Change in the arts sector. Can we speed it up or must we wait it out?


  Devon Smith has written a smart, provocative post on a debate she engaged in at the recent Americans for the Arts Conference in Nashville. It’s called We Should Allow Failing Arts Organizations to Die and it has lit up the arts blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook the past few days. So much so that she has added a second post responding to the internet comments. This topic is close to my heart. In 2009 I was on a panel at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference alled Graceful Exits,What Can Funders Do When It's Time to Pull the Plug. In … [Read more...]

On organizations evolving: when short-term coping mechanisms become the new way of doing business


A couple weeks ago, one of my favorite arts bloggers, Andrew Taylor (a/k/a The Artful Manager) wrote a post whose title conveys a pretty strong thesis: Organizations don’t evolve; they cope.  While I share Andrew’s skepticism of the field’s use of natural world metaphors (ecosystem, ecology, evolve, adapt, sustainability, etc.) it’s not because I think the metaphors don’t apply (within limits); it’s because I think we sometimes misapply them. Andrew begins his analysis with a comparison between individual organizations and individual … [Read more...]

Nonprofit Arts Orgs and the Boards That Love Them

Ashamed head-in-hands

Last week I read an article by Pablo Eisenberg in the Chronicle of Philanthropy in which he argues that greater oversight of nonprofits is needed because nonprofit boards can no longer be trusted to make sure the institutions they govern are serving the public interest, which they are legally obliged to serve. Eisenberg mentions hospitals and universities in particular, citing the recent debacles at University of Virginia and Penn State as evidence for why we can no longer put our faith in boards. However, I think it’s fair to say that the arts … [Read more...]

Is Opera a Sustainable Art Form? Excerpts from a new keynote …


I’ve been on hiatus in order to concentrate my time on the weekends to learning Dutch (state exam coming up). My last post was before Mike Daisey unhinged Ira Glass and Ira Glass exposed Mike Daisey and the whole world wrote about it. I’m not going to write about Mike Daisey. Instead, because I’m still concerned about the state of the arts and culture sector in the US (despite its “turnaround” according to Americans for the Arts), and because I’m still studying Dutch and neck-deep in my research at the moment, I’m going to share an excerpt from … [Read more...]

On my Soapbox: Digitization of Live Performance

The Wooster Group

The Wooster GroupClay Lord has written a provocative and rather erudite post, The Work of Presentational Art in the Age of On-Demand Technological Empowerment, in which he cautions that as arts organizations embrace or respond to pressure to record and disseminate their live work that they not lose their identity and the core of what live performance (and theater in particular, perhaps) is all about. Clay mentions my post from last week in which I wrote: "If our goal for the next century is to hold onto our marginalized position and … [Read more...]

A planned ending for Merce Cunningham Dance Co.


Merce CunninghamIn last week’s post on direct subsidies to artists, I expanded upon a premise from artist/economist Hans Abbing--that direct subsidies to artists may provide incentives to more people to become artists, thereby increasing competition, and making it more difficult for any to make a living--and suggested that the same may be true of arts organizations. I wrote, "We have incentivized the exponential growth of the arts and culture sector in the US and, despite significant resources (government and private) flowing into the sector on … [Read more...]

What are we incubating and to what end?

starry night egg

A couple weeks back Thomas Cott published an issue of “You’ve Cott Mail” centered loosely on the theme of innovation and business incubators in the arts world, in which he linked to a post by one of my favorite bloggers/researchers/thinkers, Devon Smith. Devon contrasted the concept of ‘incubator’ in the tech world and the arts world. After reading her post I was curious to read up on technology and business incubators and ask myself what, exactly, arts incubators are incubating and to what end? Devon makes the point that in the tech world … [Read more...]

How to avoid a strip-mall future for the arts sector: Lessons from the boutique label, Pi

shutterstock_53960845 strip mall

This past week I came across a New York Times article featured on ArtsJournal examining the remarkable success of the indie Jazz label, Pi. The article demonstrates that Pi is bucking trends in the music industry. It is managing to not just keep its head above water at a time when many music labels are struggling, but it is having tremendous impact despite being a relatively small Jazz label focused on the leading edge of its artform. Here are a few keys to Pi’s success (which I gleaned from the article): (1)   Unlike many labels … [Read more...]

The crucial gap once filled by Florida Stage

shutterstock_66641074 gold cube

Last week, it was announced in the Miami Herald that Florida Stage would be filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection and closing its doors for good. I am haunted by the thought that the American Theater has just lost an organization without fully grasping the critical role that it played. It appears that the move to a new space was a key factor in financial troubles that eventually left the company with a $1.5 million debt (significant for a theater of its size). This closing has left me feeling sad and disappointed in the trajectory of the … [Read more...]

Nonprofits redistributing ‘surpluses’ to patrons?

shutterstock_19731778 cash back 2

Recently I came across an academic paper examining the relationship between performing arts organizations and their patrons that includes a description of a patron loyalty program developed by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem in the early twentieth century (Kushner and King, 1994).* BCB’s model is unlike any current model I have yet encountered (though this may be due to my lack of awareness not to a lack of similar models) and it strikes me as both simple and enlightened. Here’s my summary of the 1994 description of BCB’s model in the paper: The … [Read more...]

sector transformation, unlikely to be kind or gentle

shutterstock_53149513 no pain no gain cropped

In 2008, Paul Light (professor of public service at NYU and author of numerous books) wrote an article for the Nonprofit Quarterly in which he speculated on Four Futures for the nonprofit sector arising out of the recession: (1) Rescue Fantasy: nonprofits saved by significant increases in contributions; (2) Withering Winterland: organizations starve themselves into a weakened organizational state; (3) Arbitrary Winnowing: survival of the largest, oldest, and best connected; and (4) Transformation: a redesign of the sector that leaves it … [Read more...]

Arts Ed: An opportunity for arts nonprofits to create shared value?


A new acquaintance recently recommended the Jan-Feb 2011 HBR article, "Creating Shared Value" by Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer. The authors define the concept of shared value as "policies and operating practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates." The article, which is compelling, gives several examples of policies and practices that create shared value, including: food companies traditionally focused on taste and … [Read more...]

What is a mission-failing arts org? Like its opposite, perhaps you know it when you see it.

STREB: The Opposite of Mission Failure

In last week's post I suggested that the sector might be strengthened if some ‘mission-failing’ organizations were to close. I defined mission-failing organizations as those that were not providing sufficient cultural or social value relative to the investments in them. It’s an awkward phrase and I find it difficult to describe a mission-failing organization with any confidence; however, I can give an example of its opposite--an organization that is providing great cultural and social value--and did so in a talk I gave in 2010 called The … [Read more...]

Supply and Demand Redux: Rocco’s Comment and the Elephant in the Room

shutterstock_68024548 pink elephant revised

I’ve been following the responses to Rocco’s 'decreasing supply' comment and his subsequent post on the NEA blog. Some believe that supply/demand is the wrong framework through which to look at the sector; some that there is no such thing as too much art and that we should increase patronage rather than ‘kill’ organizations; some agree with him but believe it was inappropriate for him to make the statement; and a few seem to agree with his points and believe that it was beneficial for him to make them. I'm in the last group. Rocco has … [Read more...]