What is a mission-failing arts org? Like its opposite, perhaps you know it when you see it.

STREB: The Opposite of Mission Failure

In last week’s post I suggested that the sector might be strengthened if some ‘mission-failing’ organizations were to close. I defined mission-failing organizations as those that were not providing sufficient cultural or social value relative to the investments in them. It’s an awkward phrase and I find it difficult to describe a mission-failing organization with any confidence; however, I can give an example of its opposite–an organization that is providing great cultural and social value–and did so in a talk I gave in 2010 called The Excellence Barrier.

Here’s what I said (additional comments follow the excerpt):

Susan Sontag once wrote, “Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.”  I take particular note of the phrase, “precarious attainment of relevance.”  No organization can be granted relevance in perpetuity based on the size of its endowment, the permanence of the building it occupies, the fact that it was the first or largest of its kind in its region or city, or its historic accomplishments.  The institution exists to matter to people, in a particular community, today.  That is the impact that must be assessed.

What does impact look like if not the metrics we’re currently assessing?  Alan Brown has done terrific work in assessing intrinsic impacts and community engagement, and I couldn’t begin to summarize his research here—but I suggest you take a look at it.   I would, however, describe what I consider to be one of the best examples in the US of an organization that is brokering relationships between people and art.

In 2003, choreographer Elizabeth Streb opened a performance space in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. called S.L.A.M. Instead of creating a church-like space that patrons visited once a week for a sacred experience, Streb opened the doors and let people come in anytime to watch rehearsal or use the restroom. She added popcorn and cotton candy machines and let people walk around and eat food during the performances.

Streb noticed that her patrons wanted to join in on the action, so she installed a trapeze and began teaching people how to fly. Performances largely feature the professional company, but Streb also features her students in the shows. Not content to simply use the platform of S.L.A.M. to promote her own work, Streb began fostering the development of the next generation of artists, through an Emerging Artists Commissioning Program. 

Streb no longer needs to advertise her performances because she has created a robust social network that drives ticket sales. There is a palpable energy and familiarity in the room—people know each other and interact in the space as they would at a backyard barbecue. People come back to the performances time after time and the “initiated” (kids and adults alike) delight in showing newcomers the ropes, both literally and figuratively. The experience is participatory, not transactional.

Streb’s success is measured not when the ticket gets sold at the box office, but thirty minutes after the show when everyone is still lingering, buzzing, and talking with one another and the artists. Streb is cultivating “true fans”—a diverse group of people who are deeply engaged, enthusiastic, and loyal.  As Kevin Kelly, author of the article, “1,000 True Fans” might say, Streb’s fans “buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat.” Streb does not behave as if achieving artistic virtuosity and being relevant to the community are competing or mutually exclusive goals. She is pursuing excellence and equity. 

By highlighting Elizabeth Streb I am, by no means, suggesting that the sector should institutionalize her particular approaches or practices. The key takeaway is this: You cannot miss Streb’s value when you go to S.L.A.M. And I would suggest that the opposite is also true. You know a walking dead organization when you see one.

An important point: in using the term ‘mission-failing’ I was intentionally avoiding the generic term ‘failing’ as I think it implies financial failure and one cannot assume that the groups that struggle the most financially are those that are providing the least value to society. (Though it is logical to ask how sustainable, and able to maximize mission, such financially failing organizations are and whether consolidation, strategic partnership, or merger with another organization might be necessary. Brian Newman has written a terrific post, Nonprofit Arts Zombies, on this topic.)

Pete Miller asked in his astute comment to last week’s post: “What is the path forward to winnow mission accomplishing organizations from time marking organizations?” Again, there is no easy answer. With very few barriers to entry (the IRS doles out 501c3 status like XTC at an 80s rave) growth of the sector will, no doubt, continue. It will, thus, become all the more imporant that we figure out how to ensure that resources are well utilized.

I do not believe it is the role of the NEA or any other funder in the US to hold ‘death panels’ and determine which organizations are mission-failing and should close. Ultimately, it seems that it is nonprofit boards and staffs that must wrestle with this question and charge themselves to take the decision that is in the best interest of the greater good.

In the meantime, funders need to determine what to do with their limited resources. As a philanthropoid friend wrote to me last week, “You spread the pain or you concentrate it. We all know we should target, but almost everyone just spreads the pain because it’s emotionally easier.” Candidly, we may not be able to (and I know many would argue we should not) reduce the actual number of nonprofit theaters (and other types of arts organizations) that exist; but funders certainly can reduce the number of organizations that receive grants and subsidies. Private and government funders should target their resources, and they should target them to those that are clicking on all cylinders, so to speak–and within that group, might I suggest prioritizing those organizations that cannot as easily cultivate support from individual donors or develop other revenue streams.

There were several posts last week at #supplydemand. I’ve put some of them in my featured texts section. If there are other relevant posts and texts you’d like to see included send them to me.

Two housekeeping matters: (1) Here’s a new essay, Rethinking Cultural Philanthropy, which I wrote for last week’s State of the Arts Conference in London; and (2) you can now follow me on Twitter at DERagsdale.

Image of Elizabeth Streb’s book STREB: How to Become an Extreme Action Hero.

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  1. says

    I’ve been known to use the water cooler test as a sign of success (are people talking about your work at the water cooler the next day?), but thirty minutes after the performance seems much easier to track :)

  2. michael rohd says

    A really excellent addition to the conversation- thanks, Diane.
    I’m thrilled with the notion of mission-failing being a term that escapes the market implications of just using the word failing,
    And, i think Streb is indeed a great example for this discussion.
    I would add that although i think place-making is often a useful indicator of relevance, ‘space’ is not necessarily the same as place.
    Looking at engaged arts organizations doesn’t have to mean:
    ‘bricks and mortar = the potential for participatory value’.
    You know this, i’m just clarifying…
    Places of gathering exist, and its often finding the ways that performance intersects and invites and offers amidst what is already there, in one form or another.

  3. says

    I so agree with the idea that philanthropy shouldn’t be democratic, all arts organizations are not created equal and acknowledging organizations that excel should be a requirement of philanthropy. One thing I have noticed about a lot of corporate and foundation giving over the last several years is that rather than really doing the work of assessing organizations thoroughly, under staffed foundations instead change guidelines to be extremely narrow as a way to shrink the pool–“we now only fund organizations that serve x population on the upper east quadrant of neighborhood y.” So you don’t have to do good work as an arts organization, you just have to do work in a specific location.

  4. Beth Nathanson says

    When the world fell apart in October 2008, we in the nonprofit culture and community world knew that the trickle down impact would be decreased public and private, institutional funding for what we do.

    Colleagues and friends alike were aghast when I stated that I was actually looking forward to seeing the fallout: would organizations shut down because of a lack of desire and mission to create new models of artistic creation, audience development and fundraising? Would organizations that did not produce excellent and innovative art for thier particular marketplace have to reflect on if they were good enough to survive in this climate? Would organizations that did not understand the importance and impact of artistic and administrative collaboration with artists, other nonprofits (artistic and social service), and schools and universities close their doors? And would funders examine their trends and find new criteria of giving?

    Rocco Landesman’s comments last month about supply and demand ruffled feathers, but I agree with him. I also know that these pressure will force those that stay in this business to do better, serve more people, diversify their offerings and reach people beyond their four walls. I hope.

  5. says

    In the last post you rightly said that a plea for relevance shouldn’t be a plea for increased fundraising or marketing spending. After all, we want artists to be making art, not shilling constantly. But a sincere quest for relevance can easily lead to fundraising and marketing efforts. If foundations are being more targeted, organizations will cultivate those relationships more, since each funder will become more precious. In order to become more relevant to a community artists should connect with individuals, and create dialogue. But even though it isn’t buying ads in a magazine, this kind of outreach bleeds easily into marketing efforts. The very term “audience development” points out this ambiguity. Is it marketing to achieve ticket sales or creating an organic connection to increase the impact of your art?

    I think you’re right to point people away from fundraising/marketing and toward relevance, and I’d like to hear if you and your commenters think this is a difficult distinction to draw, and if so, how to do it. The “I know it when I see it” test is a good one, and often the best available. But it always leaves me looking for more information.

  6. says

    Thanks, Diane, for your many contributions to this important debate. It signals to me that we need to start thinking seriously about new models for regeneration.

    New ways of auditing institutional performance on non-financial outcomes like intrinsic impact and community relevance need to be embraced so that we can better assess public value and recognize “mission weakness” if not outright failure. So long as nonprofits are held accountable only for financial outcomes, their true effectiveness will be obscured. Should arts groups subject themselves to a “public value audit” every four or five years?

    We need a better playbook for endings. Funders can create incentives for nonprofits to rationalize their programs, down-size, right-size, or just plain dissolve in a responsible way. Mergers and other forms of creative alliances should be vigorously explored. Maybe we need grant programs that “un-incubate” nonprofit infrastructure. Maybe we even need a new receivership program – a way of transitioning distressed nonprofits – to become “the third option” between bankruptcy and painful downsizing, much like an elderly parent gives durable power of attorney to a child.

    Imagine that a nonprofit board votes to dissolve the corporation on a future date and to re-incorporate as a new entity with a fresh start the following day. Half the board is charged with managing an elegant ending. The other half is charged with re-imagining what is possible, unencumbered by existing conditions. Dying is considerably more appealing when new life emerges.

    Elegant endings and thoughtful transitions are successful outcomes, not failures. In a healthy ecosystem, there is natural growth, fierce competition for resources, and regular dying and regeneration.

  7. Michael Wilkerson says

    Very interesting piece. One conundrum in the nonprofit universe is that since market forces only affect 50% of the revenue, it’s possible to keep going long after you’ve become irrelevant. Graduate student Kristin Bruch and I have been working on a piece that tries to capture the consequences of “perpetuity” in arts organizations. We started with the assumption that it was a misplacement of effort for small, grass roots orgs to obsess about endowments, when they needed money in the immediate term. We also reasoned that many stable, successful orgs could generate annuities and continue to replenish them rather than become overly dependent on an endowment that wouldn’t generate enough money during hard times.

    From that, we’ve come to realize that many orgs are around beyond relevance just because they have the funds, or the donor base, to remain. The idea that we start raising endowment funds practically before we have our first set of office furniture underlies this, and thus what should fade as ephemera becomes enshrined and made permanent, even if few want its services. And as you aptly point out, no one “decides” who should be shut down…so few orgs do.

  8. Tim says

    I also don’t want to beat up on Elizabeth Streb. But I downloaded your 2010 lecture. When you said, “… Streb is not saying ‘Buy my excellent art’…” (which you meant respectfully, and I don’t question it), you glossed over the question of whether her art is good or not. If one can get a huge audience that doesn’t put the quality of the art first, that may not always be the best thing for culture. (Perhaps Jeff Koons is a better [and kinder to beat up on] example than poor Elizabeth Streb.) Of course, we hope that new Pops Concert audiences will eventually try a regular-season classical orchestral concert. But without education and, well, some quasi-public connoisseurship for them, how will they learn what makes good (performance, musical, easel, whatever) art.

    • says

      Tim, thanks for your comment. Here’s the entire sentence from that talk:

      “Steb is not saying ‘Buy my excellent art.’ She’s doing excellent work but she is saying, ‘Come, let’s explore movement, physics, space, and time together.’ ”

      She is not literally saying this, of course. With this sentence I am making an analogy to Clay Shirky’s distinction (in HERE COMES EVERYBODY) between “Buy Cheesy Poofs” and “Join us, and we’ll invent Cheesy Poofs together” (see P. 263). http://amzn.to/fDuv9u.

      In my book Streb does excellent work and that is why I used her as an example. I have never tried to gloss over that fact. So does the LA Philharmonic, which has, for years, bucked trends and attracted audiences for new(er) music … These are two very different organizations, with very different ‘product’, missions, and strategies, but they are (in my humble p.o.v.) alike in that they are striving to listen to their communities, to be in dialogue with their communities, and to be relevant to their communities (while also having reach far beyond their communities).

  9. says

    Oh so much here. Mind if I go off?

    First: Damn right it’s not funders or legislators who should be thinking about whether an organization should continue. And that won’t ever happen! It’s plain hysteria unworthy of this discussion to be talking about things in the same terms we decry in other avenues of civic discourse. We, in the theater, deal in words and we know their power. We also know the impact of frames that trap us. And to jump, immediately as some have, to the alarmist tones of the enemies of Health Care Reform, to willingly invite that sort of mindless framing into this debate, is a flat-out failure of responsibility. The question of whether or not our organizations are relevant, or mission-failing, or too fragile to continue is ours and ours alone– and we have to accept the authority, responsibility, and the consequences that come with it. Staff and Board together have to do the tough work of deciding whether going on is the right thing. We may lose our funding. We may lose our buildings. But if we’re still relevant, we’ll find the way to keep going. AND, we may keep our funding. We may keep our buildings. But we’re still going to have to find our own way to sustain relevance. Funders and legislators, in the end, can’t really do either thing.

    And this is a constant evaluation we must make of ourselves and the organizations we are responsible for. Diane- you focus on the first part of Sontag’s quote, which is powerful, but I’m also alert to the back half: We are seeking this balance and relevance in “an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.” I find the problem of what to do with failing organizations is most often complicated by a failure to acknowledge the flux: that past relevance is not an excuse for present lack of relevance, nor a guarantee of future relevance. So often the path to the elegant exit Alan describes is blocked by legacy and nostalgia for what was, rather than an honest evaluation of what is.

    And you are right, Diane, that all that the funders can decide is whether they want to continue to support organizations they experience as mission-failing. And these are their responsibilities, that they also have to accept the consequences of them.

    I keep coming back to the idea about “working FOR the form, AT the organization”. It’s the Morgan Jenness story I repeated at the Convening last month. (It’s repeated in the interview I gave Howlround so I won’t repeat it here.) If we can locate our responsibility in the form itself, rather than the institutions we govern or manage, we can really start to see our responsibility in these moments of flux that arise around relevance, sustainability, and mission.

    Second: Relevance does not necessarily cost more money! I get so wound up when people say they need grant support to simply do the right thing, or worse, to repackage their same old gap in operating support around new ways of doing the same old thing. Example: Why is more money necessary to produce three plays by the same person than to produce three plays of similar size by different people? Why does it take more money for two theaters to produce the same small cast play together than for them to produce it separately? Why does it take more money for us to welcome playwrights into the organization or share unused housing units or rehearsal space with another company in need? So many things that could help are simply changed attitudes or smart producing. Yet they always wind up in grant proposals. I love that The Public, CTG and others have changed their policies around playwrights, process, and production without making a claim that they needed more money to do it. There are lots of places finding more responsible paths to stewardship of resources– even the sorts of partnerships and collaborations that Beth Nathanson is citing. I, too, find these developments encouraging where they promote a more effective distribution of resources. Does relevance actually cost more? Does “mission-success” cost more than “mission-failure”?

    I’m not sure that funders should be encouraged to principally look for organizations that are clicking on all cylinders– I think there’s a role for funders in understanding the capacity of their funding to truly catalyze a nonprofits’ yet-unmet potential to click on all cylinders, or to extend their moment of “clicking” through a particularly intense period of mobile flux in the present or just around the corner. I react to the notion that one would reward an organization for “clicking” without evaluating whether the funding has any impact on success. “What will be the result of placing these specific philanthropic resources in these particular hands and is that the best result we can get for the field that we are both in service to?” There will ever be donors motivated by other factors– like tradition, or status, or social networking opportunities. But the philanthropist who wants to function as a partner in the health and relevance of the fields in which they fund during the “intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future” needs to evaluate whether these proposed uses offer the best outcomes for the dollars under their stewardship.

    Third: How to end elegantly. Alan’s hit the nail on the head. Among the few things I’ve accomplished in my life in nonprofit theater, one of the highlights for me is still the time I was part of a successful company that closed. We had some money still in the bank, we had a growing reputation as the up-and-comers in our community, we had five years and twelve largely successful productions under our belt. We had awards and a mailing list. And a rehearsal studio. At about year six, we met to plan our next projects, and we found that none of us– and we were ten people– not one of us had a project that we were burning to lead as part of the collective. Stunned silence for a long moment … I remember confessing, maybe even tearfully, that I wasn’t going to be able to carry my still-volunteer responsibilities as the main worker bee on the administrative side, either. I held up an imaginary steering wheel and said “can I please hand this to someone?” No one. We started to talk about maybe handing the company to ten other people. There were certainly colleagues we’d worked with who would want it. But that seemed weird. We were the people who started it together — for no other purpose than to make work together. And it had this weird name that related to the restaurant most of us worked at. What sense was it going to make, all of a sudden, for ten other people to be “the Z’s”? It took a long period of careful conversation to realize what we were saying and what the path was as a result of what we were saying. We “retired” as the Z Collective. We reorganized into The Z Space — opening the rehearsal studio and the 501(c)3 to forty Bay Area artists who wanted, as “the Z’s” had, to develop their own voice and vision in theater alongside others doing the same. Most of the original members of the Collective were in that group of resident artists, but not all. And the Z Space took a number of years to find its footing, since it was started in a sort of rush coming out of the Collective’s retirement. But the change eventually took hold and nearly 20 years later there’s still a relevant, productive, struggling but plucky company focused on developing Bay Area theater in San Francisco. However we did it, wherever we got the courage to “fail” as a Collective, it was the kind of success I hope other people get to experience at some point in their lives in theater.

  10. says

    Wow. Though I’m late to the party, Diane, I’m so grateful to get your wisdom on this question – reframing the question as “how do we define mission-success vs. mission failure, and what does each constituency – artists, administrators, funders etc – do about it?” is spot on. And I’m also grateful for David D.’s reminder that screaming about “NEA Death Panels” does far more harm than good.

    I lived in Chicago for 8 years – from 2000 to 2008 – and watched close to 50 theater companies come into being in that time (a series of interesting maps from the Chicago History Project of theater company foundation over time http://www.chicagotheatrehistoryproject.org/information.php?type=2). Although it was a golden age for theater in Chicago, with so many mission-successful companies doing balls-to-the-wall work, I also saw plenty of redundant programming, empty ploys to get the attention of the audience, and mostly, a ton of mediocre crap. I’m not afraid to agree (or paraphrase): we all know a walking-dead organization when we see it. And I applaud any attempt to examine the question. Because it forces us to think about the art itself. Marketing and government funding and artist pay and the rest don’t matter if your first exposure to a professional theater company is a poorly-acted, poorly-directed revival of an irrelevant play, produced out of a crass desire to sell tickets with a “classic” title because the theater is under economic stress. If that’s you, you’ll spend your money next time on a movie.

  11. says

    Thank you for continuing the conversation. It seems to me identifying what each arts organization, or founder, uniquely has to give to the community is at the core of what is missing from many. Why do we do what we do? Who can it serve and why? If we fail to authentically communicate our purpose and vision, and risk by leading with it, we fail to be able to find our relevance. Secondly, for profit is not a dirty word. I think NFP’s need to “do good” and “do well” which means the word entrepreneurship needs to enter the picture. Mission’s need to be supported by profits. Relevant organizations can turn a profit regardless of if they are NFP’s or not… This is a mindset that must change.

    My brand new school, The Institute for Arts Entrepreneurship, will open in Chicago in the fall of 2011. Students are enrolling from all artistic disciplines from the age of 20 to 50. Our mission is to help them identify who they can uniquely serve with their artistic gifts and help them to build an income stream from it to sustain themselves. We will teach them how to look at all their skills, passions and interests to define their uniqueness. This will place many of the at the crossroads of disciplines or into hybrid artistic careers that might include theater, dance or music designed to serve the corporate, health, or justice sectors, as well as issues of cultural diplomacy capacity building and low level security initiatives. In particular this last piece will begin in North Africa alongside the US State Dept and The Aspen Institute. (The IAE was recently selected as a lead partner to NAPEO, which is part of Partners for A New Beginning) Additionally, Univ of Illinois and The Beckman Research Institute are interested in partnering with us to research the evolution and change that our students experience as they struggle and evolve into relevant arts-based income earners.

    The IAE is indeed a 501c3. As a start up, we too are struggling to raise funds, but based on the level of interaction I am having with folks who can help us, and the number stepping forward to donate services to us, I believe we will find what we need because of the uniqueness of our mission and relevancy to the field. The tuition students will pay to us, by borrowing money through a creative micro finance fund we set up, will allow us to be self sufficient quickly, as well as set up a repayment stream for students they can afford. Additionally, we are launching a for profit piece to our business that will serve the business community to teach them the skills of artistic development to allow for their creativity to grow to help them innovate. We expect, eventually, to employ some of our best students as consultants as well. By design, I have partnered with SEO folks and a strong operational online education team to accomplish building this for profit piece so that we CAN bring income to The IAE through donating a portion of our profits to it.

    Although our model may be more sophisticated than most Main Street arts organizations, I think variations on the theme can be created for other arts based organization. We have no choice right now but to deconstruct and reconstruct our offerings in search of relevance.


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