Organizations don’t evolve, they cope

Frog on a Stick

SOURCE: Flickr user Paulo Brandao

I’ve been part of a rather long list of conversations about the next evolution of arts organizations. I’m not blaming anyone but myself, as I love those conversations. And I’m as frustrated as anyone at the current struggles of the field. The board-governed, professionally managed, mixed-diet (earned and contributed), high-fixed-cost nonprofit organization seems increasingly ill-equipped for its changing environment. It seems a creature of a previous ecosystem. It seems in need of evolution. Yet, therein lies the problem.

These conversations tend to circle around metaphors from the natural world (as demonstrated above)…focusing on ecosystems, environmental changes, and delayed evolution. But I’m coming to realize that we’re playing a bit fast and loose with the metaphors. We’re calling on existing organizations to evolve to the new environment, as living organisms evolve to theirs. Only, individual organisms don’t evolve. They only cope.

Individual organisms are stuck with whatever bundle of traits, abilities, internal systems, and sensory structures they were dealt at birth. They don’t evolve during their lifetime. Their species evolves over generations as the natural systems around them select whichever mutation (or lack of mutation) lives to reproduce. Evolution isn’t individual and responsive, it’s multi-generational and selective.

So, we can tell a nonprofit corporate organization to evolve just as effectively as we can tell a fish to grow opposable thumbs. Its traits and tendencies were inherited at birth. It can adjust its tendencies, it can retrain its reflexes, but it’s still a nonprofit corporate organization, even if it can do new tricks.

Of course, a nonprofit and a fish are slightly different. I’ll grant you that. An organization is a bundle of people, things, processes, and traditions, bound by contracts and covenants, and restricted in its operation by laws, codes, and norms. A fish is, well, a fish. But while the people, things, and processes can be rearranged, the underlying structures and relationships that determine fundamental behavior remain the same.

It might help to remember that the professional cultural nonprofit organization was, itself, an evolutionary species once, selected to thrive and reproduce by civic and social institutions (the mutation was ideal for an increasingly rich, primordial funding ooze of foundations, governments, and individual wealth in the 1960s, ’80s, and ’90s).

But now, that primordial ooze has dried up or attached itself to other species in other pools. And professional nonprofit arts organizations are stuck with the same deck they were dealt when they were founded.

I’m not suggesting we should abandon all professional nonprofits, and generate mutations in their stead (although, a few mutations might be worth a shot). I’m just suggesting we should stop screaming at individual organizations to evolve. They can’t.

Existing organizations can cope. They can adjust on the margins. They can eat a bit less and produce a bit more if they move more elegantly. And many can thrive with their old systems in the new world if they’re nimble and resourceful and environmentally lucky. As there’s a next generation, we can take care that they’re constructed for the new reality, rather than aligned with the old.

And somewhere in there, the system will evolve, as systems do, toward the benefit or detriment of the critters already in the pond.




  1. Marian Godfrey says

    Andrew, I completely agree that it is the arts system that will evolve, in the sense of creating new forms of organism, not the existing arts organizations. Can we imagine what mutations will appear in newly born organizations? If the Darwinian analogy holds, some will be adaptive and others not so much. In agriculture (and science) it’s possible to intervene in natural selection via deliberate breeding/genetic manipulation, but I don’t know if there is a way to extend the metaphor to cultural policy manipulation of the genetics of new arts organizations. The mind boggles, actually.

  2. Neill Archer Roan says

    Do you think there is any desire to evolve? It seems to me that most people in the arts prefer the devil they know to the unknown. I am amazed at the extent to which arts organizations seem incapable of or unwilling to apply art’s lessons to their own organizations. This is nothing new, by the way. It’s been going on for decades.

  3. Charlie Rohlfs says

    To continue with the evolution analogy, is it possible that due to the painstakingly slow pace of advancement that it’s impossible to track the changes in real time? Or do we only consider it evolution only when the entire field, like a species, adopts a certain trait? Perhaps its cautious optimism, but I see the results of evolution, especially in regards to adopting new trends in technology. The integration of crowd sourced fundraising will be an excellent opportunity to see if the field evolves, or if it simply copes with the influx of new technologies.

  4. says

    I agree with Charlie, new forms are already evolving. And arts organizations, at least in LA, are extending a hand towards them (only slightly slimy). I’m thinking of instances such as the small and adventurous Machine Project working with LACMA; the Hammer including the Venice Boardwalk in it’s curatorial brief and the multitude of Kickstarter funded projects in publishing and documentation. It feels as though arts organizations are always at the edge of the abyss, but I think that imagination is our strength and we are able to recognize opportunities when they happen. So feelers out, best pods forward and prepare to mutate.

  5. Julia Gleich says

    If the organisms of most arts non-profits were directly answerable to the field and audiences, then evolution would probably continue, motivated from within. But it seems that evolution can be imposed, and oddly, from within the very systems that are not evolving (foundations and government funders to mention a few). There is a strange hierarchical contradiction here. And small mobile and fluid arts organizations desperately struggle to get on the bigger funding ladder. To do so, they are expected (among other things) to create a consistent identity – the very thing that might keep them from evolving (coping?) or being multi-faceted. My arts organization specializes in collaboration – in dance, visual arts, text arts, sound/music, etc. Funding categories can make applying difficult.

  6. says

    Julia has some very good points. We live in a Catch 22 world. We are asked to take risks, and have a cash reserve; we are asked to be challenging, but don’t upset the politicians; we are asked to flexible and fluid, but make sure you fill in all those forms. As head of an arts centre I am asked to be out in the community but also to maintain and animate the facility. My solution is to be the buffer between mechanical, financial and political world and to provide the space for our artists to be flexible, challenging, exciting and all over the place.