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March 10, 2005

Toward a more nuanced ecology

Thanks to Doug for calling us down a bit from our broader policy and persuasion discussion (which has been a blast) toward a focus on actual action steps. To me, this conversation and this report have reinforced two areas that are ripe for action and exploration 'on the ground.'

The first is to relax and expand our conceptions of where aesthetic experience is delivered. Bill and Joli have urged us to consider meaningful experiences that live outside the nonprofit model (John Dewey, as I recall, also spoke of things like fly fishing), and to allow that there's a massive ecology that's worth supporting and feeding -- only part of which (perhaps just a tiny part) is in the formalized nonprofit arts.

Despite this nuanced ecology, our funding, policy, and support systems all drive artists to a Hobson's Choice: nonprofit or nothing. What range of options of support do we currently offer to creative endeavors that may live in neither the commercial or nonprofit world (what I've come to call 'unprofit' organizations)? Most contributed income is restricted to nonprofits, specifically 501c3 corporations, luring many artists to become much more structured and governed than they should be. Are there specific ways of loosening up this restrictive choice?

There is a vast middle ground between the symphony and the theme park, and it's ground we should more actively explore. I'm thinking here of 'fiscal sponsors' like Fractured Atlas, that allow artists and artistic projects to access contributed funds without forming as nonprofits themselves. I'm thinking here of microloans and co-ops and other support efforts currently focused on technology and biotech entrepreneurship. If there's powerful value in the fringes of our current system, let's send more energy to the fringes to see what happens.

I'll admit that this may not be the realm of public subsidy, but there's certainly opportunity for public policy to play a role (in zoning, in tax code, in corporate structure options, and such).

The second area of action/interest is clearly in this world of 'intrinsic' value (whatever we choose to call it). If the vitality of this individual and social connection is really the engine of all good things (including all the intrinsic outcomes), then arts managers and arts organizations should strive to understand it, to engage it, to build their business and their buildings around its possibility. I suggest that many organizations, funders, and managers have so readily accepted the trappings of the corporate metaphor, that they've lost part of the pipeline to the most powerful resources at their disposal -- meaning, message, discovery, purpose.

Ironically, such a management style is strikingly similar to our recommendations here for effective advocacy: not just talking but listening, connecting to why audiences really are drawn to what we do...not what we believe should draw them. This doesn't mean, necessarily, that we alter our art to suit the consumer...but more that we honor and recognize the many ways people can connect to the creative experience.

Some of this essential work has finally begun, in projects like The Values Study in Connecticut, which wasn't just a research study, but an effort to train a community of arts managers and leaders to truly listen. In part the goal was to lead organizations toward a conversation, rather than the traditional one-directional efforts of 'outreach,' 'presenting,' 'education,' and 'marketing.'

I'm percolating other specific action steps, but for now, that's enough of a rant.

Posted by ataylor at March 10, 2005 07:58 AM


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Ben Cameron
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Director of the Curb Center, Former Chair, NEA more

Joli Jensen
Professor, University of Tulsa, Author: "Is Art Good for Us?" more

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The Values Study
A collaborative effort of 20 Connecticut arts organizations, the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, and facilitator/author Alan S. Brown. The effort trained arts leaders to interview key members of their constituency, to discover what they valued about the creative experience -- in their own words. The process was sponsored by The Wallace Foundation's State Arts Partnerships for Cultural Participation (START) Program.

Valuing Culture
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The Arts and Economic Prosperity
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