Have we squandered the economic crisis and the opportunity for transformation?

About a month ago, art critics Sarah Thornton and David Hickey threw in the towel citing frustration, disillusionment, and annoyance with corruption in the art world. Reading their back-to-back commentaries gave me pause. I found myself stewing on their words for several days–not because I am consumed with their particular concerns regarding the machinations of the art world (though these are, indeed, troubling), but because I’m beginning to lose faith that necessary transformation in the nonprofit arts sector will come.

Recently, I participated in a convening of museum professionals, critics, economists, and others to discuss transformation in the museum field at which one of the participants (someone I greatly admire) said (and I am paraphrasing):

During the recession  one kept hearing the advice: ‘The financial crisis is an opportunity – don’t squander it.’

But I fear that’s what we’ve done. We’ve wasted the crisis.

I fear my art world colleague was right.

We wasted our crisis.

Don’t get me wrong: we’re still talking the talk.

Whether subtle and slow, or radical and swift, there seems to be agreement among everyone in the arts and culture sector that change/innovation/reform/transformation must come. The world is changing and art organizations need to become more porous, resilient, and flexible; they need to be more outward facing and engaged with the world beyond their doors,  more diverse, and less exclusive; and they need to take greater artistic risks, fulfill their research and development roles, provide participatory experiences, take their educational missions seriously, and alter their programming to better reflect and serve their communities.

At least that’s the sector line.

And if you read the occasional report or magazine article highlighting field innovators you might actually comfort yourself with the idea that substantive change across the various arts fields has been happening.

But has it?

Or have most of the changes been cosmetic?

These past four years it seems that many arts organizations have simply hunkered down to wait out the storm. They have once again managed to kick the can down the street (to borrow a metaphor used by another friend a couple weeks ago when commenting on the decades of can-kicking that, she surmised, led to the spate of recent orchestra strikes).

Yes, of course there are bright spots – but most of them seem to be organizations that were already firing on all cylinders before the crisis. There have been bright spots for years and there will continue to be.

But what about the rest? The under-performing? The over-leveraged,  deficit-accumulating, audience-waning, administratively bloated, artistically tired, and community-disengaged? For all the talk about the economic crisis and the opportunity for it to provide the impetus for the arts sector to transform itself into something more intellectually relevant and socially inclusive, it seems that we have arrived at the “new normal” and it looks an awful lot like the old one.

Am I the only one starting to lose faith that widespread, systemic change is really going to come in the professional nonprofit fine arts sector?

We have been telling ourselves that in order to survive in the future the arts “must” transform; but the past four years seem to indicate otherwise. Evidently, the world will not demand transformation from us—it seems we can postpone transformation (or perhaps avoid it entirely) and survive simply by becoming more commercial, or more exclusive, or simply less ambitious and excellent (i.e., mediocre) versions of our former selves.

So, if we want transformation, it seems we will need to choose it (something that NYU professor Paul Light suggested a few years back in his provocative essay on the four futures of the nonprofit sector arising from the economic recession).

While the heat may be off for the time-being, I still believe that transformation of the nonprofit arts sector is necessary, desirable, and possible. Not a transformation that we flee to because there is an ax over our heads, but one we choose because we have come to the disquieting realization that we are on the wrong path—a path that leads to an end that is incongruous with our social purpose in this world—and that it is unacceptable to continue down it.

I haven’t been writing much on Jumper due to an intense term at the university, which has just ended. I expect to resume weekly posting with this post. :-)

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  1. says

    I share your concerns, and don’t see much evidence that institutional theatres will change in any way substantive. I don’t think the status quo is sustainable, and I believe the house of cards will tumble very soon. Imagine, for instance, what the ramifications of a cap on tax deductions would have on the field. I have recently come to the conclusion that the only responsible area for work right now is in exploring different business models, different ways of being a part of community, different ways to remove the arts from the downward spiral that is commodification.

  2. says

    Hi Diane,

    I agree with where you ended, but I don’t think the crisis was necessarily as “wasted” as it may seem. I spent the past two weeks on the road sharing the story of our museum’s transformation in Santa Cruz (which was shoved into action by both economic and community engagement issues). I was amazed and inspired by how many people I met who told me they were going through the same thing, moving in the same direction, and generally thinking seriously about how and why they are changing. I was particularly energized at the National Arts Marketing Project conference, which was the last place I expected to see huge energy for social change through the arts. They don’t feel like everything is back to business as usual. They are ready to get down to business making change that makes a difference.

    I often feel pretty cynical about sector-wide change, but when I really think about it, I think it’s almost impossible (for me at least) to really get a read on what is and isn’t changing. Either you’re in the middle of a movement of the converted, who inflate perception, or you’re tearing your hair out with landlocked and hidebound organizations, which deflate all hopes. Better, I think, to just put your head down and do the best work you can so when the dust settles and people have or haven’t changed, you can feel proud of what you’ve done.

  3. says

    From my perspective in the orchestra industry, change IS happening, but it is slower and less dramatic than we would like. Yes, some of it is cosmetic at this point, but even that is a start. I think sometimes change begins with changing the way we talk, think, and plan. A new vision has to seep into the organizational DNA. I work for a fairly small institution, one you would probably consider a pro-am, and the changes we are trying to make are still very much a work in progress. It must be ten, twenty or a hundred times harder at the large orchestras.

  4. says

    Diane, it’s great to be reading Jumper again — I always get a lot from your clear thinking and writing.

    Forgive what may be my naivete (and possible unintentional bias) in this but it seems to me as though the goals as expressed —
    ” The world is changing and art organizations need to become more porous, resilient, and flexible; they need to be more outward facing and engaged with the world beyond their doors, more diverse, and less exclusive; and they need to take greater artistic risks, fulfill their research and development roles, provide participatory experiences, take their educational missions seriously, and alter their programming to better reflect and serve their communities.”
    contradict each other — we need to ‘become more diverse and less exclusive, but take more artistic risks,’ as an example. Seems to me that artistic risk most frequently happens in an incubator, a lab, that’s not always accessible to a wide audience to begin with. Art at a high quality is expensive, isn’t it — whether in developmental time or the money it takes to buy that time? So developmental money for artistic risk is more likely to come from a smaller, wealthier (exclusive) audience who may have the discretionary income to invest in something that’s not fully realized. The same with research and education. Again, my own inexperience and bias may be showing here.

    As I’m writing, I’m thinking that many times, artistic risk happens in the communities that arts organizations haven’t yet reached. Can arts organizations foster that development and risk without appropriating it and “sanitizing” it for their traditional audiences and funding sources? It’s possible —

    Here in Kansas City, the associate artistic director for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre has been encouraged by the AD to branch out — he directs productions for the yearly fringe festival and for smaller local theatres with MUCH less funding. In fact, his bare-bones, risky production of Carousel — lit with a single hanging light bulb with a pull string — is being revived at the Rep next year. It’s an experiment that succeeded artistically that will now get a wider audience. I think it’s his ability to wade out into the environment around the Rep that’s doing some of what you’re suggesting needs to happen, artistically.

    Finally, I think the economic downturn did a lot to frighten those of us in the arts. I know in my case, running a one-guy-shop acting studio, I’m feeling pretty fortunate to have had my business hang on for the past 4 years. My current challenge is to think beyond “getting back to 2008,” and envision something more ambitious for the next several years.

    Thanks, Diane.

  5. says

    All – thanks so much for the comments. I generally try to let those commenting speak without jumping back in but feel compelled to acknowledge what you’ve said.

    To Andy B. and Nina – yes, I do believe change is happening, as well, and take your points. As I was writing my post I kept thinking of the daily weather forecast in Seattle from Sep – June when I was living there, “cloudy with the chance of occasional sun breaks.” I think that behind the clouds there is a sunny sky, so to speak, (and Andy and Nina you both run organizations that are among the bright spots in our sector). And I sense that modest changes are happening at all levels: to Andy G’s excellent point – even at larger institutions (and KC Rep is not the only one) smart experiments are being undertaken. I am heartened by this activity.

    I hope and trust the experiments and small changes continue. When I was running organizations (coming out of financial and artistic challenges) all we could do (as you have written about Nina) was undertake small experiments–small versions of the bigger changes we wanted to implement. And it worked … I’m a big fan of incremental innovation.

    And to your question, Andy G – yes, there are contradictions in those statements! :-) I wrote that list of ideals as an example of the rhetoric that is so often used to describe the changes that are needed (or happening) in the arts. They sound good (i.e., we talk the talk) but I’m not persuaded that we have “owned” these concepts or really thought deeply about the implications (as you begin to do in your comment).

    There are grant programs at the moment that are intended to encourage arts organizations to reach more diverse and lower income audiences. Sounds good, right? But if a majority of contributions to the arts and culture sector continue to flow to a small number of large institutions located in large metropolitan areas; and if those institutions continue to have primarily white staffs and boards; and if board members are primarily (if not exclusively) upper middle class because of high give or get requirements; and (thus) if the community has no real ownership in or influence over the direction of the organization then I’m not persuaded that real transformation is going to happen.

    Clay Lord’s book on new ways of measuring impact (Counting New Beans) indicated that one of the theaters that had the greatest intrinsic impact was a relatively small community theater in the upper Midwest, if I’m not mistaken. So what does that mean for our five decades of investment in building up professional nonprofit theaters (as opposed to, for instance, reinvigorating the Federal Theater Project, which had created more than 400 theaters across the US that were highly diverse and many of which did high quality, socially relevant work)? I’m not suggesting the regional theater movement was a mistake or that good things haven’t come from that movement; but it seems that we have been systematically underestimating the role/value of community-based theaters (and community orchestras, etc.) in the ecosystem (and investing in professional organizations at the expense of them). This is not a new concern; but it is a concern that has been raised for more than three decades and has not really gained any traction. In Clay’s book I talk about the “ranking” of the sector which always seems to begin with the largest and oldest organizations. I’d like to see a re-ranking that reflects the value of that community theater in the upper Midwest (and other s that are often overlooked when we think about the shining stars in the arts sector). (Scott W. you have been writing about this for years, I believe).

    In any event, thanks for raising the points that these efforts are happening. They are important and deserve to be highlighted. Perhaps in the coming weeks I should spend more time reflecting on the bright spots than the clouds. :-)

  6. says

    I have seen so much hand-wringing, so much heightened worry, so much temptation to just throw in the towel, to use your phrase, during the course of my life. Let me depart from the arts briefly to show you what I mean. As a lifelong Democrat, I remember how everyone seemed to lose faith after the Republicans won the presidency three consecutive times, in 1980, 1984, and 1988. Change must come, we vowed, but all the Democrats had to offer was Michael Dukakis in a tank and paeans to Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy and yesteryear. Bill Clinton changed all that for a time, and in myriad ways that, indeed, shook our faith in progressive values all over again. The unlikely tale of Barack Obama’s rise in politics and ascension to the presidency — a biracial man twice elected with a majority of the vote — speaks for itself. Change must come, we vow yet again, hoping this time Obama doesn’t cave, cower, fold or betray progressive values or otherwise acquiesce in the wrong direction. The point is that change — real change, substantive change, change that a new generation and the new generations after that can benefit from is about the long game, and four years is not a long game. From my own experience, I know that the Republicans are experiencing precisely the same crisis of faith right now as the Democrats did and, alas, will probably face again at some point. For them, too, change must come, and they, too, will not lose their faith. (Although I wish they did.)

    These are all platitudes, to be sure, and the parallels are easy to poke holes in. My point is that you cannot hold your breath until you turn blue just because your idea of transformation, your idea of change, your idea of a new dawn in the arts world isn’t panning out on your timetable and in your fashion and on your terms. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t agitate for it, that you shouldn’t preach the change you wish to be imperative and in the ascendent. It doesn’t mean you ought to lose your faith or turn agnostic or ambivalent over what you feel and know and believe to be true, urgent and necessary. But you want it, do you not, to happen organically. You do not want it imposed on those who haven’t yet seen their way clear yet to your mode of thinking. You do not want it force-fed to those you know to be idea-starved. To suggest that “we” (whoever that may be) “wasted” the financial crisis is more than just a dispiriting way to reflect on where “we” are. It cheapens and it taints the contributions you yourself have made to the debates of the day. When you know something to be true; when in every corner you see confirmation and evidence of what you know to be true, your biggest asset is not to wail or scream from every rooftop but to exhibit patience. Have a bit of patience. Good things come to those who wait. They really do.

  7. says

    Some interconnected thoughts from an artist on all this.

    Art organizations and their advocates need to stopped talking in over generalized terms as if all the arts share the same concerns. Case in point, this blog, “Jumper Diane Ragsdale on what the arts do and why”, It doesn’t ever seem to have anything to do with the visual arts which Thortnon and Hickey write about yet it’s about “the arts.”

    The slow strangling grip on the necks of our art institutions, art organizations, and artists themselves is not a sad consequence of a poor economy. It’s a conservative engineered plan begun in the 1980’s with an attack on the NEA and which has continued to this very day. We have a political power structure that doesn’t want to spend money for our cultural institution but has plenty of money to spend on war and our arts advocacy organizations have done nothing to take a political stand. Of course you feel frustrated for the future. You are being strangled.

    A conservative ideology has placed the burden on institutions to be bean counters. Attendance replaces knowledge. Entertainment replaces history and anything intellectual or studious or focused on knowledge gets labeled elitist.

    Our cultural institutions, for the most part, have not failed us. We have failed them. We as a society have failed to educated our children and ourselves. We spend more tax dollars on one new fighter jet and a pilot than we do on the entire NEA budget. This is a recipe for failure.

    Real aesthetic criticism has been replaced by economic indicators and metrics. Art has been valued only if it can be measured to be good for a common denominator or shown to provide jobs and aid the public and it’s economy. We have national and state arts board with no artists on them.

    We are on a wrong path as you suggest Diane. It’s a path that confuses support for artists organizations with support for artists. It’s a path that confuses popularity with meaningfulness. It’s a path where we don’t even know who we are (the art world) and yet we all continue to assume who “the public” is.
    It is a path that has allowed financial starvation and the false promise of privatization to rule and a path where we have bought into the guilt trip that art hasn’t done enough.

    • says

      Richard I take many, if not all, of your points. Thanks for your comment. I agree that the “American model” of indirect subsidy for the arts is (perhaps a large) part of the problem and I am discouraged that countries in Europe do not seem to understand its limitations as they encourage arts organizations to wean themselves off government support and earn their way or find wealthy citizens to support them. Having said that, there are plenty of criticisms of the heavily subsidized models as well. Governments in many countries are increasingly focused on metrics like economic impact, for instance. Moreover, the arts fall in and out of favor as governments change and so we end up with what happened in the Netherlands two years ago (a change in ideology + a down economy = a perfect opportunity to cut the arts budget by 40% and eliminate all funding for some of the most creative small organizations in the country). (Interestingly, when the cuts were announced, arts organizations were surprised that the general public did not protest more to them.) The tendency to see the arts as an engine for economic growth (rather than, say, enlightenment or spiritual growth, or understanding of self and the world, or an aspect of culture that is critical for the functioning of a civil society) seems to be widespread. We exploit culture for economic gain and seem to have our eyes closed to the fact that in doing so we risk destroying that culture. Like you, I believe that the arts can have a profound impact in this world. But I’m not sure that we can assume all nonprofits see themselves as bearers of this torch. Many are quite OK with a more market-oriented/transaction-oriented relationship to the world. Arts organizations choose how to respond to this environment: you can close your doors if you don’t want to become what you think you must become to survive; you can stay open and simply give over to the culture change (do more commercial work, invest in development and marketing staff rather than art and artists, cut the education programs, etc.); or you can try to uphold an alternative value system in word and action and fight with all your might to gather support for it. I don’t suggest this is easy. But the fact that there are arts organizations that are doing so (the bright spots so to speak) would seem to suggest that organizations’ fates are not predetermined by their environments but that they have agency and can make choices that effect their destinies and the impact that they have in the world.

      Thanks, again, for your comment.


      • Aaron Andersen says

        I think if the arts were as transformative as we all like to believe, routinely encouraging “enlightenment or spiritual growth, or understanding of self and the world, or an aspect of culture that is critical for the functioning of a civil society,” then there wouldn’t be so much trouble paying for it. It would meet a need, and people would flock to it.

  8. says

    Perhaps I’m too outside the discourse right now, but what is getting muddled for me in this argument is:

    WHY do arts organizations need to transform? Because they are not profitable or because they are not making enough of an impact?

    I am annoyed by weak adherence to mission and vision statements for the sake of remaining within the bounds of traditional non-profit revenue streams. For those arts organizations, I recommend a transformation into the private sector and for them to not be ashamed about it.

    HOWEVER: my hope is for arts organizations to function in society as agencies of progressive cultural change. With that in mind, the non-profit, public benefit corporation model makes sense. I’m going to get a little abstract here, so bear with me…

    I work for a marketing agency, and I see a HUGE similarity between the necessary evolution of marketing agencies and the evolution of arts organizations (which I view as “cultural agencies”). That connection allows me to make some funky leaps.

    Take, for example, Price and Gilmore’s model for agency maturity from the Harvard Business Press. Their path to agency maturity has three stages which evolve with increased customization. On the flip side, commoditization causes the agency to de-volve in value.

    Here’s a link to the chart:


    I think most arts organizations feel pretty confident they’re operating at level 2: staging experiences. Perhaps the next stage in maturity as an agency of cultural change is for arts organizations to get more focused and specific and *customize* their efforts to have more impact on the causes in which they are working to promote. In this way the primary function of the cultural agency is to guide transformations (perhaps in arts education policy, hint, hint).

    It is instinctual to wish to capture a broader, larger audience to stay afloat as an arts organization, but this runs contrary to the greater value and impact of specificity and customization in cultural agencies. With new technologies and an increasingly networked world, appealing to your target niche over a shared vision is far more meaningful and effective than blanketing the tri-county area with direct mailers in hopes of earning end-of-year donations to stage “The Sound of Music” for the 88th time. Ahem.

    A great book to look at is “The Networked Nonprofit” by Kanter and Fine. This may help art institutions focus their mission, find friends with the same mission and guide transformations. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, and as always I am delighted to contribute to such wonderful conversation!


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