Magical Thinking


In discussion of the need for change in the arts industry, I am often met with responses that can only be classified as magical thinking. Such comments generally fall into one of two categories. The first holds that, while serious problems exist, all will be well if someone else does things to fix them. The second simply changes the subject, not addressing the question of whether a problem exists, choosing rather to criticize the idea of change.

In the former category, there are two thoughts that are most common. One is the government support argument. It goes something like this: “If the federal/state/local government provided adequate funding for the arts, all our problems would be solved. People would love us, artists would thrive, the future of the industry would be secured.”


The arts’ marginalization in the mind of the body politic is so thorough at this point that, even if we entered an era of untold prosperity, few public figures would dare support massive infusions of tax dollars into the arts industry.

The other “someone else” response concerns itself with public education. It holds (with some justification) that the problem is rooted in decades of decline in our educational system and when it is fixed, all will be well.


Curriculum development in our schools is responsive (from the top and from the bottom) to public will. The arts used to be prominent in our schools because parents and communities demanded it. Today, just as is the case with public funding, there is not, outside groups of true believers, any widespread, passionate support to make change. And in the case of educational reform, even if we waved a wand and all were well today, it would take a generation for the effects to be felt in the industry.

Fortunately, both public funding and curricular change can be responsive to changes in public understanding of the value of the arts, one of the main reasons I spend so much time talking about arts institutions becoming more active in being valuable in ways that those outside the industry can see.

The most frustrating response is the “change the subject” one. This ignores the rationale for change and rejects it because it is, well, change. I am not concerned that people disagree with me. I may be wrong. (Yes, I seriously entertain that as a possibility.) However, a purist or traditionalist rejection of change that does not explain why such change is not needed (and how the status quo achieves sustainability without depending on the public funding or public education arguments cited above) is a particularly extreme form of magical thinking.

Let’s confront the reality of income and expense, as well as the need for public value recognized by the public and focus on making ourselves indispensable to our communities (or at least considerably less dispensable). . . . Or convince me that it’s not necessary.



Photo:AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Helico
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    It Will Not Happen is a wake up call for those who think (magically) that a great shift is at hand for no reason. But without constantly striving to make ourselves relevant and to make our case to others (including legislators and funders) It Most Surely Will Never Happen. But if we do make our case better, and communicate better to communities and get our communities more involved, IT Will Happen. I worry about dropping the effort to be heard even as we simultaneously are (or should be) trying to right our relationships with our communities.
    eventually, It Will Happen.

  2. Heather Beasley says

    I could just as easily follow your first two examples with: “The problem is that theater companies just aren’t trying hard enough to engage people in their communities with theatre. They refuse to face the hard truth that most people want to spend their entertainment time and cash watching TV, movies, or socializing on the Internet. They have the pipe dream that if they just kept finding enough community partner organizations and doing work related to their interests, there would be a huge influx of new audience members and all would be well. IT. WILL. NOT. HAPPEN.”

    Of course some part of this can happen! Just like we shouldn’t stop talking to politicians about adequately funding the arts in civic facilities at the local level, or arts councils at the state level, or the NEA at the federal level. Politicians are members of the community.

    So are teachers and schools. I’m not giving up on creating the next generation of theatergoers through demanding changes in the curriculum to include the arts, and going into schools with theatrical work after school where they can’t fit it into the school day. And neither should other artists.

    All three of these things are desperately needed to keep theatre vibrant and essential in our communities. None of them are completely “someone else’s problem.” We must simultaneously work on our politics, our schools, and our community connections. But it’s no “magical thinking” to realize we need other people’s help in the effort who aren’t artists, and that it cannot be our responsibility alone to create community.