As nonprofits do we (or should we) put all art in service of instrumental ends?

This past Thursday and Friday I had the honor of attending a convening on global performance, civic imagination, and cultural diplomacy at Georgetown University, hosted by Derek Goldman and Cynthia Schneider. By bringing “leaders in international theater and performance together with foreign policy leaders from academia, think tanks, and government,” the stated hope of the organizers was to bridge the gap between the fields of politics and culture, to the mutual benefit of both. Over the course of the first two days of the convening some questions began to emerge:

  •  When we talk about cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy what, exactly, are we talking about—and are these acts different from simply doing a performance in another place, or for another people, than one’s own?
  • Before, or as, we discuss these issues at the global level might we acknowledge the necessity for this work on the local level and examine the possible connection between the two?
  • Is the impact of this work measurable? Must we be able to measure the impact of this work in order to make the case for its support? Or can we trust that it makes a difference?
  • Is the best work in this area government sanctioned, organized, and subsidized? Or is it best when furthered through the decentralized, grassroots relationships that are formed when one artist or one presenter or one company sets out with the intention to forge individual connections?
  • Are the goals of art and the goals of cultural diplomacy aligned; or in asking the former to serve the latter are we compromising artists and the aims of art?

I left Friday afternoon (a day early, unfortunately) with these questions on my mind. On my way out the door to grab a cab to Union Station I ran into a playwright (now based in the US but originally from outside the US) and we had a quick chat. In the midst of our conversation she commented on the nonprofit system of organizing and funding the arts in the US, making the point that the system is flawed because it puts all art in service of social or educational goals—and in doing so constrains artists and art. Her point was that all work created in a nonprofit structure must serve the instrumental ends of education and be in service of a mission. Her perspective as a playwright, in particular, was that nonprofit theaters create mission statements, and then programmatic strategies to fulfill those mission statements, and that such strategies inevitably filter or limit the types of plays that can or will be selected. The question she seemed to be asking: What happens to the artists whose works falls between the mission cracks, so to speak?

Cynically I thought, “Oh, well in the US, they simply go open their own nonprofit organizations.”

On the three hour train ride to my next stop I found myself thinking about this issue of art in service to instrumental ends, which came up both at the convening on cultural exchange and in the conversation with this playwright. I began to mull on the following:

  • Are the mandates (educational/social) that come with nonprofit status appropriate for artists that simply want to make work without having to put that work in service of an educational or social mission? In other words, for those that bristle at the idea of “instrumental ends” for the arts, is the nonprofit form a legitimate and beneficial form? If not, what would be a better fit? L3C, perhaps, as I’ve written about before?
  • Have some or many of us set up nonprofit institutions because the nonprofit form is a vehicle for accessing capital for money-losing art, rather than a vehicle for society-serving art?
  • Since the nonprofit form is preferred by so many seeking to produce or present artistic experiences is the underlying belief that all art serves society? If not, how would we discern the difference between “art that serves educational and social ends” and art that serves some other ends?
  • How constraining, really, is nonprofit status? That is, do the majority of artistic leaders even think about the works they are producing or presenting as being in service of educational or social goals? Or do they simply program works they like and believe in, regardless of such instrumental ends?
  • If the nonprofit form is not all that constraining then is it all that meaningful?

Returning to the topic of the Georgetown convening – cultural exchange and diplomacy – I have found myself at many of such meetings over the past several years and at each one I have made the following point: Many US artists rely on performances overseas for income. In other words, what is motivating them to perform in Europe or Asia is often the touring fees (i.e., money)—not “cultural exchange” and certainly not “cultural diplomacy.” While I don’t think that cultural exchange and diplomacy need to be government funded or organized to be legitimate I also don’t think that anytime an artist hops on a plane and performs at a festival that this constitutes “exchange” or “diplomacy”. The difference would seem to be one of intention, at the very least.

I think the same is true of nonprofit status. When we were forming our institutions 5, 10, 20, 30 years ago was our intention to serve society through art? Was our intention to educate through art? Or was there at the outset (among some or many of us) simply the practical consideration that calling oneself nonprofit would (a) provide legitimacy and (b) provide a possible business model for sustaining art (maybe worthy, maybe not-so-worthy) that would not make it on box office alone?

We are nonprofit in name, but are we (by-and-large) nonprofit in spirit? Are we nonprofit in purpose? If losing money were the only or even primary criteria for nonprofit status then plenty of commercial films and Broadway musicals could also be nonprofit. If we have been using this form to achieve ends other than the social and educational ends for which it was created, then perhaps it is time that we created a way to exist that has integrity with what we really are, or want to be in the future?

Apologies for the sporadic postings. I have been (and will be until the end of July) on a multi-week research trip. I am trying to post whenever time and Internet access provide.

Image from the Website Whip:


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  1. says

    I really enjoyed this article. It is one of the best of the many good things you have written. Your thoughts seem to be oriented around theater. I think it would be helpful to note that theater is the only performing arts genre in the so-called high arts that has the potential to be organized as a profit-making business. Symphony orchestras, opera houses, and ballet troupes will never be in a position to be confused about their non-profit status. Without this distinction, your thoughts are at first a bit confusing.

    It might also be helpful to note from the outset that art is by nature ineffable. History is replete with cultures that have produced great art and saw the need to fund it, but none of them were ever able to define the purpose of art (its mission.) In fact, it is almost axiomatic that if the purpose of an artwork can be defined, it is probably not very good art. A famous example was the East Block’s social realism. Art is essentially a system of metaphors, a symbolic language that gains its value through the endless multiplicity of its meanings. It is exactly this indefinability that gives art its profundity and allows us to engage with it. It is thus somewhat futile to try to define or analyze art in terms of its social utility. If you can define it, it probably isn’t very good art. Defining the arts in terms of the market is a similarly limiting concept of social utility, hence the conflicts between art and neoliberalism. Similar problems are faced when employing art as a form of cultural diplomacy. If not done properly, the efforts can be inherently reductive

    It is vitally important to discuss the social purpose of the arts and arts organizations, but it is also essential to acknowledge the ineffable nature of art. If guess that is all obvious. We employ many things in life that we cannot grasp or define, and art is one of them. If life were not ineffable, it would not be worth living.

  2. says

    Wow Diane, there is so much to consider here. I think the most important thing from my reading is can the not-for-profit theater be a one size fits all for sustaining the arts in the US. I think that answer is so clearly “no!”. We see enough mission drift, enough not-for-profits doing nothing more than filling sits in ways identical to commercial theater. Filling sits by the way isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not something that deserves not-for-profit status. The transcendent opportunity for art can happen in a theater seat you paid $300 for or in a free seat. This is the way that art eludes the market. My sense is that the not-for-profit theater made so much sense to our founders because in a way they were trying to institutionalize that elusive and magical quality of art. And more importantly I think the point of not-for-profit art making was about making that accessible, making the magic available to more people than would ever buy a ticket on Broadway. That said, the drive to perpetuate ourselves shifts the balance from cultivating artists in a setting that is accessible, in a place were the gift of of the art can be shared, to cultivating audiences to pay for whatever it is we think they are willing to pay for. This is a VERY different emphasis and one that throws the art making and artists into disarray.

    More to say here but let’s talk in person!

  3. says

    An addenda to my previous post. I just read that the Metropolitan Opera posted a 47 million dollar profit this year. This would support Diana’s idea about non-profits acting like for-profits, even if the Met is an anomaly in the operatic world. Little surprise that the director of the Met is a former executive of Sony…

    • says

      But William, doesn’t the Met profit belie your assertion that symphonies CANNOT be profitable? Doesn’t it, in fact, make clear that symphonies (and ballets and operas) have CHOSEN to put something else ahead of profit? Music can be profitable — witness popular music, which is swimming in riches. Dance can be profitable — witness something like “Dancing with the Stars.” Broadway is the popular music and “Dancing with the Stars” of the theatre, and its separation from the non-profit world (at least theoretically) involves a choice of focus.In other words, I’,m not certain theatre is quite as separated from the other art forms as you suggest.
      More importantly, at least to me, is that we have created a priest class in the arts. We have turned the arts into product-ions that are created by artist-specialists and sold as commodities, which distorts the arts. By focusing so much money and attention on artist-specialists, by essentially outsourcing human creativity to a small group of trained professionals, we have impoverished the populace by telling them (as “American Idol” does quite brutally) that, unless you are one of the special people, you ought to sit down, shut up, and buy the albums of the winners. The result is a general hostility of the general public towards the arts. Artists like to paint this as the narrow-mindedness of the philistines, but it is actually the resentment of the Common Man that his voice has been stolen and s/he has been silenced by self-proclaimed Special People. The non-profit institution reifies this theft, housing it in a big, expensive building and confining the populace to certain parts of it. Most arts complexes send the same message as the big, fiery head used by the Wizard of Oz: “I am the Great and Powerful Oz.” The purpose is to scare the little people and mask our own littleness.
      It is time that we give back the expressive voice to the people. Only then will artist-specialists be able to assume the role of respected leader. It is the institutionalization of a theft that is poisoning our arts culture.

      • says

        The Met is such an unusual institution that I can’t draw any broad conclusions from the profit it made this year. The data is also very inconsistent. Last year they lost millions. (About 25 million, if I remember right.) The profit this year was due to a rise in donations, and due to their cinema broadcasts. They make money on these broadcasts exactly because the rest of the country has so little access to live opera.

        Opera is in essence a popular art form, a status it lost only with the rise of cinema. Maybe the loss of interest in opera is due to a lack of education, or maybe elitism, or self-absorbed artists, or maybe the degradation of taste due to the forces of an unmitigated capitalism. It’s probably a combination of all these and other factors, but little can be determined by the unusual profit of one very unique institution for one year.

        • says

          But symphonic music was also a popular art form (see Levine’s “Highbrow/Lowbrow”), as was ballet. The loss of interest in opera and symphonic music was a very conscious process undertaken to separate the educated classes from the uneducated, the wealthy from the poor. It was ideology disguised as aesthetics.

      • says

        Scott, I ‘d be interested to know who the “we” in your theory is? I take issue with your term ‘artist-specialist’. There are all kinds of different artists and levels of artistic involvement. Some of our greatest national treasures never had any formal or professional training. You seem to be going to great lengths to foster the idea that artists are not special and that anyone who thinks so is elitist- that big bad, misused word.

        Artists are special. Isn’t that the whole point in how we value the arts? People don’t go to the theater or the museum or the gallery to see something ordinary and average. Who in your conspiratorial theory has stolen anything from anyone?

        I’m not denying that there is a split between those intimately involved in the arts and those outside of this community. But that blame lies soundly on our social and education priorities that sees art as the first thing to be cut from schools. Many people no longer understand the art world because they themselves do not have the ability, the knowledge, or the will to understand the art world. As an artists, thats not my fault. what you seem to be asking for is a world where artists make and do what the “common” person wants them to do. I don’t know what that is but it’s not art.

  4. says

    Richard — Who is “we”? Modern Western capitalist society, I guess. The system that has turned art into a commodity to be bought and sold rather than shared and participated in. Bill Ivey, in the introduction to “Engaging Art,” vividly describes the transition from families and communities making their own art to mass media selling it to them. And David Diamond, in his wonderful book “Theatre for Living,” says it better than I ever could:

    ““Theatre, like all other forms of cultural expression, used to be ordinary people singing, dancing, telling stories. This is the way a living community recorded and celebrated its victories, defeats, joys, fears… Like many other things we can think of, cultural activity became commodified. It transformed from something people did naturally, “in community”, into a manufactured consumer product. Today a vast majority of people buy theatre, buy dance, buy paintings, buy books, buy movies; the list goes on and on. We now pay strangers to tell us stories about strangers. But when do we use the symbolic language of theatre, dance, etc., to tell our own stories about our collective selves? What is the result of a living community’s inability to use primal language to tell its own stories? Alienation, violence, self-destructive behaviour on a global level. Living communities have fallen into a stupor, hypnotized by a steady diet of manufactured culture.”
    So I am looking for a world where people make art instead of buy it. The claim that people don’t understand art because they are unwilling to do so puts it backward: people shouldn’t have to have special “knowledge” to understand a work of art, and that they do points to a failure in artists, not common people. Artists think art is about them, about their self-expression, about their very special insights. It’s not — it is about the community.

    • says

      I don’t think art is about me. And as T. S. Eliot reminded us art isn’t as much about self-expression as it is expression. And your romantic notion of community isn’t guilt free either. Racism, sexist behavior and religious oppression are all shared by community in stories, song, and writings.
      It’s not a perfect world.

      • says

        Indeed, racism, sexist behavior and religious oppression exists in today’s popular culture as well. One doesn’t need a “perfect world” to believe that creativity shouldn’t be confined to a small group of “special people.” And it has always been a tactic to call something “romantic” or “idealistic” if it departs from the status quo.

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