Commentary: The future of nonprofit arts requires breaking away from our 'parents'

Adam Thurman, Mission Paradox blog, 6/4/12

In the beginning there was the Ford Foundation. The significant investment from Ford (and a few other foundations) created the modern nonprofit arts organization. Like any child, the nonprofit arts industry was built in the image of our industrialist parents. If you think about the structure of a typical arts org -- Board, CEO, multiple (siloed) departments, a defined hiearchy -- you can see the fingerprints of the Industrial Revolution all over the thing. The arts industry needed a sense of stability. It needed organizations capable of creating art year after year. It makes sense that people would assume that what created stability in so many other industries would do the same in our world. They were right, for a very long time. People embraced the structure because it worked. It created an industry that has employed hundreds of thousands of people and (more importantly) has helped deliver great works of art to millions of people. [But] every bit of sunshine has a shadow. In this case, we have two major ones. The first shadow is a strong, institutional, resistance to change. This is by design. Hiearchy, structure and change do not mix. The world is filled with groups that either couldn't see the world evolving or couldn't summon the will to deal with the change. The second shadow is an emphasis on short-term thinking. In an industrial world, the emphasis is on hitting the quarterly and yearly numbers. The leaders of our world are judged on short term statistics: The annual fund. Attendance for a particular event. Yearly growth in subscribers numbers. But while we all had our heads down going through the grind of artistic planning, executing fundraising campaigns, etc. we didn't really have the time/energy/willingness to deal with the wave that is coming straight at us.

The wave: If the issue was just getting people of color into our institutions we could handle it. If the issue was just building the next generation of audience and arts leaders we could deal with it. If the issue was just communicating with an increasingly fragmented audience we could find smart people to manage the problem. If the issue was just staying competitive in a digital world filled with cheap entertainment we could cope. Our industrial structure could handle any one of those problems. Maybe two. It's when all those problems hit us at once that our shadows begin to overwhelm us.

The gifts of our parents -- the industrial revolution -- have taken us as far as they can. Those gifts were not designed for this world. So now we have to tackle the shadows. We have to consider our structures and how we can remove the natural barriers to change. We have to question whether our emphasis on yearly budgets, goals and benchmarks fits with our current environment. If we can grapple with those shadows, then a bright future awaits.


Commentary: The long-term future of the arts depends on changing the status quo

An excerpt from chapter 2 of Building Communities, Not Audiences: The Future of the Arts in the U.S by Doug Borwick, Board President of the Association of Arts Administration Educators:

Ours is a society that does not freely support the work of established not-for-profit arts organizations. In a capitalist democracy, the long-term viability of any enterprise is only assured if it can fully support itself through earned revenue or if 50% plus one of the voting population is passionately committed to it. There is an intuitive awareness that neither are true of our established cultural institutions. Paradigmatic shifts in socio-political, demographic, and economic systems have taken place since the structures that support European-based arts activity emerged. These shifts have de-coupled established arts organizations from the general public and present a practical rationale for changing the focus of those organizations. The long-term viability of the established arts world appears to depend on increasing the breadth of reflective arts experience offered and expanding the base of the public being served by those experiences. Any industry that demands growth of its consumer base for survival at a time when it is faced with what appears to be a saturated market must undergo fundamental re-evaluation of itself. The arts are not a product delivery industry. They are a personal relationship industry. Those whose heart and soul is their art must remember what it is that drew them to the profession. It had something to do with the effect that the arts had upon them as individuals and the connections it allowed them to make with others. If a means must be found to grow in order to survive, that growth can only take place by re-imagining what it is artists and arts organizations can do and for whom they do it. The personnel of the arts industry need to engage not an undifferentiated "audience" but a collection of individuals in community with them. The focus on tickets or body count rather than the people who are the potential market has led the industry away from creative thinking about how to expand its conception of that market.


Commentary: What if there won't be significant change? What if the future is here?

"99 Seats" on the blog Parabasis, 5/29/12

I've been thinking a lot about the future. And I've been thinking about theatre. One of the reasons I've been largely radio-silent lately is...what would I write about? Seriously. What's going on that requires comment, discussion, dissection? There was the Guthrie contretemps, but that seems to have resolved itself nicely. The NY season announcements have actually been fairly delightful, intriguing and interesting. As far as I can see, musical theatre is doing pretty well: some very exciting playwrights are creating musicals, a lot of the major Off-Broadway houses have new musicals in their next seasons, people are still making them. Honestly, the same goes for new plays. It seems like, for the time being, we've hit some sort of equillibrium: there are new plays by exciting new writers planned, the indie scene here in the city feels really coalesced and connected in many ways, and lots of communities are coming together and connecting. So the question that comes to me is: what if this is it? A lot of us invest a lot of time in being semi-professionally upset about things. We want change! We want it now! What if, though, there won't be any significant changes? What if the new movement in theatre is here, it's now established and this is it? We've landed at Steady State: Broadway is a place for mass entertainments at a price set for tourists, Off-Broadway and the regionals will continue to cater to an aging, upper-middle class audience with the occasional feint in the direction of diversity, the indie scene will remain largely segregated by class, race, gender and sexuality with occasional cross-pollination, and theatre will, in general, continue to hover in this place, this narrow, wobbly space between being a luxury good for cultural elites and something that connects to a wider audience. What if that's what we can expect for the duration? It does seem fairly resistant to change. Oh, we have our little flare-ups, dust-ups, scandals, donnybrooks, but pretty quickly, order is restored. The natural order of things re-asserts itself and the whole system spins on. So. What if this is it? What do we do then?

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