Here are some of the most common or substantive themes that I’ve heard across all of the social conversations to date:
“You don’t define what ‘failing’ ‘effective’ ‘arts’ or ‘institution’ actually mean, so it’s too vague of an argument to agree/disagree.”
In debate prep, we (moderator Shannon Daut, ‘disagree-side-advocate’ Aaron Dworkin) chose to define the arts as essentially nonprofit visual and performing arts organizations. It was with them in mind that we all constructed questions and arguments. But it’s a point that needs to be made crystal clear: I believe that (some) of these failing nonprofit arts organizations can die, and we can still retain the beneficial value of the arts through other media (e.g. other forms of art and culture), or other business models (e.g. for profit, co-working, fiscal sponsorships, etc). Defining failing and effective is far more difficult. And is the very first issue I brought up in the post-debate Q&A about where we believed the weaknesses in our argument were. We can’t be quite so pedestrian as “we know it when we see it,” especially when so much is at stake to a given failing/effective institution.
But I believe that a “failing organization” will have failed their community by not responding to their needs (producing art that doesn’t resonate with them, doesn’t confirm and challenge their beliefs, doesn’t inspire them, doesn’t reflect their composition), will have failed their artists and administrators by not responding to their needs (being unable to pay them a living wage, unable to provide opportunities for their creative and professional growth), and/or will have failed their art form (by not preserving the history of the form, or pushing it forward into new arenas).
“You mixed real facts with made-up assertions, so I can’t believe anything you’re saying.”
I wish there was better research to support some of my assertions. How much time we spend with “traditional art” versus how much time we spend with “non-traditional art” just isn’t an area where a lot of funders and researchers are willing to spend time. The people in the “non-traditional” industry don’t care, because for many of them this argument is too inside baseball and doesn’t reflect how they operate or think of themselves. The people in the “traditional” industry have a lot to lose by comparing themselves to these more populist traditions. But ask yourself, for the average American, the average person: add up the time they spend in a given week attending a play, opera, symphony, dance, chorus, museum, or similar. Now compare that to the time they spend engaging with television, film, a busker in the subway, graffiti art under an overpass, a particularly compelling/thought provoking video game, marveling at the architecture of a building, and so on. I bet the second far outweighs the first, regardless of whether it’s 2x or 20x or 200x. Why do I get to compare organizations across this “traditional versus non-traditional” spectrum? Because A) consumers increasingly don’t make the difference between them; B) i believe they can be substitutes for each other when comparing the impact that “arts and culture” has on the world; C) artists float between these industries more and more; and D) most of the things in the first bucket are underpinned by institutions, while most of the things in that second bucket are not, and thus my advocacy for the death of failing institutions, not failing art forms, or artists. But none of those 4 assertions are sourced, so you don’t have to believe in the argument.
“Boards are responsible for killing/keeping alive these organizations. They have the power, and they should keep it. Not outside institutional funders, or individuals, or the IRS.”
I believe the second thing out of my mouth in the debate Q&A was my discomfort with giving any more power to institutional funders or the IRS, or allowing them to make these decisions, given potential conflicts of interest. However, this starts getting us into political policymaking. I would love to leave it up to individuals, whether in the community, the Board as representatives of that community, or those individuals within the organization. But in too many cases, Boards are not actually reflective of their community, and they’re not making responsible decisions on behalf of that community. And individuals have no plausible way to collect themselves into a decision making body and actually shut an organization down. I proposed a few ideas in the original blog post, but they’re a stretch at best. We need a body with significant purse strings, a (relatively) objective point of view, and frankly, power.
I believe institutional funders are the best choice,
among the options we have.
It’s like choosing to support the bill that you know isn’t the ideal version of the regulation, because you know you can actually get the votes for it. We don’t get to choose the “mythical best.” We have to look at what kind of “regulation” would actually “pass” so we can move on with the doing, and stop with all the discussing.
“You can’t compare everything to for-profit companies. The parallels don’t exist, or you’re proving your own point that those industries have in fact failed.”
I often find myself comparing nonprofit arts industry to other for profit, and non-arts industries to try to find a new angle, a new point of view, a new way of looking at the same old problems. Too often, we take for granted that our industry is a special snowflake, and the issues we’re dealing with are so different, and so much harder, than other industries. I think that’s bullshit. We talk ourselves in circles when we only consider what has already been tried within our own industry.
And those other industries can be our test case studies for how to (and not to) adapt. The general public is more informed on a wide range of foreign and domestic issues, even though many local newspapers and radio stations have gone out of business. Even as record companies die, indie musicians are still making a living, choosing to be musicians, and continuing to push the art forms of rock, and rap, and blues, and folk forward.
Institutions may fail, but the benefit that we’re seeking from
the “arts industry” will live on.
Art inspires personal reflection, empathy, economic development, aids in reforming the criminal justice system, provides aesthetic and aural beauty to the world, preserves our history, employs a diverse set of artists and administrators, and on and on. But so do other industries, and other business models. Sometimes better than the nonprofit arts. If they can do those things better than we can, from a rational point of view, money should flow towards them. If arts peg their value to economic revitalization, but it turns out opening a restaurant is more effective at doing that than opening an art gallery, I want my tax dollars (and tax incentives) to go to that restaurant.
Because this debate took place in Nashville, AFTA took pains to include a wide variety of Nashville artists in the discussion of the arts sector, so was I. AFTA sponsored an “arts tour” I attended to an arts co-working space that had screen printers working alongside motorcycle repair shop, next to a darkroom, with a skateboard shop on the side. We went to a hat-shop, and a leather-making studio, and a distillery. Those are all valid forms of art. To me.
“New arts organizations won’t step in, if the ones we have now fail.”
A long time ago, I worked at Intiman, and was crushed to see it fail. But the Seattle arts community has stepped in to fill the gap, where it’s been needed. The death of one institution can be a blessing for a community, by reallocating resources more effectively across the organizations that remain.
A funder from the San Jose arts community attended the debate, and during the Q&A spoke about the frustration the community at large felt that this organization hadn’t responded to the changing demographic of their potential audience, and even after millions of dollars in emergency funding, and an army of consultants and advisers, they couldn’t make the business model work. Why should that failing organization continue to receive funds from the city government, when there are more worthy arts organizations standing ready to better use those resources?
I’d rather fund a thousand individual artists in Detroit,
than prop up an institution that has infrastructure
too large and expensive for its now much smaller community.
“Why do you have to kill them? Why not transform them?”
I’m totally on board with this one. Death and radical rebirth are equivalent in my mind. I believe that radical change is often needed to “give birth” to a new organization, and that it often requires new leadership, a new business model, or new programming. If there is an institution that is failing, but we can use its infrastructure (its building, its assets, its cashflow, its artistic capital, its influence in the community, its institutional knowledge) to create something new and more relevant, all the better, and that absolutely deserves an opportunity to compete for the resources and attention of the community and of institutional funders.