Dinnervention 2: For What’s Sake?



At one point during the dinner, Nina Simon and I got into a few sentences of disagreement about where the line was between arts institutions and community centers—and whether there should be one at all.  For me, this is a complicated issue, and it’s an area where I often end up feeling like the most conservative person in the room, especially when the room is filled with 11 other people making their names by questioning everything.

Nina creates interactivity right at the border of the art—it is interesting and inspiring, and I am so on board with the work she is doing to broaden and expand the impact that the pieces in her museum have on the community of Santa Cruz.  And then I sometimes hear (and I should say, much to my chagrin, that I haven’t been to visit Nina in situ, though I should also say my reactions are to speeches that she has given, not to hearsay) things that give me pause—moments of preferencing community gathering so far over the art that I get concerned the premise would work if the art weren’t there at all.  At which point I fear the pendulum has swung too far.

Going middle of the road is so boring, right?  But there I am.  I feel a need to embrace that there is a continuum between art as personal enterprise and institutions as community-oriented on either side of which—all art and no art—we are at odds with the reason this field exists.

I was once at a large one-day convening pulled together as part of the Wallace Foundation activities in San Francisco a few years ago–it was an unusual convening for me to attend in that it had a large contingent of artists, which led to energy in the room that was at once exciting and off-putting for me.  As part of the programming, an artist was asked to come up on stage and demonstrate how he might pitch for funds for a project he was trying to put together.  The artist, who crossed lines between theatre, dance and painting, jumped up, high energy, and he laid out a hypothetical project and then asked the audience, his investors, to ask him questions.

“What justification do you have for why your art deserves to exist?” He was asked.

“Art does not need to justify itself,” he said. “Art simply deserves to exist.”

The crowd roared, and dollar bills rained from the balcony.

I found myself mortified.

In advance of the Dinnervention, I tweeted and messaged out the question that I hear in my mind over and over–“Art for whose sake? Art for what’s sake?”

The predominant answer, which I found sort of frustrating, was a variation on “Art for fuck’s sake” — or, better punctuated (I think), “Art, for fuck’s sake!”  This, I feel, is myopic, because the unintended hubris inherent in it indicates a lack of true understanding of the apathy (as opposed to animosity) that exists in most of American society about the art we think is so obviously good.

Art may not need to justify itself, but art does need to be justified.  Arts institutions need to justify the presentation of art in that they need to explain why that art resonates with the mission, what good it is doing to the community, what role it plays.

In my (short but steep) learning curve at Americans for the Arts, I have been schooled in the nuance of the “arts and…” argument.  It is what Americans for the Arts does, by and large, make this type of argument, and while we sometimes get a knock for an overly large focus on “arts and economic impact,” the fact of the matter is that we reach in all directions to try and explain to people who don’t inherently care about art for art’s sake that they should care about art for other reasons–healthcare, military rehabilitation, idea accessibility, civic dialogue, improved scholastic performance, empathy, brain development, historical context, complex conceptualization, eldercare.  On my wall in my office, like the rest of the people in my department (at my request), I have the top 13 things that local governments think is important as gathered by the National League of Cities.  They are:

  1. Business attraction/recruitment
  2. Downtown/commercial redevelopment
  3. Business retention
  4. Infrastructure
  5. Small business/entrepreneur support
  6. Tourism/entertainment
  7. Community/neighborhood development
  8. Public safety
  9. Environmental sustainability
  10. Workforce/job training
  11. Affordable housing
  12. K-12 education
  13. Safety net services

Those are the books of our Bible, because those are the areas where a whole lot of people are searching for solutions–and where often that solution can be found in art.

I have noticed, lately, a bit of mythology being built around the Time Before Nonprofit Status, when art was made and sustained based on true consumer enjoyment, the dollar at the door was what allowed you to continue or not, the audience dictated the content in the same way they dictated who was more popular, Coke or Pepsi.  I used to find this disheartening, this idea that so many were suddenly yearning for a return to a time when so many fewer people could be practicing artists, when the art itself was manufactured, to draw from Henry Ford’s famous quote, much more as horses than cars.  But that lament lacks detail.

The non-profit status is a bargain, and when I hear people talking about abandoning it now, I try to remind myself that that bargain isn’t for everyone.  The nature of the bargain was the ability to accept donations from individuals and to be exempted from most taxation on the assumption that, through art, we were bettering society.  We got the money in exchange for the common good.  We got the freedom to solicit investment in work that we believed would change society for the better–Henry Ford’s cars–and the ability to freely extrapolate what the common public good meant.  And then we forgot that, by and large, and the public whose good we were pursuing moved on–not away from art, but to other art, away from us.

A new movement in the arts must be defined by what we can provide to a society already searching for solutions to ills–one defined by a caring for the community first, not for the artist first, but also by embracing that art is our core strategy for success, not an incidental.  I believe in the power of the art, just as I believe in our power to amplify the art’s impact.

This is part of a larger series of posts about the Arts Dinnervention.  View the previous one here.

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  1. says

    I was at that Wallace Foundation event and my $20 dollar bill was part of the shower on the artist. His ploy was clever and engaging and liberating. He posited a performance intervention into the mundane activity of exercising on a treadmill at gym, and his audacity and joy were contagious. I later invited him to Chicago to give a presentation to artists on how to raise funding and support for their projects. Years hence, I still receive feedback on how effective and useful his presentation was. I am saddened to hear that your reaction to the same performance was so different, and that you cling so fast to ‘the middle of the road.’

    Getting and maintaining NFP status has become progressively arduous process, as the regulations and procedures established for large NFPs like healthcare and museums often outmatch the benefits for smaller art groups whose base isn’t as needy of tax exemptions. The public for the most part has moved on to commercial art — music, movies, food, clothes, games, books, etc. — and private funding initiatives that are nimble and broad-based like Kickstarter.

    As to your tweeted query, art for who’s sake? Sometimes its simply art for the sake of someone daring to make it, especially without profit as a primary motivation, and for others to enjoy that that possibility continues to exist.

  2. David Roche says

    “Art on its own terms” is the way Sam Hope of the National Association of Schools of Music used to express it. “Art for art’s sake” or “art for *uck sake” sounds like so much noblesse oblige. While civic institutions and public culture policy will ultimately dictate scale and scope, let’s not forget our responsibility to forms, as Barthes would put it.

  3. says

    It’s funny, I, too, was at that convening in San Francisco and remember that experience well. And what I took away from it was that here was an artist who was making things happen for himself, outside the walls of institutions, and here was an artist who was acutely aware of the context of his work…in fact the context WAS the work. The project was called ‘Witness the Fitness’ (possibly the best name ever) and while I have no idea whether he ever actually completed the project, I can say that I think about that project every time I walk by a strip mall fitness place with treadmills facing the sidewalk window. I think sometimes the question of “for who’s sake?” leads us down a path that creates an unnecessary tension between community and art (or traditional definitions of artistic quality.) Relevancy can be achieved through context and intention, too. Where we place the art, how art interacts with our surroundings and the daily life of our community (like people working out!) that makes art relevant to people in new or unexpected ways.

  4. says

    Most of the time, these types of conversations and questions don’t make sense to me. Why do the arts have to be put in a particular box? I am not middle of the road, but rather like to travel in the different lanes from time to time. Wouldn’t this be a better way to drive the arts?

    PS Thank you for the list of the top 13 things that local governments think is important. Very helpful to have hanging in our offices!


  1. […] Last year Barry of Barry’s Blog posed the idea of having a dinner of arts leaders where all arts management and artist creation ideas were on the table among other guided subjects.  New Beans, a blog by  Clayton Lord responds to his experience at the dinnervention which actually took place this year with our input on which arts leaders would be invited.  Here is his response and it’s a good one I think and one I have been considering a lot in light of Wichita’s art museum staff turnover in the past year.  If you follow museum leadership, you will know the name  Nina Simon.  Read on to find our more from Clayton. Dinnervention 2: For What’s Sake? […]