“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.