Expression v. expense

Expression v. expense

SOURCE: Flickr user ~Sage~

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.



  1. says

    I came across your article via a link on Linked In posted by someone named Naren. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the necessity of restructuring of non-profits and unpaid interns.


We hash out the same conversations in my kitchen with the rotating group of 3 often unpaid interns I have living in my home. They are living here because I, at 60, recently trained for an encore career in arts integration and astronomy, cannot afford to live in my hometown without their rent. They can’t afford to live in DC without having saved up money from a job before coming here and/or have financial backing from parents.


Everything needs to be ‘rethunk’.

    Some off-the-top-of-my-head suggestions:

    Payback for the Unpaid Intern:
    If the intern’s appointment meets the criteria set forth in your article, then parents need to get letters of thanks from non-profits for whom their children “intern” as well as “tax-deductible donation” letters at the end of the year that would honor their contribution via their children’s living expenses.


Mentoring of Interns:
    Many interns I have met don’t have a mentor at their internship. They may have a boss, but not someone older in whom they can confide confidentially while adjusting to a short internship. Perhaps they have ideas they would like to bounce off someone with experience before presenting to a rep of the internship.
    Perhaps they are having difficulty navigating the culture.

    Recently over 30 people showed up for a workshop on the encore career in Takoma Park. Participants ranged from former Peace Corps volunteers, a CNN reporter, a Discovery Channel producer, a videographer to a social media developer for AARP and more.

    When un- or underemployed the experienced begin to lose their sense of importance in the community. Young interns could learn to access elders and benefit from their knowledge and give the elders a sense of importance. However, none of the encore career participants wanted to do it for free. All needed an income.

    So perhaps there could be developed a mentor/manager group in the DC area which would recruit such talent to be managers in non-profits — even if as part-time consultants. I would suggest that they be trained to be coaches, as I was by a Canadian firm Coaching Out of the Box, so that they refrain from being pedantic or from telling interns how to solve their problems, but, instead, coach them to see the answers the interns have inside.

    The Mentor/Manager group could either:
    – manage interns on site in order for organizations to be able to recruit more interns for true training or apprenticeships w/out burning out their current staff
    – be available for off-site consultation by the interns

    The Intern/Mentor
    Perhaps interns would also be interested in sharing/teaching their skills to the elders.

    The Federal Government is closed for “snow” today. The quiet streets contributed to my ability to reflect and write on this.