Over the past decade, we’ve seen an evolution in how we talk about and engage ‘value’ in the arts. Whether exploring intrinsic, extrinsic, social, public, personal, spiritual, economic, or other forms of value, we’ve built a better language and a productive conversation about the ways expressive acts and artifacts connect to individuals and communities. And thank goodness for that. But it may be time to focus similar enthusiasm and effort on a less warm and welcoming element of arts organizations: expense.
I’m not suggesting that arts organizations spend too much. On the contrary, most arts organizations I’ve encountered are masters of resourcefulness — making do with a small fraction of what they need through grit and generous staff. I’m suggesting it’s time to focus not only on what value we generate, but also HOW we generate that value…how we align the energy we expend toward our intended goals. How do we support, train, and motivate the people doing the work? How do we invest in our infrastructure (or decide not to invest)? Which are the absolute core services in which we need to excel, and which current activities can be eliminated?
The formative years of the professional nonprofit arts industries were years of reasonably steady growth in wealth, increasing availability and participation of eager workers, diverse resource partners in the public and private sectors, and untapped audiences between the coasts for professional arts experiences. The value arguments of the past decade have extended the curve of many of these factors, but can only take us so far. Now, we need more intentional enterprises, with balanced focus on both external value and internal operations.
As I continue my teaching and research at American University, I find myself pivoting from my past focus on value toward the people and processes that create that value, and the systems that support them. Don’t get me wrong, value is still the point, the purpose, and the promise of what we do.
‘Expression v. Expense’ reminds me a bit of another epic human struggle, ‘Flight v. Gravity.’ Both require increasingly complex mechanics to achieve increasingly demanding goals — more people, more weight, more speed, requiring more interconnected and nuanced engineering. In the arts, the winds are shifting. It’s time to recalibrate the machine.