Terrifying efficiency

SOURCE: Flickr user drakegoodman

For as long as I’ve been observing the arts and culture world through a ‘systems’ lens, I’ve been frustrated by the number of apparently broken systems. Thoughtful people in experienced communities building cultural facilities that are too large for their goals. Smart individuals making odd and upside-down decisions when part of a governing board. Foundations earnestly leading an entire community or artistic discipline into greater instability with their grants.

Everywhere you look there are systems of people and activities that seem to deliver results contrary to their stated goals. Politics. Education. Philanthropy. City planning. And on and on.

But a short while ago, I started playing a new game when I began to obsess about a broken system. I ignore the stated or assumed goals of the enterprise, and I assume the actual outcomes were exactly the ones intended. In other words, I imagine the system not as broken, but as brutally efficient at delivering some other end.

Imagine the construction of extremely large cultural facilities, for example — both large in capital expense, and in on-going operational overhead. Often, the stated goals of these capital projects were to increase the vitality and impact of the arts for a community. And yet equally often, their result is risk-aversion, tighter budgets, higher rents, and a large philanthropic sucking sound away from variable creative production expense toward the gaping maw of fixed overhead expense.

Mapped against stated goals, massive cultural construction can sound like the result of a broken system. But imagine the alternative view, that the outcome was exactly aligned with intent. Imagine that the chief executive, the lead donor, the project architect, and even the public officials are all inclined toward a bold public space — as large and as technically excellent as current capital will allow. Then the system isn’t inefficient, but rather it’s terrifyingly efficient at delivering the unstated goal.

As another example, a colleague of mine is working hard to energize a community through the arts and artists. A primary challenge has been broken-down storefronts and commercial property that’s fallen below the zoning code, and desperately requires investment and innovation. When we assume that all owners would want a more vital and vibrant use for their property, the system seems oddly resistent to even simple interventions that cost little and could gain much. But what if, instead, the system of broken buildings is actually delivering exactly what’s intended (for someone who has a say in the matter)? What if the landlords — often absent or distant owners in search of tax write-offs — prefer a closed and broken neighborhood to an open and active one?

These alternate outcomes don’t need to be nefarious or even intentional. But the pull of other intents, or the assumptions about the best means to get there, can certainly play a role in unexpected results.

It’s a thinking game, I’ll admit. One without consistent utility. But every now and then, it can be extremely useful to consider an apparently broken system as entirely effective, but toward a different end. If your goal is to change the direction of that system toward a different outcome or behavior, it’s best to know what tidal forces you’ll be swimming against.



  1. scott says

    Your analysis is articulate and (I fear) spot on. The non-profit arts world starts to make sense when you view it through this lens.

    We’ve created a structure that’s ruthlessly efficient at raising money and expanding its own administrative overhead. Many institutions reach the point where the actual arts programming – concerts, plays, exhibits, etc. – become a residual byproduct of the structure, not its reason for being.

    Here’s a common story: a theater company, after months of hand-wringing about the lack of new work on their stages, decides the solution is to create an emerging artists program and a new play reading series. The literary department brings on two new staff members to help sort through submissions, organize readings, moderate talkbacks, and mentor writers. Everyone celebrates the success, the institution has expanded, and yet not one single new play has been produced.

    Nobody means for things to be this way, and arts institutions are full of well-intentioned people. But the incentives for cultivating the institution at the expense the art are strong and often invisible.

    I’m sure that the folks at Arena Stage have solid reasons for not programming new plays in their brand new $135 million new play space. I don’t doubt that the administrators at the Public Theater believe in their hearts that a $40 million renovation that adds luxury dining to their space really is essential to “reinforc[ing] The Public Theater’s commitment to Joe Papp’s founding mission.” (Papp’s vision, no doubt, was to bring $17 burgers and $300 bottles of brut to the people of New York City.)

    They believe it because what’s the alternative? Advocating for their institution to NOT build the new facility? How sexy would that glossy brochure be?

    But I’m just a disgruntled artist talking idly. I have only the anecdotal evidence I’ve accumulated in my own work with arts institutions, not well-founded case studies.

    I’m skeptical that we will find a way to escape the ever-expanding feedback loop of big-money arts non-profits. But if we do, it will start with the work that people like you (and your invaluable Arts Journal colleague Diane Ragsdale) do to make the invisible visible. Thank you – and keep digging.

  2. says

    When you apply this to arts marketing you have an industry that’s developed a terrifyingly efficient way of flattering itself into oblivion. We say we’re persuading audiences to come, but all we’re really doing is vomiting out self-congratulatory bombast so we can congratulate ourselves when we open the paper on Sunday. It doesn’t work on new audiences – who don’t find our self-proclaimed wonderfulness persuasive – but that doesn’t seem to be what the system is designed to do.

  3. says

    Before he became (in)famous with his Steve Jobs monologue, Mike Daisey made exactly this point in “How Theatre Failed America.” It’s a stirring and personal story about administrators — including ones he admires and respects — squeezed innovative performances, including his own, out of their spaces because of the cost of these trophy performing arts palaces. We could look at this and say, well, we’ve overbuilt — but what if, instead, we’ve finally built decent facilities for the arts and now we need to create business models that reward innovation and that will keep these centers open?

    Every time I go to a medical facility or a bank or the lawyer or an accountant’s office, I’m dazzled by the beauty and quality and first-class finish of the facilities. Nice furniture, clean restrooms, nothing’s broken, good lighting to read by, etc. Who calls that an outrage or evidence of misplaced priorities?

    Maybe our systems are out of sync with each other, but they’ve solved one problem — capital — and now must turn to the more difficult one…

  4. Paul Botts says

    That’s an excellent way to think about systems (and not just in the arts!). It’s pretty close to the frame which is applied by the modern generation of behavioral economists, who strike me as enormously more useful than their predecessors the macroeconomists: not “why is this system run by human beings failing to deliver what I and others think it should deliver” but “which human beings’ goals in this system are in fact being served by it”?

    Here’s another arts example: the endless moaning nowadays about how our system of higher arts education (conservatories and art schools) is producing far too many eager young graduates. Resulting in such bad outcomes as hordes of trained young artists unable to find anything close to fulltime living wages as artists; steady downward pressure on the wages that artists can command in the marketplace (what I’m likely to be paid as a gigging musician today is exactly the same in nominal dollars as it was a quarter-century ago meaning of course that it’s much less in real dollars); the staggering steady increase in the number of new arts nonprofits; and so forth. All familiar fodder for handwringing in the American arts sector today and the phrase “broken system” is always front and center.

    Perhaps though that system is simply being brutally efficient at serving a widely-held demand, one which our society had previously always repressed but has in recent generations been fully released: the desire for a life in the arts. With essentially no significant class or segment of our society any longer telling its young people that being an artist is not a respectable choice (there are Evangelical musical-theater camps now!), we’ve unleashed on a wide scale a demand which had previously always been at least partially suppressed. So the system rather than being broken is meeting that new demand.

    This analysis would explain the verifiable but seemingly-paradoxical twin facts that (a) the total amount of money directed to the arts in this society has never stopped growing during our lifetimes and yet also (b) there has been no increase in the ability of working artists to achieve full-time living wages as artists. The system is meeting the strongest demand being placed upon it which is to divvy the pie up among the hordes of new artists constantly choosing to enter it.

  5. John Abodeely says

    Great point – and a wonderful way to change the way we understand and approach situations we wish to change. This is particularly useful for understanding the policy environment and entrenched problems in public education.