Dinnervention 5: Pragmatism and Destruction



“I want to kill them,” Devon Smith says, the klieg lights heating up the tiny dining room where we are eating and intervening. She goes on, arguing that we need to kill the organizations that aren’t relevant, that aren’t trying to be relevant.

The aggression is off-putting, and my gut response, which I act upon, is to soften up the verb, “surely you don’t mean ‘kill’,” but Devon pushes back and tells me that is exactly what she means.  Which of course it is–Devon isn’t one to misspeak. It is a bold thought. It scares me.

I find myself, lately, preoccupied with destabilization.  It is, in a very real way, another moment where I feel too cautious for the conversation.  What Devon is talking about–agency on an aggressive and deterministic scale–is appealing for the fact that I believe part of our issue in the arts, particularly around public value, is that the largest institutions, expert at the ways of non-profit longevity, can grossly outlast relevance without embracing true change. But when I imagine such an occurrence I blanch.  Skip the how, and imagine a major LORT theatre, unwilling or unable to transform itself into a more relevant and accessible institution for the full community, suddenly being divested of sufficient funds and structural support as to be killed dead.  Imagine the collateral damage.  Imagine the administrators, yes, but imagine the artists.  Imagine the community, with a big building suddenly dark, no well-heeled patrons pouring out and into restaurants and bars.

When you are a $30 million non-profit, you are no longer just a social good organ—an extension of the state designed to provide societal service.  At $30 million, you are an economic driver, you are a relatively major employer, and more than that, you are a vested interest of a whole lot of people.  You are large, and to kill you would be to pull a large block from a precarious tour.

This makes me feel so much like I am suddenly protecting the problem. This makes me feel like I am suddenly on the side of “too big to fail.”  Which angers me because I am equally on the side of “change or go.”  But for all of my excitement at the prospect of change, I am ultimately also preoccupied with longevity, with stability–and so I have to wonder what a tenable elaboration on the killing of organizations might look like.

In her essay in Counting New Beans, Diane Ragsdale argues for the arts to embrace “creative destruction” — the taking control of deconstruction that must either be taken control of or occur randomly–essentially, the curation of change.  This is an interesting concept, and is in a clear way the soft-pedaled version of Devon’s death panels for the arts, but it comes up against the same issue of agency that pervaded so much.

How do we get from here to there, when we agree on none of the following in that question: “we,” “here,” “there?”  Who takes the reins when no one knows where the reins are, when the reality is that there are not reins so powerful as to make change happen?

I spoke with a foundation program officer recently who is seeking a way to participate in conversations about diversity, but who is concerned about their funds put towards such a conversation being viewed as an imprimatur that the foundation is advocating for diversification as a universal course.  I understand the problem, and respect the resistance to a possibly activist stance, but I also feel that the reality of that problem means we are essentially doomed to keep having the conversation we have had for fifty years without seeing real directed change.  The only difference I see, and it pains me to be such a pessimist in this, is that the new movement we seek may occur as a simple picking up after we all fall down–that we aren’t having the same conversation as 30, 40, 50 years ago because we are 30, 40, 50 years closer to the tipping point.  We are like the scientists watching the ice caps melt, knowing we are about to be deluged but unable to agree on where to put the levees.

A new movement in the arts must be willing to sacrifice its flailing parts while also understanding the imbalance that such sacrifice will create.  At the same time, a new movement in the arts must be willing to recognize the long march of history, the pace with which we have dug our holes, and the incremental, sustainable, stable progress that is necessary to get out–and must celebrate such effort wherever it may crop up.

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  1. says

    Brilliant graphic! I do think grantmakers should consider their role in the orderly dissolution of cultural organizations that have reached the point where they don’t have the will or finances or audience/community support to continue. These “closing” grants would be a blessing to everyone who cares about the organization. Employees could be helped to find other jobs, auxiliaries could find new groups to support, etc. Chapter 7 bankruptcies take no prisoners–staff, sets, assets are up for grabs. I have seen this kind of desperate, suicidal act leave a deep, psychic scar on a community’s sense of itself. Though painful and sometimes necessary, these closings needn’t be chaotic.

    • Christina says

      I wonder, could we have, should we have considered City Opera’s first endowment draw a “closing grant” that could have prevented the second endowment draw? They still would have closed, but a lot of money and pain would have been saved. It seems unlikely, though, that any Attorney General ever would have considered trying to approach the problem that way.

  2. says

    I’m increasingly concerned about the through line in this discourse that accepts organizational failure as a given when there is so much that can be done to save valuable institutions. Don’t we risk setting up a self-fulfilling prophesy when elite arts insiders in the funding and advocacy communities begin devising narratives that include the end of arts institutions and the beginning of a post-institutional era?

    Personally, I don’t buy that narrative. I think it’s the easy way out. I think arts institutions can and should be saved, even if it’s difficult to do.

    I know that audiences are abundant, fully renewable and virtually inexhaustible because I’ve spent so much of my career engaging with them, advocating on their behalf and persuading them to participate. Any arts organization that really wants to can increase its audience by simply stepping outside the bubble long enough to meet new audiences where they live, learn what they want and speak to them in a language they understand.

    Arts institutions don’t deserve death squads. They deserve leaders who will help them survive. Leaders who will usher in more sophisticated, professional, industrywide audience development practices where amateur traditions have long held sway. Leaders who will blow the dust off of musty old fundraising traditions and shape a new case for a new generation of contributors. Leaders who will support and reward organizational executives who innovate, change and embrace solutions from external sources. Leaders who will agree to destroy the bubble long before accepting the demise of institutions that once thrived, but are now suffocating inside it.

    It’s all possible. It’s all doable. And it’s the right thing to do, but it won’t happen if the leadership playbook is being written by deep insiders who are already chiseling epitaphs on institutional tombstones.

  3. says

    I can’t imagine any arts advocate recommending that the IRS be the judge as to what arts organization is succeeding or failing at serving the public good. Whose side is Smith on?