The Metamission of Arts Institutions

AngelWhere angels fear to tread . . . !

If changing environmental factors–like the rise of digital photography that decimated the world of photographic film production (remember Polaroid and Eastman Kodak)–threaten the future of the arts industry (The Buggy Whip Lesson), what should be done? We must seek an expression of the core purpose of art that is viable in the new landscape. For the photographic industry, the shift was from focus on a hard copy image (a product) to image capture devices and the sharing of those images (products and services).

At the risk of re-repetition, let’s be clear that the arts will always exist. It’s the arts industry/infrastructure/establishment that is of concern here. (And to clarify, this is not a discussion of the role of artists. This is about institutions.)

In the Western world, since the time of the Church in the Middle Ages the role of the arts establishment has been the production and/or presentation of art. (Note that visual artists are the producers of individual works; the institutions–galleries and museums–produce and present exhibits, exhibitions, and collections. In the performing arts, choreographers, composers, and playwrights create the equivalent of blueprints for work that others produce and present.) This worked as long as costs (primarily labor) were low and support sources (the Church, government, wealthy individuals, and corporations) were sufficiently committed to the product to fund it. Today both sides of the equation have shifted so much–increased expense and rapidly declining will (or ability) to fund a Eurocentric spectator experience–that an existential threat exists for the industry.

On the resources side, the key to the future lies in a dramatic increase in perceived public value. This will impact all potential institutional sources of support by increasing voter (for public support) and stockholder (for corporate support) understanding of the value of the arts. In addition, it will vastly expand the number of people interested in making personal contributions. But the path to this Nirvana runs through being valuable to people in ways far beyond continuing to do what we’ve always done. (There is little we can do on the expense side of the professional arts, since labor will only grow more expensive over time. One option would be to adopt a greater role–not an exclusive role–as supporter of opportunities for citizen artists to create and perform. This would cost less and would help develop increased public value.)

Like the producers of photographic film, newspapers, and buggy whips, the time is ripe (if not over-ripe) for the arts industry to re-examine its core mission. Survival depends upon it. The fundamental “metamission” shift needs to be from focus on a product and its delivery to a focus on community and how the arts can support ita service orientation, one honoring the integrity of the art.

Simply put, it’s not “about” the art; it’s about the arts’ interaction with people and how it benefits them. While this may seem a radical break from current habits of thought about art in our industry, it is essential.

We must seek more ways for our work to benefit more of the public directly, especially those who are not now convinced that any significant benefits exist for them. Fortunately, in practice this transformation need not be as world-shaking as some might fear.



Photo:AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Juliett-Foxtrott

  1. We now have a cultural production environment where any governmental funding, and more and more foundational programing monies have to be funneled through arts organizations and arts institutions.
    While it is true that if those institutions were gone artists would probably find a new way to make art, but under the current system we now have art institutions and artists are intimately linked.

  2. So here’s a proposal for something that is maybe a middle ground between the two options that you propose, Doug. What if instead of EITHER “a focus on a product and its delivery ” OR “a focus on community and how the arts can support it” that what was paid attention to was the PROCESS itself, e.g. studios open to the public so that they could come in and talk with artists in the middle of working on different pieces/projects. What this would leave open is the possibility of either of the two options you propose (certainly there would be products produced which could then be sold, and connecting that emphasis on process to a community is a rich vein to mine as well), but they would be secondary to an emphasis/dialog on how the community can, on multiple levels, engage in a process of reinvention/renewal with the arts providing a model to follow.

    I’m really interested in these ideas because the art center where I have had a studio for many years is now in the middle of that discussion. We have a good deal of community support from the usual suspects, but are being asked to up our game to answer to a broader mandate, and we are currently trying to find the best way to engage in that discussion. Finding this blog is helping us to clarify a lot of the questions, but it is slow going for sure.

    • You’re right that “and” is almost always superior to “or.” It’s just that in terms of fundamental mission (metamission), it’s not about the product. It is, to me, about the relationship. The product will have to be there for there to be an arts-based relationship, but the focus is on the impact of the art on the people served. This is either simply a semantic quibble or a major issue, depending on how it gets played out. Good luck on your process!