and Serena Williams.