Where 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 it–a 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.