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.”
IT. WILL. NOT. HAPPEN.
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.
IT. WILL. NOT. HAPPEN.
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.