Before getting to the actual entry, a couple places I encourage you to visit.
(1) I was humbled to learn earlier this week that I was selected as one of the 50 Most Powerful and Influential People in the Non-Profit Arts in Barry Hessenius’ annual rundown. I’m honored, and thank everyone who reads this blog for the kind attention.
(2) A few months ago now, I was equally humbled to learn that a paper of mine, “Shattering the myth of the passive spectator: Entrepreneurial efforts to enhance participation in ‘non-participatory’ art,” was selected for publication in the inaugural issue of the online journal Artivate. The paper, and the whole first issue, will be published on September 1, and I hope you will both read my piece, which is a deep dive into the perilous term “participation” in context with presentational art, and the other selected in the journal. Click here for all the abstracts from Volume 1, Issue 1. And make sure to subscribe to the journal by providing your email there as well!
And now on to the main event:
So, you may have heard, there’s a renewed skirmish in the war on the arts. This one has the potential to be a bad one, a Shiloh-style massacre of public funding, if the wrong side wins, because the first shot in this particular battle came from the guy who wants to replace the guy who is president (who, by the way, already has a not-quite-stellar record when it comes to the arts and the charitable status on nonprofits. As Alyssa Rosenberg notes here, Romney has actually hardened his position against public funding of the arts since the beginning (so very long ago) of the world’s longest primary season. He started out wanting to cut it in half, he’s now saying just cut the whole thing–the whole subsidy for the NEA, the NEH and PBS.
To point it out, that entire number, if we assume the entirety of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s budget is at stake, amounts to just under $800 million per year (about $150m for the NEA and NEH each, and about $500m for the CPB), or .02% of the 2012 proposed federal budget (if you want to get sad with yourself, visit that link and type “arts” into the search bar, then zoom back out to see exactly how tiny the NEA’s appropriation really is). Which basically means it makes no sense at all to spend nearly as much airtime as Romney, Palin and other GOP luminaries spend talking about cutting out the evil arts from the public fund.
So why do they?
Diane Ragsdale wrote a few weeks ago about the failure of many arts nonprofits (and their boards) to take seriously the mandate to create work that is in the public interest–that, basically, is for the good and welfare of society. That’s what nonprofits are required by law to do; we better society through service, and so are not obligated to better society through taxes. Diane’s piece notes that this isn’t often the case, drawing off of an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that, she notes, doesn’t directly reference arts organizations but easily could. She’s right, and I think that this blind spot, over time, has contributed mightily to the reason that Romney can get so many points (because, honestly, that’s what this is about) by shouting about gutting public arts funding.
In an essay Diane wrote for me that we published in Counting New Beans, Ragsdale gets very clear and blunt very quickly about why Republicans can beat this particular horse to such great effect.
“What does it mean,” she asks, “when government cuts support of the arts? In a democracy, the government represents the people. My sense is that the government cuts the arts when it perceives that it will not encounter a huge political backlash for doing so. The government doesn’t value the arts because it perceives that the people don’t value the arts.”
We have, inadvertently, marched ourselves into a corner, and the madman’s at the door, and our saviors have either been actively driven away or simply are awash in the apathy of a systematic lack of arts in their lives.
What frustrates me is that, even with some level of understanding that that is the case, and that we need to be trying harder to be socially relevant, socially beneficial–and even though we all deeply believe that we are making a difference–the ever-so-important articulation of why we do what we do continues to be difficult to find. And here, unlike before, I’m not talking about the general intrinsic impact work we’ve been doing with companies across the country, I’m talking about something much more fundamental: the particular reasoning behind the selection of the art we pass to our patrons.
Recently, as part of our next phase of intrinsic impact research, I have been conducting “induction” interviews with 15 or so theatre companies from across the country who are surveying anywhere from 1 to 11 shows using the intrinsic impact protocol we developed with WolfBrown for Counting New Beans. In order to off-set one of the shortcomings of the original CNB research (namely, the lack of actionable outcomes for each organization), we have started to include a deep conversation at the beginning of the process about why they want to do this research, what their goals are for impacting their audiences, and what the role of each of these particular productions is in the season and in terms of mission fulfillment overall.
These are big questions. But they should not, I don’t think, be questions that stymie people who work in the nonprofit arts, particularly artistic staff who are directly or indirectly responsible for the selection of the art. The art, after all, is the most concrete manifestation of each organization’s mission (or at least should be), and so being unable to answer where each show fits in a mission-based conversation with your audience seems, to me, problematic.
And yet, with more than a few of these organizations (though absolutely not all), this line of questioning has been very difficult. In some cases, it was like I wasn’t speaking clearly–the artistic, marketing and management staff didn’t seem to understand the underlying sentiment of the question, and were sometimes even surprised that I would be asking such a line of questioning in context with impact assessment–but even with rephrasing, often, the particulars of show selection have been murky at best. Which has been surprising to me, in part, I think, because the 19 interviews we did with artistic leaders in Counting New Beans demonstrated a varied, but consistently deliberate and thoughtful, process for show selection, and at least some conscious recognition of the role of the work in furthering the mission.
In his interview in Counting New Beans, Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater in New York notes that, as artistic director, he was in essence hired for his taste. He, to his great credit, then goes on to note that his taste alone is insufficient, and he actually talks about “problematizing” his taste to ensure that the work selected is actively and wholly representative of the particular mission of the Public. He understands, I think, that the artistic director’s role is not simply to pick good art, but to curate an affecting, transformative set of work for an audience over time.
These are, from what I can see, incredibly smart, talented and dedicated people that I’ve been speaking with. They are as passionate about the arts as most people I’ve come across who have devoted themselves to this besieged profession, and they all seem to believe that the power of art is important and evident. And yet, in one of my more recent conversations, even with much pressing, we came around again and again to–instead of why this work was chosen from a mission-based point of view–why this work was chosen from a sales point of view. One show was “a lot of fun” and “great for families,” another was “the show that a guy would score big with as a first date.” To be fair, this last comment was made by marketing staff, and so the relevance of it as a marketing tool may have outweighed its usefulness as a definition of mission fulfillment. But I think that everyone in an organization should also have some understanding of the artistic director’s impetus in selecting and presenting the work in context with the mission–or else they risk misrepresenting the work to the public, and misgauging the success of the work after it is over. I worry that, as a field, we have found ourselves starving for food, and have re-appropriated our attention away from the difficult and slow work of minding the stuff that will sustain us, and that we can share in health with our community, in favor of caloric value and accessibility.
As the Economist notes in a recent poll, all hope is not lost, and about 60% of people do believe the art should be publicly funded. And I don’t intend here to argue that a work being a lot of fun is a bad thing, I’m just saying–if we are (and we are) really facing down a tidal wave of negativity from a huge swath of the population and if we have (and we have) largely squandered the good will of that population to come to our aid when, by proxy of cutting our public funding, one whole half of the political sphere seeks to eject art from the public square–aren’t we perhaps at a place now where being inarticulate about the how and why of our goodness in society isn’t just damaging, it’s suicidal?