The Arts in a Civic World Upside Down

A couple months back I was asked to give a talk on civic leadership to a group of arts leaders participating in the fantastic UK-based Clore Leadership Programme. We tend to take for granted that subsidized arts organizations are, by default, key players in civil society–that is, civic leaders.

But are they?

I believe arts organizations can, and should be, civic leaders but that such a role will require that many organizations pursue a different relationship to their communities.

What follows is an excerpt/adaptation from the full talk.

occupy-wall-street-posterThe Civic World Upside Down

In their article, Thinking About Civic Leadership, David Chrislip and Edward O’Malley convey that in the nineteenth and early-to-mid-twentieth century what generally was meant by civic leadership in America was “those at the top organization levels” that were “part of an elite, guiding force for civic life.”[1]  In other words, a network of white powerful men who knew what was best for their communities, and had ability to get things done. They operated from a position of authority, the authors write, doing things for their communities without input from their communities-at-large.

Among the institutions such civic leaders advanced, in the US, was the arts and cultural sector:  museums, symphony orchestras, opera companies, ballet companies, and eventually regional theaters. This was the era in which private foundations and governments alike justified and promoted such investments on the basis of the ideals of “excellence and equity,” –by which they meant, generally, access for everyone to the art deemed most important by those vested at the time with the power to decided what counts as art.

But Chrislip and O’Malley also suggest that this view of civic leadership—a view that granted power for a small group of elites to control the lives of everyone else—began to be challenged in the 60s and 70s with the emergence and impact of the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the women’s movement, and other grassroots social movements.

In fits and starts, as movements have emerged, gone underground, and re-emerged, over the past 30 years ideas about what is meant by civic life and who gets to participate in it have been challenged and slowly redefined–most recently in the US by such events as the Occupy Movement.

And today, we are living in “a civic world turned upside-down”—an era in which citizens with the freedom and means by which to access the Internet have the tools to more easily self-organize, mobilize, express their concerns and desires to a global audience, and thereby participate in the civic world (if by that we mean the relationship of citizens to each other and to government) and potentially influence the political decision-making process.[2]

Is this civic world upside down a good thing for the arts?

Our first instinct may be to shout, “Of course!”

But let’s be honest: The old civic world worked pretty well for the fine arts.

We (meaning established arts organizations and their patrons) were among those with authority to dictate what counts as art and culture. Leading in the new civic world is not about dictating what counts as art. Instead, it would seem to require a willingness to relinquish authority; to open up our institutions for citizen engagement, not just in artistic experiences but in governance; to look beyond the preservation, advancement, and interests of our individual organizations; and to use our many assets to serve the larger needs of society.[3]

Indeed, this seems to be one of the grand narratives in the arts these days.

It’s the narrative that tells us that we need to rethink our relationship to the world, come down out of the ivory tower, and work side-by-side with our communities to improve quality of life for all citizens in the places where we live. But there is another narrative that has been exerting a powerful gravitational pull in the opposite direction. It’s the narrative that tells us that the path to salvation is a whole body embrace of the power, wealth, and financial growth at all costs. And in this civic world turned upside down, it seems it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage the tension between these competing narratives. As an example, Mark Ravenhill’s speech at the Edinburgh festival last year highlighted, in particular, the way that the means of some subsidized arts organizations may be in conflict with their supposed ends.

He said:

I think the message in the last couple of decades has been very mixed, in many ways downright confusing: we are a place that offers luxury, go-on-spoil-yourself evenings where in new buildings paid for by a national lottery (a voluntary regressive tax) you can mingle with our wealthy donors and sponsors from the corporate sector and treat yourself to that extra glass of champagne but we are also a place that cares deeply about social justice and exclusion as the wonderful work of our outreach and education teams show. So we’re the best friends of the super-rich and the most disadvantaged at the same time? That’s a confusing message and the public has been smelling a rat. If the arts are for something, who are they for? And what are they doing for them?[4]

The question is being called. What’s the answer if we dig down deep and answer truthfully?

Do we want to be country clubs? Or do we want to be civic institutions?

Ronald Heifitz, the Harvard professor who has led the research agenda around adaptive leadership in the US tells us that the complexity of the ever-evolving challenges in the new world require different, even “unorthodox” responses to make progress. Our status quo has to be disrupted. This means that we need to confront the things we take for granted, including all the attachments we have to our world view. This inevitably entails the loss of our sense of identity, status, and values.[5]

And, as Clay Shirky tells us in his TED Talk, Institutions vs Collaboration, institutions are no different from humans in that if they feel threatened they seek to self-preserve.

Have you noticed that there has been a recurring theme to arts conferences the past five years: How do we survive? How do we thrive? How do we build resilience so we can bounce back? How do we find innovative ways to, essentially, sustain the infrastructure and institutions that we’ve created over the past 100 years?

I’ve asked many of these questions myself.

But what are we trying to sustain, to preserve? Ourselves and our once privileged position in an elite-dominated civic world? Or something that transcends ourselves and our organizations? As the person who wrote a talk a few years back called Surviving the Culture Change, I am here to say I think we need to move on from the narrative in which we are primarily concerned with the surviving and thriving of our individual organizations.

On Civic Leadership

And this, really, brings us to the notion of civic leadership. How shall we conceptualize civic leadership? How is it different from other types of leadership?

Here’s the vision from Chrislip & O’Malley:

Rather than a ruggedly individualistic pursuit of our own ends, we might demonstrate care and responsibility for the communities and regions in which we live. Instead of limiting our conception of what civic responsibility means to that of a passive law-abiding “good” citizen activated only when our backyards are threatened, our first impulse would be to engage others to work across factions in the service of the broader good.[6]

In a similar vein, Mary Parker Follet writes on the topic of power and defines it as “the ability to make things happen, to be a causal agent, to initiate change.” However, Follet distinguishes between power over (power that is coercive) and power with (synergistic joint action that suggests we facilitate and energize others to be effective). The old civic world was power over. The new civic world is power with.[7]

And John W. Gardner writes that we need a network of leaders who take responsibility for society’s shared concerns and that the default civic culture needs to shift from a war of the parts against the “whole” to an inclusive engaging and collaborative one that could make communities better for all.[8]

You can hear the common threads in these elaborations.

To achieve these ends two other scholars, leadership studies scholars Peter Sun & Marc Anderson, suggest that leaders need to add on to their existing skills in transformational and transactional leadership and develop what they call Civic Capacity.[9]

Civic Capacity is made up of three components:

  1. Civic Drive: Do you have the desire and motivation to be involved with social issues and to see new social opportunities?
  2. Civic Connections: Do you have the social capital (i.e., networks) to enable you to engage in successful collaborations with other organizations and institutions in your community?
  3. Civic Pragmatism: Do you have the ability to translate social opportunities into practical reality (i.e., what structures and resources can you leverage to make things happen)?

This is big, demanding work. Our first impulse may be to keep our heads down, to pursue the path of least resistance. While doing so may ensure that our grants continued to be renewed for the time being, it won’t ensure our future relevance or contribute to a better world.

Awhile back I read philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s book Not for Profit, Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, in which she makes the case for liberal arts education, and in particular the importance of the arts and humanities. In it she asks what abilities a nation would need to produce in its citizens if it wanted to advance a “people-centered democracy dedicated to promoting opportunities for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to each and every person.[10] She answers with such things as:

  • The ability to think about, examine, reflect, argue and debate about the political issues of the nation.
  • The ability to recognize and respect fellow citizens as people with equal rights, regardless of race, gender, religion or sexuality.
  • The ability to have concern for the lives of others.
  • The ability to imagine and understand the complex issues affecting human life by having an understanding of a wider range of human stories (rather than just data).
  • The ability to think about the good of the nation, not just one’s own group.

The arts have so much to offer to the advancement of such goals; but only if we step up to the work.

Change is needed.


Back in June, I went on a residential training with the organization Common Cause, which seeks to encourage NGOs and others working in the social sectors to join up to advance common values in society—values like A World of Beauty, Social Justice, Equality, A Meaningful Life.[11]

At the first gathering when we went around the circle and talked about why we had chosen to come on the training and I said something to the effect of:

I’m here because I’m trying to figure out what I’m laboring for that transcends arts and culture. I’m here because I feel like I’ve been talking in a closed circuit and I want to join up the conversation we’re having in the arts with the conversation others are having about the environment, or human rights, or education. I’m here because I don’t know if I can continue to work on behalf of the arts if the arts are only interested in advancing themselves.

I’m here because I’m worried about things like growing income inequality and suspect that growing income inequality may actually benefit the arts. And what are we going to do about that? I’m here because I’m worried about cultural divides and that the arts perpetuate them more than they help to bridge them.

I believe the arts could be a force for good, but I believe we will need to change as leaders, and as organizations, in relationship to our communities, for them to be so.

There is a challenge/opportunity before all of us.

I leave you with two final questions:

  1. What are you laboring for that transcends your organization and your position within it? What values, goals, or progress in the world?
  2. And what are you going to do about it?


[1] Chrislip & O’Malley 2013, p. 3

[2] Chrislip & O’Malley, p. 5.

[3] The theory of basic human values was developed by Shalom H. Schwartz and is the basis for a framework developed by the advocacy organization Common Cause. More information may be found in the Common Cause Handbook, published in 2011 by the Public Interest Research Center (Wales).

[4] Ravenhill, M. (2013). “We Need to Have a ‘Plan B’”. Published in The Guardian 3 August 2013 and available at:

[5] Chrislip & O’Malley, p. 7

[6] Chrislip and O’Malley, p. 11

[7] Chrislip and O’Malley, p. 7

[8][8] Chrislip and O’Malley, p. 7

[9] Sun, P.Y.T. & Anderson, M.H. (2012). Civic capacity: Building on transformational leadership to explain successful integrative public leadership. The Leadership Quarterly 23 (2012), 309-323.

[10] Nussbaum, M. C. (2010). Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (See pages 225-26).

[11] Public Interest Research Centre (2011). The Common Cause Handbook. London: PIRC.

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  1. says

    Whatever problems the Arts and it’s supportive institutions have or have had in the past (and there were many), branding them as elitist and life controlling is neither completely accurate or fair.
    And neither is the new language of engagement, community desires, and placemaking as easy or purposeful a solution as it sounds. What if your community simply wants more entertainment in line with Duck Dynasty?

    Martha Nussbaum is right when she lists all the abilities as a people we have lost or are inadequate in. I believe the Arts have not been responsible for the lose of those abilities and it’s debatable whether they can solve those social ills. Or whether they should even be coerced into trying.
    How one weighs in on that depends on what you think the role of art is. What does Art do for people? How you answer that question depends on which side of the neo-liberal ideological fence you are on.

  2. says

    Thank you for the thought-provoking blog entry. As a means of analysis, let’s decode a possible subtext that could be read into this article.

    It’s not just cultural country clubs for the wealthy, like the Metropolitan Opera, that are elitist. Civic institutions such as government supported arts programs also tell us what we’re supposed to like. This is an elitist, racist injustice. So let us level all genres in order to reach our communities. Let us realize that an appreciation of Bartok over Timberlake is just retro snobbism.

    Civic institutions (i.e. government funded arts organizations) never consider the interests of the community or their needs. They never deal with social issues. They never engage with their communities. They never think about the good of the nation.

    Never mind all that pinko art of the WPA projects, especially all those that served minority communities. Never mind all the WPA’s ethnographic research projects. Never mind the countless educational and outreach programs our publicly supported cultural institutions have promoted for decades. Never mind our public libraries, our public schools, and our remarkable state universities. These are just elitist, brain-washing mechanisms of white men.

    So stop this civic madness and privatize. It’s Hollywood where we find true democracy and a true leveling of genres across all races and classes. The invisible hand of the marketplace creates true justice. As we see, Brittany Spears speaks to the people, not Beethoven. And don’t let any white male, non-profit civic institutions tell you different.

    Corporate commercial art must be given aesthetic status equal to the so-called masterworks of Western culture. Madonna and Bartok should be on the same pedestal. With this leveling, the perfect ideal of neo-liberalism is thus realized and capitalism’s corporate media becomes the unchallenged arbiter of culture.

    And of course, all of this is a result of progressive thought stemming from the civil rights movement…

    • Roland Carette-Meyers says

      RE: “Madonna and Bartok should be on the same pedestal. With this leveling, the perfect ideal of neo-liberalism is thus realized and capitalism’s corporate media becomes the unchallenged arbiter of culture.”

      While I appreciate the level of activism and/or stylized argument in this- I actually think that by leveling Madonna and Bartok you very much so undermine Civic and Corporate entities that seek to “tell” you what is of value.

      If all things are of equal, then all things (cultural entities) are of value because they either enrich our lives, souls, educations, place in the world, understanding of one another, or they are simply a piece against which we react (provoking because of poor quality or inflammatory content, etc.- this is where democracy [flawed as it may be] begins).

      If all things are of value- then no one composer or painting is more or less significant than any other from the perspective of the institutions presenting them. We must decide for ourselves what resonates, from that we build our truth. The challenge becomes leveling all things. How? How do you get the same exposure for Bartok that you have for Madonna? All things would either get more exposure and the noise would be deafening or all things would get less exposure and where’s the fun in that?

      The second challenge is that not all works of art or artists are equal. Art is disagreement. SO- then, instead of elevating the works, should we not elevate access to art making? Instead of imposing our will on the audience, why not empower the audience to generate the content themselves? Thus, the internet- blogs, comments, etc.

      The internet does not tell me what to like, and if it does- I’ll just scroll to the bottom and leave a Comment and I have undermined their work. How do we translate this same accessibility to other forms? How do we empower rather than provoke into inaction by cries of “Bartok did it better because he’s older!”

      Love the blog and your post- a lot to think about as an art maker moving into a wireless world.

  3. AM Kelly says

    All good food for thought. Actually working in the business and speaking from experience adds clout to the message. I appreciate the view of the grant maker, the academic but it is a lofty one. We are all involved in “civic engagement” – have to be as serious performing arts practitioners and it is the voice of the person engaged in this work that we should listen to. The most.

  4. HA Beasley says

    What is the the role of expertise in an arts field in this new civic world? Arts professionals have a right to curate without constant accusations of silencing, as long as we are willing to articulate clear standards of excellence. Not all civic participants have the skills set to create art that is worth public attention, any more than all civic participants can do calculus, cure disease, or invent new technology worth public investment. Some art is worth presenting because it is better crafted, by experts in the field. Of course we have an obligation to discuss why we present what we do, to answer: Why this, not that? But if we are unwilling to defend excellence in art, why would anyone invest in it?

  5. Jerry Yoshitomi says

    It seems like you’ve hit a nerve.

    About twenty years ago, the Executive Director of a State Arts Agency reflected that a Performing Arts Center in that state was the “last bastion of publicly supported segregation”, surviving much longer than segregated schools, drinking fountains and other public facilities.

    I was first in denial, but as I thought about it, I recognized the wisdom in those words. And frequently see the painfully obvious evidence. Ravenhill’s remarks and your ‘country club’ reference brought that all back to me. Thank you for that.

    As we work hard to seek greater public (both government and individual donor) support for the arts, I hope we make equal effort to communicate evidence of the public value of arts experiences.

    • says

      The Detroit Symphony is 95% white in a city 82% black. On the other hand, 60% of the students at UC Riverside are Asian while Asians represent only 12% of the population of California. UC Riverside shows how public institutions can benefit minorities. And we see that the demographic challenges the DSO faces have causes that extend far beyond the institution itself and which the institution could never solve alone. There are no easy solutions. Facile conclusions only exacerbate the problem.

  6. Susan J Royce says


    Thanks for this excellent and thought provoking post.

    Coming from a UK perspective I am struck by the resonances between the ideas you explore and the debates around the challenges and benefits of open policy making.

  7. Karen Gahl-Mills says

    Thanks for this important post, Diane. You always manage to get to the essence of things. And I think this is an important challenge to funders, too, particularly those of us in the public realm. I hope a talk on this topic in the US is in the works!

    • Jerry Yoshitomi says

      I think it would be highly appropriate for our learned and experienced colleagues from Cuyahoga County to lead this discussion in the U.S.

  8. says


    It’s been a while since I checked in on Jumper, but I’m so glad I did. In my opinion this is the best post you’ve written so far. Thank you for providing your insights, however harsh they may be to hear. These questions take courage and should continue to be asked.

    My perspective is now that of an outsider, having worked in the private sector for a few years. I do believe that I can connect what you’re saying to a larger shift in consumer culture, however. There is disruption across industries in the way organizations communicate, market and sell. Quite simply, the rules have changed in response to the massive open forum of the internet.

    I recently attended the Inbound conference in Boston where, repeatedly, the speakers preached that the only way to build loyalty and grow one’s business is to be helpful. If a service-first culture is dominating the conversation with private, for-profit business professionals like myself, the expectations for public, non-profit organizations must surely be higher.

    Thank you again, for sharing your thoughts. This was a very refreshing read.


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