Tax-status agnostic

I’m in Washington, DC, for my final conference as president of the Association of Arts Administration Educators. These are colleagues from around the world who direct and/or teach in undergraduate or graduate degree programs in arts administration (or cultural management, or cultural policy, or…). Looking forward to keynotes by the Kennedy Center’s Michael Kaiser, the Duke Charitable Trusts’ Ben Cameron, and Joan Shigekawa from the National Endowment for the Arts, and panels/presentations/discussions about what we all do. I’m also eager to reconnect with old friends and new colleagues who all struggle with me to define arts and cultural management well enough to teach it. No easy task when the target keeps moving.

The transition from president, and the beginning of my MBA program‘s fifth decade, is nudging me toward an essential transition in how I’m considering the field. This association, and my program, were both founded to serve what was a rapidly growing niche in management & leadership in the past four decades — professionally staffed corporate nonprofits and public entities. That was never our exclusive charter, as many graduates of our programs went on to commercial efforts or volunteer enterprise. And to be fair, many member programs have actively embraced for-profit as well as nonprofit training for decades. But the implicit center of the circle was always pretty clear.

Now, my students and my field are eagerly exploring and exploding that assumed boundary (okay, not most of my field, but some of it). The formal conversations at conferences and among professionals are trending toward ‘new business models’ for value creation and capture. Increasingly, students are open to ANY organizational form or strategy that advances their vision. My phrase for this evolution is ‘tax-status agnostic,’ which found some traction on-line when I suggested it last month.

Increasingly, I am preparing my students and myself for tax-status agnostic cultural leadership. These are leaders ready and able not only to run a full range of organizational forms — from nonprofit to informal to LLC to community/public to for-profit corporate — but also to switch gears from one management approach to another in the course of a day (maximizing meaning when they support artistic process, maximizing revenue when they staff the lobby bar). That doesn’t mean these new leaders are indifferent to mission or public value. Nor does it mean they seek to maximize the bottom line over all other goals. It just means they understand their best function in any moment, in the context of their creative work, and in context with their community and constituency.

Merriam-Webster offers one definition of ‘dogma’ as: ”a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds.” I’d suggest that our assumptions and our development of effective organizations and effective leaders in cultural enterprise matches that definition.

I’m eager, along with my students and my colleagues, to question the dogma, and explore the tax-status-agnostic opportunities to advance and steward creative human expression. I don’t know what it looks like yet. But I’m happy to find a growing group of colleagues — many of them at this conference — who are on the very same journey.


  1. says

    “Tax-status-agnostic” sounds lovely. But we need to do less educating of young people about it and more active education/lobbying of funders and government officials. As someone who has been exploring alternatives to 501c3 that are acknowledged/supported in the cultural world, I’ve been impressed by the rhetoric about new models yet deflated by the extent to which funders are not ready to deal with them. I talk to funders who say, “you figure it out and let us know how it works.” We need reverse training sessions or workshops or conferences in which young entrepreneurs explain things like L3Cs and PRIs/MRis to funders. We need funders to take a risk and try giving loans instead of grants with a small percentage of their distribution money.
    I doubt it takes your colleagues or students much convincing to explore these things. But until funders go there too, the talk will far outweigh the action.

  2. says

    Thanks Nina,
    I completely agree that the full ecology needs to engage the conversation. I just happen to work in the training and emergent leadership part of the system, where the immediate need is to reframe how and what we teach, and how we support their innovative spirit.
    I certainly talk with funders about the issue, as many are wrestling with it now. My sense is that they need to do MORE than just widening the circle of organizations/initiatives that they’ll fund. The emerging system will have different needs, and require resource support that’s responsive to those needs. The traditional grant process may be completely inappropriate and misaligned. And the tradition of supporting individual organizations and initiatives rather than broader ecologies or systems may also be due for review.
    So, it’s not just ‘convincing’ that’s needed, but serious engagement in all directions to design an appropriate response.

  3. says

    “…My sense is that they need to do MORE than just widening the circle of organizations/initiatives that they’ll fund…”
    I agree, Andrew. As long as there are so many organizations out there clamoring for funding, funders have little time/incentive to explore new models.
    I thought one of the more interesting conversations at AAAE centered around the idea of getting funders to understand organizational life-cycles and start funding “death with dignity” initiatives. That might be one way we see the game begin to change…

  4. says

    Thank you Andrew for bringing up and continuing to breathe life into this topic. My organization’s mission is to push innovation and the creative capital of our community (Honolulu). We use programs in contemporary art, film and design to do so and have been making small steps and steady progress since our establishment about a year ago. The fiscal sponsorship structure has been a great fit for us – THANK YOU FRACTURED ATLAS – that allow us freedom to focus on creative work ad explore entrepreneurial/income generating ventures that directly support our mission and also help fund some of the exhibitions we do that could never break even on their own. Unfortunately, without our own 501c-3, and such, we are ineligible for many grants and funding opportunities. Nevertheless, we are determined to grow with the greater freedom that self-generated earned income provides. Looking forward to more of this conversation!