Tearing the Middle Man Limb from Limb (or, So What’s An Arts Organization To Do?)

Conflict (Chess II) by Cristian V. from Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Conflict (Chess II) by Cristian V. from Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

I did not jump between the Theatre Communications Group (#TCG2011) and Americans for the Arts (#AFTA11) conferences this past weekend expecting to come away with a vague feeling of impending anarchy and possible civil war, but I did. And if you had told me as I was going into the weekend that I would have taken that general mood seriously enough to write about it, I would have laughed at you. Civil war seems so, well, dramatic…and yet, it is becoming clear to me that the mounting fatigue that foundation and government funders are feeling around what they see as over-greedy, under-effective arts organizations (of all sizes, though Really Big is the dominant mode) that stand between artists and audiences is leading to rumblings of drastic funding realignment across the country — which in turn are getting the backs of LORT and others up in a way that portends unhealthy future conflict.

Rocco Landesman, head of the NEA, laid out the argument as follows:

“There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists. Do we need three administrators for every artist? Resident theaters in this country began as collectives of artists. They have become collectives of arts administrators. Do we need to consider becoming more lightly institutionalized in order to get more creativity to more audiences more often? It might also allow us to pay artists more.” 

It’s worth noting that there was a lot of protest around the numbers Landesman used here — TCG, as I understand it, even sent a formal letter of complaint.  But, setting aside the specifics, the general concept is that larger-than-fair portions of the grantmaking kitty in any given year go to organizational overhead costs, including paying for all those administrators, many of whom (like me) don’t directly create any of the art the organization’s mission is centered around. Just this week, Diane Ragsdale argued on Jumper that economic indicators of excellence, many of which matter much more for producing organizations than individual artists, are getting in the way of what she called “the good:” old-fashioned art-making and mission fulfillment. This is all essentially a variation on the supply/demand discussion, which, while subsequently bastardized into an argument about the “amount of art in the world,” actually started out as a push for a potential decrease in the complexity of the delivery structure (aka, “there need to be fewer arts organizations”).

At TCG, futurist and self-described “keynoter, that’s what I do” David Houle (“rhymes with cool”) noted that the disintegration of strong organizational structures has been going on for many years–and that theatre is actually one of the only bastions left within the fine arts where monolithic organizations are the primary conduit for the art. He argues that the proliferation of technology has created a “neurosphere that holds all of our thought, all of our culture,” and calls what’s coming “the evisceration of the middle man.”

Which you might take just as hype. Houle seems like sort of a hyperbolic guy. But then I started hearing whispers, about things like that the main lawyer for LORT was at the conference (“and he hates conferences!”) because LORT is nervous about the rumbling. About how one local LORT house had sent senior advisors into the conference specifically to suss out what was coming down the pike. This of course isn’t about David Houle; it’s about whether the arguments being made about adapting away from monolithic theatre organizations are gaining traction, and where, and in what form. It’s about grumbling funders who feel like the major arts institutions have abandoned anyone who isn’t white and old and rich–a charge which, while potentially supported by the make-up of audiences in a given house, is overly simplistic and seems to assume that the leaders of those organizations gather in smoke-filled rooms to figure out how to screw non-white cultures out of arts experiences.

And perhaps most of all it’s about the truth behind funder grumblings–the fact, for example, that disintermediation (the so-called evisceration of the middle man) is a societal shift, and that in a lot of ways it’s like toothpaste having been squeezed out of the tube. It’s not going back in. The same person who pointed out the presence of the LORT lawyer worries that the real world consequence of this discomfort is that we’re all going to turn on each other. Or more specifically, that our largest institutions, who lead us in visibility and supposedly carry the torch for our values arguments by serving the most people, will push back on a funding climate that propped them up for 30 or more years as the epitome of what an arts organization should wish to become, and is now changing the game.

The hum in the air seems to indicate the setting up of sides—one pushing for the continuation of the system, one pushing to upend it. Which all, really, just makes me frustrated.

The panic and negativity here is masking something really important. Theatre, which can I guess be created without an organizational infrastructure, sure is hard to do alone. It’s a communal enterprise by definition, at least between one actor and one audience member.  Yeah, maybe the fact that development staff at certain organizations make more than the executive director is annoying, but that space, or that marketing staff, or that education program sure can come in handy when a playwright wants to reach a particular audience. What I’m saying is, organizations have the potential to be incredible support structures for individual artists. They can elevate and expand what’s best about the work – they can provide curatorial structure to an ecosystem that produces incredibly varied work, and therefore can amplify impact in ways that make them crucial to the larger success of the field. They can bring together playwrights and directors, actors and designers, the best, most talented among us, drawing on large webs and then providing them time and space to make the best work they can. They can do a lot.

Which isn’t to say they always, or even really ever, do – not completely. Right now, most theatre organizations (and not just the biggest ones) are large, opaque pyramids, heaving on hierarchy and light on new ideas, with impossibly large walls that stretch out east and west to keep the audience and the artist apart. They take in work through the front door and break it down, crush it up, direct it through tiny grates and down hallways it’s not really built for, all the while deciding, often without consulting the artist outside, about who particularly should be involved in the conversation. Then they present it to the audience in the courtyard, maybe bring the artist in for a photo-op, and ask for more money. And, oh yeah, it doesn’t really pay well. This of course is the worst-case scenario, but I think that for an increasing number of people (both makers and funders), it feels like the rule rather than the exception.

If there’s one thing that resonated for me as the buzz concept of both TCG and AFTA, it was this idea of the collapse of the hierarchical, monolithic arts organization not into dust, but into a flatter, brighter, airier and more transparent facilitator. It was the idea that the best organizations won’t go away—and that organizations going away isn’t really terribly viable, at least not completely—but will instead transform themselves into what they were always meant to be: pathways to work.

Ben Cameron closed AFTA in his usual rousing fashion, talking about how the reformation was a really bad time to be a monastery (get it?) while also making sure to say he wasn’t talking about the death of the organization (an earlier, and not quite the same, version of the speech here). He talked about the rise of adaptability as the core defining characteristic of a healthy arts organization, and juxtaposed it against twenty years of the sector talking about stability as the pathway to sustainability. He called the shift “the expansion of aesthetic responsibility and the challenge of traditional models of cultural authority.” He argued that to make economic impact the sole justification for our work is to sell ourselves incredibly short, and posed four questions that any arts organization needs to ask itself in order to judge its value in this new world order:

  • What is the value of theatre (the medium, not my company) for my community?
  • What is the value that theatre (again, the medium) brings that can’t be replicated?
  • How would my community be damaged if deprived of theatre tomorrow?
  • How might my organization be optimally structured, poised and behaved to be my community’s optimal conduit to theatre?

“Optimal conduit.” That phrase really resonates for me, particularly because I think that any organization, no matter their current size or scope, can work towards that goal. The rise of the transparent organization, the placement of art and audience back at the center. The replacement of the imposing palace with an open park, full of paths where unexpected interactions can occur—the replacement of constraining shadows with joyful, playful light and air, the rise of the nurturing impulse. A shift from economics to impact, from short-term to long-term, from past to future audiences. The expansion of our view from the myopia of “gotta get this show sold” to “gotta get this conversation started, gotta change this person.”

Yes, maybe it’s threatening. Maybe it means that we’ll discover certain organizations aren’t holding their own, or are refusing to engage. And maybe it’s just a phase, and in a few years the funders will turn their attention elsewhere. But in the meantime, in the parlance of this year’s TCG conference, What If…we spent less time trying to preserve our past structures, foibles and all, for the sake of stability and instead spent some time within our organizations identifying the places where the conduit is jammed, and cleaned it out, let some light in, and stood back to let the interaction happen?

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  1. Bill Raden says

    Bravo to Clayton Lord, who has given eloquent voice to the frustrations over which we members of the non-institutional theater community have been pulling out our hair for years. Taking a serious look at the cost-effectiveness and certainly the cultural relevance of the publicly funded regional monoliths is long overdue.

    Here in Los Angeles, the best evidence that there is something rotten with the institutional model is the alarming aging of The Mark Taper Forum’s geriatric audience, which on any given evening resembles more what you’d expect to find at a weekend Broadway matinee than at the flagship of any city’s nonprofit theater. The Taper’s parent organization, Center Theatre Group, virtually defines institutional, bureaucratic bloat. It spends upwards of $40 million each year, essentially importing critically lauded hits from elsewhere, or developing wretchedly misconceived and invariably workshop-fatigued fare whose sole justification for being onstage seems to have more to do with arcane co-production agreements with other regionals than in the intrinsic worth of what is being produced.

    Typically, the Taper recently spent $30 million on an upgrade of their 1960’s-era building located in that ghostly and foreboding performing arts acropolis downtown known as The Los Angeles Music Center. Architecturally speaking, the Taper never made sense as a place to see or make theater before the renovation and, in spite of some lavish, new marble restrooms, it makes as little sense today. Meanwhile, one of the city’s most exciting and intellectually ambitious companies, Poor Dog Group, couldn’t get the money or the stage needed to perform their new piece, “Satyr Atlas,” in the recent CTG-co-produced RADAR L.A. festival, despite the fact that it was arguably the most singularly outstanding single work of original theater produced by this town in years.

    What good are regional institutions if they don’t help cultivate and sustain regional voices? Too many of us in this city feel that, rather than wasting $30 million, the Taper should have been abandoned in place, CTG dissolved as a producing entity, and in its place established a Corporation for Public Theater that would continue doing what CTG does best — raising money — but disburse it to worthy artists via peer-review.

  2. says

    Isn’t one of the “optimal conduit” solutions for more theatres (and other arts organizations who have a commonality of interest) to share some administrative functions, as a way of demonstrating efficiency to funders and increasing programmatic resources?

  3. says

    Excellent commentary, capturing the leading concerns in the field right now. The truth is, individual artists need to have opportunities to receive funding directly without having to crouch beneath the (sometimes paternalistic) wings of an organization. Funders have been instrumental in shaping the state of the current field by making it nearly impossible for individual artists to receive direct funding. However, we cannot sustain a meaningful arts dialogue or contribute to robust civic engagement without arts organizations: our casas de cultura that are also sites of refuge, learning, and exchange. Organizations aren’t sustainable without infrastructure, and this is especially critical for underrepresented sectors of the field.

  4. D. W. Jacobs says

    Clayton. This is a great start on tackling the important issues facing us right now. For most of the past thirty years, it has struck me that while the business world has tried to integrate more creative and inclusive models, the regional theatres have been trying to reinvent The Organization Man of the 1950s. Theatres have generally diversified the work while failing to diversify the audience. As Wedekind said, one of the most important moral functions of a theatre is to discover that others don’t share your own responses to any specific action or event. Many cry at something you might find funny. Others howl with laughter at something you find completely lacking in humor. Since theatres aim marketing at their “target” demographic, how can they possibly serve the theatre’s most important moral purpose as so brilliantly defined by Frank Wedekind? As Bucky said, every system has an inside and an outside, and that which separates the inside from the outside. Too often the skins of our institutions are not permeable enough to reflect the outside world. As opposed to holding up a mirror to nature, too many institutions ponder their own image in their own private pool. During the JFK era, John Gardner’s book on SELF RENEWAL, was the best antidote to the stiffness and ossifications that will come to even the best organizations. It’s still a very clear book about a very complex process. It’s really true: if organizations can’t reinvent themselves every 7 to 8 years, they will, in some important way… die. Sometimes, the leadership leads into this change, but more often they resist it in a range of conscious and unconscious ways. It can be an excrutiating process from top to bottom. Too often, the experienced bottom and skilled middle management are strategically laid off to preserve the top. Resistance can come from the top, middle or bottom, but the leadership from any level is almost always stifled if the top is not deeply serious about change. Read Deming, another US naval engineer, and the guru of Quality management. As the world continues to fragment and fall apart, theatre could lead us through this as essential places for live “flesh and blood” engagements, but only if we pay attention to the wild forces at work in world around us. The best way to do that is by diversifying the audience. You can’t possibly diversify an audience without paying attention to needs of a wild range of people. Traditional marketing does not focus on that. It narrows the focus on the “target.” Too often we become specialists in specific markets. We must target the world as reflected by our specific locale. Joe is right about the importance of sharing administrative functions. As suggested in the comments above, the big institutions could serve (and benefit) as umbrellas, if they shared in this struggle with a range of smaller local organizations that serve different local audiences. These would be healthier collaborations than having too many partnerships with other regional theatres. Those collaborations can serve important goals, but they can also smack more of colonialism than rooting into the specifics of your region. Bill is right about Poor Dog Group and the importance of Satyr Atlas. Tanya is right about the need for supporting individual artists. This trend to supporting institutions instead of artists grew very rapidly after the political attacks on the NEA. Institutions can add many layers of bureaucracy to insulate politicans from any responsibility for the work of any individual artist. The same thing happens in education. Too often, curriculum defeats imagination while protecting teachers and administrators from taking initiative and personal responsibility for their individual classrooms and schools. Most of these patterns in schools and theatres avoid the need to pay attention to the locally specific “room” and that room’s mysterious and hidden interactions with the greater “World” of systems outside the classroom.