Diane Ragsdale takes on happiness, joy, and meaning in the current post of her Jumper blog. In a think piece about using ‘happiness’ as a metric for success in the nonprofit arts, she wonders:
What’s the happiness exchange that we’re striving for? We deliver experiences (a play, an exhibit, a concert, an opera) that make people happy (because they are out and about and liberated from mundane chores and cares), and they deliver money to us in the form of ticket sales or contributions and make us happy in return (because we get to stay in business another day)?
Happiness without (much) meaningful exchange?
That’s good – but is it enough?
It’s an essential conversation for every governing board and granting agency to wrestle, since it’s their job to define success and measure the organization’s progress against it. But attempting to define a universal metric for all nonprofit arts activities wanders rather close to the curse of the generic topic. It’s tempting (I do it a lot) to point at a complex system and describe how it should behave and what outcomes it should generate. But in reality, complex systems generate complex outcomes. It’s what makes them both endlessly frustrating and brilliantly robust.
To my mind, the complex system of the nonprofit arts exists to defend the spectrum of voices, expressions, and experiences available to a community and a society, rather than to focus on a specific range on that spectrum. A work can be silly or giddy or bawdy or glib if the people who made or experienced that work would not likely have done so in the commercial sector. And that includes those vexing experiences that might be commercially supported in one community and not in another (like the touring Broadway show). The public purpose lies in giving voice and witness and scope and scale to expressions unavailable through a traditional market. I think it lies less in telling those voices what to say.
We can certainly hope for and work toward a more generous balance along that spectrum, that includes challenging and deeply meaningful work. But an outcome to help people laugh together has meaning, just as valid as an outcome to help them think or cry or connect in other ways. And if we start to narrow that band of acceptable goals, in a generic way, we presume a lot about an experience by looking through a dangerously narrow lens.