A few years back I heard Howard Gardner speak in a lecture series at MOMA in NYC called The True, the Beautiful and the Good, Reconsiderations in a Postmodern, Digital Era. I attended the lecture on ‘the Good’ in which Gardner described ‘good work’ (in the sense of one’s vocation/job) as work that is excellent, engaging, and ethical (for more on this idea, check out Gardner’s Goodwork Toolkit). As soon as I heard the description my mind began working on a question: By-and-large, are nonprofit arts organizations doing ‘good’ (i.e., excellent, engaging, and ethical) work? While there are many arts organizations that are beloved by the artists and staffers that work there, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that (at least at some institutions) one or more legs of the ‘goodwork’ stool may need shoring up.
Some have written that Philadelphia Orchestra’s filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy is a ploy to enable them to renege on the pension benefits that they once promised to musicians. A post on Norman Lebrecht’s blog describes the new Metropolitan Opera contract for conductors as one which requires them to ‘sign their lives away’. And of course there is the oft-referenced and remarkable statistic that orchestra musician job satisfaction ranked below that of prison guards in one study (Allmendinger, Hackman, and Lehman (1996), p. 202).
Likewise, the book Outrageous Fortune is chock-full of observations by playwrights that would suggest that the process of having their plays developed by a major nonprofit resident theater is often demoralizing or oppressive. Moreover, some playwrights say they prefer working for TV over the American theater not just because it pays more but because it is often more creative.
And while (in the good news column) some nonprofit theaters have in recent years modified their stances on subsidiary rights (in favor of playwrights) it’s not clear that the move was entirely altruistic; some simply seem to have realized that the relatively small amounts of money they were making off the artists were not worth looking like jerks and potentially losing goodwill and funding. More importantly, one might ask how such rights ever became the standard in nonprofit organization contracts?
I talk with young arts administrators who have graduated with the aspiration to do ‘good work’ in a nonprofit arts organization who, one or two years later, are bored and frustrated. They feel like cogs in a machine, or like slave labor, working long hours for low pay (all the more challenging if they know the artistic or executive director is making 15 or 20 times as much) and doing not very interesting work. The last point is an important one. I often hear Baby Boomers decry that they had to scrub the toilets and take out the trash at their theaters when they first started them. Yeah, well so did almost every entrepreneur that ever started his or her own small business. But let’s face it, taking out the trash (much less doing data entry) is much easier to endure if you know that you also get to program the season, or have dinner with a major American playwright and discuss her work, or choreograph a new work later this year.
If I had a dime for every time a nonprofit arts admin staffer said to me, “our organization is filled with people under 35 who have great ideas but the artistic and managing directors have no interest in what we have to say” I’d be able to buy a round-trip ticket Amsterdam to NYC. Similarly, actors, musicians, dancers, and other artists (unless they are celebrities) are rarely invited to share their opinions on programming or marketing or fundraising strategies. While I acknowledge that some may have no interest in such matters, my sense is that some do but that their ideas often die on the vine because no one thought they’d be worth picking.
This all strikes me as wrong. It seems that nonprofits should hold themselves accountable for being places where process matters as much as product and where ‘good work’ reliably happens. Places where administrators and artists alike are able to do excellent work (e.g., are given sufficient rehearsal time), are engaged in the work (e.g., have the autonomy to be creative and feel ownership of the mission), and are treated and behave ethically (e.g., contracts do not advantage institutions at the expense of artists).
Yes, organizations face uncertain times and unfavorable financial circumstances. Such an environment can require dramatic changes in the size or scope of an institution. Union contracts may very well need to change and it may not be possible to sustain the infrastructure that was once created–and administrators and artists alike must face this reality. But what are we safeguarding as we make such changes? If not the promise of ‘good work’ then is it worth keeping the doors open? How these changes happen is as important as whether they happen.
We have for years taken for granted that nonprofit arts institutions are inherently more trustworthy than commercial entities and are (more) worthwhile and creative places to work. However, the experiences of at least some artists and arts administrators would suggest that even when arts organizations appear to be achieving a certain kind of excellence (selling out the hall, doing great work on stage, raising lots of money, or balancing their budgets), the toll exacted for that ‘excellent’ work may be ’goodness’ in the process.
Image of arrow signs by IQoncept, licensed at shutterstock.com.