The Dangers of Hunkering Down
"Talk to us about your credit needs," the sign in the bank window said, and I made a scoffing sound as I walked past. The lack of monetary credit is hobbling the economy, but something larger is standing in the way of our cultural health. Faith in the worth and urgency of our own work -- credit in a larger sense -- has gone missing.
One of the most shameful, least discussed effects of the current epidemic of unemployment and underemployment is the sheer squandering of brainpower, skill, expertise, creativity. What a waste. What an enormous waste.
That's true in the arts, where seasons and staffing are being stripped down in the name of survival, and it's true in arts journalism, where employment eroded steadily even in the boom years and has since fallen into the abyss. For the ecosystem the arts and arts journalism inhabit together, these are bleak times.
Hunkering down in this economy is a matter of necessity, of course, for some organizations, and it seems to strike many as the only safe approach. In reality, it comes with its own perils, banality being one: Spending less rarely translates into doing more, or better. Failure to take risks, to contribute something new to the conversation, may well bore an audience into going elsewhere for artistry and enlightenment.
Worse, perhaps, is the danger of an irreversible talent drain: losing valuable people to other fields that offer them less in the way of creative fulfillment but at least allow them the dignity of earning a living. It's a hazard whose impact neither the arts nor arts journalism should underestimate. The people and the work we forfeit now may not be recoverable. (Funders, are you listening?)
In redefining budgets to focus on the essentials, then, we seem to have forgotten what some of those essentials are. The way we choose to spend our money is a reflection of our priorities, which right now seem driven disproportionately by panic. But failure to nurture talent, both established and emerging, has its price, too, and it's heavy.