Happy New Year a week late. I picked up a book at the university library a few days ago called Morals and Markets and have read a few chapters, which have been tumbling around in my mind with an excellent New Year’s essay by Polly Carl on the measures of an individual playwright’s success, a New York Times op-ed on trying to measure the impact of social media using “yardsticks” of traditional marketing, and a much cited New Year’s prediction for the arts by Rick Lester at Target Resource Group that appeared on Thomas Cott’s Year End Predictions issue. These provocative texts have me thinking about the process of changing measures of success.
Part I: A short story about life insurance:
Morals and Markets is an academic text written in 1979 by sociologist Viviana Zelizer about “the development of life insurance in the US.” Zelizer recounts that while the first life insurance company was established in the US in 1759 it was not until the 1840s that sales of life insurance began to take off. Then, within a relatively short period of time, life insurance policy sales grew at an astonishing rate. Why had life insurance failed to get off the ground in the late 18th and early 19th centuries? And why, in the mid-19th century did it eventually become adopted with such fervor? While most historical accounts, written by economists, laid the sudden success at more aggressive advertising and sales techniques (most notably the introduction of the charismatic life insurance missionary/salesman), Zelizer felt something else was going on. She ultimately argues that it was cultural factors at play, among them religious beliefs. She writes on pages 150-151:
In the first place, the development of the insurance industry reflected the struggle between fundamentalist and modernist religious outlooks that worked itself out in the nineteenth century. … The cultural incompatibility of life insurance with literalist and fundamentalist beliefs hindered its development during the first part of the century. In opposition, the emerging liberal theology tended to make the enterprise legitimate. … The history of life insurance helps us understand the problem of establishing monetary equivalents for relations or processes which are defined as being beyond material concerns … With life insurance, money and man, the sacred and the profane, were thrown together; the value of man became measurable by money. … Life insurance threatened the sanctity of life by pricing it. … By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the economic definition of the value of death finally became more acceptable, legitimating the life insurance enterprise. However, the monetary evaluation of death did not de-sacralize it; far from ‘profaning’ life and death, money became sacralized by its association with them. Life insurance took on symbolic values quite distinct from its utilitarian function, emerging as a new form of ritual with which to face death and a process of the dead by those kin left behind.
Another cultural factor explored in the book is initial resistance that stemmed from perceptions of life insurance as a form of “betting on lives.” That resistance waned after the 1870s, however, when certain financial practices which had theretofore been perceived by a “traditional economic morality” to be “deviant speculative ventures” became legitimized by a new entrepreneurial ethos. Changing views on life insurance reflected this general shift in attitudes about economic risk taking.
In the last paragraph of the book Zelizer writes (p. 153):
America was, and remains, a land of economic magic. In the case of life insurance the trick was to sell futures—pessimistic futures. The task of selling a commodity to a materialist civilization is relatively simple. The task of converting human life and death into commodities, however, was highly complex. The universe of believers and theologians became involved with another universe of hard-headed businessmen. Out of this interaction emerged a compromise credo which was a far cry from the vulgar marketplace linkages and at the same time a giant step beyond simplified heavenly rewards. Theology yielded to the capitalist ethos–but not without compelling the latter to disguise its materialist mission in spiritual garb.
Part II: Redefining Success
In a post on the measures of success in her own life and the lives of artists, Polly Carl describes what has become the “tired trajectory of success for playwrights”:
Theater artist gets trained >Theater artist emerges >Theater artist gets small gigs in small theaters >Theater artist gets big gigs in small theaters >Theater artist gets small gigs in big theaters >Theater artist gets big gigs in big theaters.
She then observes that this journey is problematic because it suggests that success is linear, that we can and should define what success looks like ahead of time, and that success can be measured in terms of economic growth (bigger house, bigger paycheck, etc.). Within hours of reading her post I was sent a link to the NY Times op-ed mentioned above, Can Social Media Sell Soap? on the problem of attempting to calculate the ROI of social media using traditional marketing media measures. The two pieces got me thinking about the yardsticks of success that we now use in the nonprofit arts.
Notwithstanding the past four years where the definition of success seemed to have been temporarily replaced by the more essential goal of simply finishing the year without a life-threatening deficit, it seems that, by-and-large, the sector is and has been for some time now measuring its success primarily in economic terms: butts in seats, increased revenues, budgetary growth, inches of press, and (how could we ever forget) economic impact.
I would extend Polly’s observation of a success-definition-rut among artists, to arts organizations. Lately I keep hearing admonitions to arts groups to shift their focus from “surviving” to “thriving” but how, as a sector, are we defining this thriving?
Has the recession helped us to interpret “thriving” to mean something deeper or outside of the realm of economic measures? Or (despite all the buzz about intrinsic impacts) are we really only comfortable in our skin if we can flash our numbers (and not just any numbers … butts in seats, budgetary growth, inches of press, economic impact).
I get it.
Believe me, after walking away from a great job that I loved (actually two decades of jobs in the arts that I loved and that defined my success pretty handily) I have spent many sleepless nights these past 2 1/2 years wondering how the heck to define success or, put another way, assess my value. Candidly, most days I feel like an under-performing and illegitimate scholar (as all practitioner-turned-academics will understand); a frustratingly sporadic blogger (sorry!); a hapless stepparent and homemaker; a too-distant and out-of-touch friend, daughter and sister; and a headstrong and difficult spouse. What I would give for a job that I “was born to do” and through which my value in this life would be immediately recognizable.
But wouldn’t it be even better if I could redefine success so that my life has value even if I don’t have a great job?
Of course it would.
But still. Would anyone in the world buy into my definition, I wonder? I mean, my mom would probably be proud of me no matter what. But it takes a lot of courage to do what Polly is proposing. To live by your own definition of success—a definition that may be illegitimate in the world we live in.
Part III: Big Data
So we are in this pickle. The value of the arts and culture sector in the US has been declining in recent decades (at least by our cornerstone measure of success: butts in seats). It would seem that we either need to get more people to show up or we need some new measures that can tell people that we’re valuable even if the old metrics don’t look so great. I suspect that Rick Lester at TRG would probably comfort us with the knowledge that we are now in the era of “big data”— which shall enable us to embrace a customer orientation and, “armed with facts,” make better decisions about what to program, who to target, with what product, at what price, on what day, etc. And others (Alan Brown and Clay Lord, most notably) might suggest that big data could also help us make the case for our value beyond butts in seats—that is, for our intrinsic impacts.
It strikes me that these two uses pull us in different directions. (More on that a bit further on.)
I love data more with every passing day, but I can’t help but think that if we make an analogy with Zelizer’s story of life insurance (and the role of cultural factors in legitimizing it as a key determinant of its adoption), that big data (while an important factor) is probably not going to solve our success/valuation problems. Increasing arts participation and redefining success are less dependent on data than on the values and ideologies that underpin our sector and society-at-large.
We may be able to use data to do better marketing but if kids heading off to college in 2030 still have little-to-no exposure to the arts by their parents or at schools is there anything we could target them with in 2040 that would get them to walk in the door of an opera house producing Don Giovanni or a traditional regional theater doing a production of the Death of a Salesman? And if the data tell us we probably could get them in the door if we radically changed programming, would it matter if those leading and funding arts organizations the next twenty years are unwilling to consider such shifts because they consider them to be immoral?
We may be able to use Twitter to, for instance, understand the social impact of a professional theater piece on a given neighborhood; but will it matter if most boards, government agencies, and funders do not consider the impact of a conversation on Twitter to be as or more important than how many people bought tickets and whether income targets were achieved? We may be able to collect data on the social and cultural impact of amateur groups but does it matter if the training programs and the professional arts sector continues to dismiss such contributions as illegitimate?
We may have the possibility of new data, but we seem to be stuck with the same old values and yardsticks.
Part IV: Time to look in the mirror:
Like Polly, I think it’s time to dig deeper. We can start trying to solve our problems with data, but like a prescription of Paxil, it’s not going to be nearly as effective if we’re not willing to acknowledge the disconnect between some of our fundamental values and ideologies and those of society. Moreover, once acknowledged, we are unlikely to make progress by simply bemoaning our circumstances and calling ourselves victims of a philistine society or simply abandoning the social purposes we were formed to uphold and taking the for-profit route because it’s just too damned hard to fight the good fight anymore.
We are, without a doubt, a sector with conflicting values: excellence versus equity (among others). And as the lines have blurred with the commercial and amateur worlds our identity and the values we stand for (conflicting though they may be) seem to be eroding to the point where it feels like we stand for everything (which is arguably the same as standing for nothing).
No doubt society has changed. The alternative ideals that supported the massive growth of the nonprofit arts sector in the mid-twentieth century were out of favor by the 80s and with it, so were we. But we’ve changed too. Perhaps we have been unsuccessful with getting American society to value what we do not simply because their values changed but because ours have. Is it clear what we stand for? It might be clear to the 70-year-old who takes-for-granted that we stand for something important and good because we once did; but is it clear to the 20-year-old? And if we shout, ‘We stand for something important and good!” does that 20-year-old believe us? Based on what evidence?
I’m not advocating a monolithic conception of the sector, but I am (like Polly, I think, if I interpret her essay correctly) advocating for some honesty and transparency about the core, enduring, distinctive identity and values that we do stand for and, with them, our definition of success.
But as we see in Zelizer’s accout, from there begins the hard work of advancing these ideals and values and measures of success. What changed the religious fundamentalists that initially rejected life insurance? Among other factors, other more entrepreneurial clergymen, who saw the value of life insurance and began to preach about it from the pulpit.
What caused nonprofit arts organizations to adopt marketing practices? Among other influences, corporate boards and trade associations that encouraged and expected them. Marketing, like life insurance, was an idea that was initially downright distasteful to people working in the arts.
Part V: Can we change the measures of success? Do we really want to?
The arts (like life insurance) long ago became a commodity (having previously operated in the realm of the gift economy), though (also like life insurance) one with values (social, cultural, and symbolic) beyond utility. We came up with our own “compromise credo.” As I observe the heated debates on cultural blogs (including, for instance, the dueling that happened in the comments section of my recent post on the arts cliff), I wonder if this compromise position is becoming untenable and, moreover, as a sector we are deeply divided on how to resolve the tension.
It feels to me like we’ve got big data in our corner and we don’t know whether to stand at the bully pulpit and (A) use the data to get really good at selling our commodity and to make the case that we count in this extended era of economic rationalization (a glance at AFTA’s National Arts Index is but one indication that we’ve actually gotten pretty darned good at that); or (B) use the data to make the case that the measure of success in this world should not be limited to growth in the economy and to identify and measure the something else that matters as much or more.
As I wrote in the executive summary of In the Intersection (a report on partnerships between commercial producers and nonprofit theaters), “Recognizing that the metrics of success and the values of nonprofits have changed is one thing. Changing them back is quite another.”
It wouldn’t be easy to pursue path B. We would have to organize and work together and invest resources in creating and living by such alternative definitions and measures of success. We would have to argue against many of the moves we’ve made the past 30 years.
We would have to use our pulpits.
We would have to believe these other things matter.
As I look across the nonprofit arts and culture sector landscape I see some who believe but I perceive that way too many of us have lost faith.
My wish for us in 2013 … that we can find, keep, and spread the faith.
PS I resolved at the end of the year that I would start posting on Jumper more frequently (weekly at least) and failed in the first week. It’s still a goal. Although after reading this, my longest post-to-date, you may be grateful that I’m not posting with much regularity. Congratulations and thanks to any who manage to stick with it to the end.