What Is the Arts Business?

The problem with unconscious assumptions is that they are  . . . unconscious. Even for me, spending time as I do questioning the status quo in the arts, the basic nature of the arts enterprise–deeper even than  the “business model”–often remains unexplored. But the arguments for and against community engagement inevitably have at their root this fundamental question. What is the arts business?

Individual or Community Resource?
A good (and valuable) preliminary question might be “Are the arts an individual or a community resource?” Trick question, of course. The arts inevitably serve both. However, I think much of our focus is on the individual, both as creator and consumer. I certainly believe more attention should be paid to the arts as a resource for community improvement. And, of course, by community I mean any collection of people who are bound–intentionally or, sometimes, de facto–by a characteristic they share: geography, certainly, but also culture, interests, concerns, preferences, background, etc. We speculate that this service to community was one of the origins of the arts but their binding or healing power for communities has been, in my opinion, under-appreciated, under-valued, and under-utilized by the arts infrastructure. (Evil Doug is trying to get me to say that the community service nature of the arts has been under-monetized. Oops, there he went.)

What Is the Business?
The deeper fundamental (and even less consciously considered) question is “What is the business?” I’ve got three metaphors to consider, but let me clarify as I always used to do for my students, the fact that I list three does not mean that I think these are the three, that these are correct, or that three is even the right number. I will also acknowledge that almost no one thinks of their work as part of the first two I list, but I am talking about unconscious assumptions.

This is a work in progress. I may not even agree with myself next week. With that caveat, here goes:

  • Reliquary, as in a shrine or container of relics. The only focus here is on the relic. A reliquary would still be a reliquary if no one looked at it. Arts organizations that are “all about the art” are reliquaries whether they deal in visual (fixed) or performing (variable) work.
  • Hajj, as in a regularly occurring pilgrimage to a holy place. I am taking a specific religious rite and attempting to make a secular metaphor out of it. The metaphor holds that in a secular hajj, the destination of the journey (the museum, concert hall, theater, etc.) and the content to be found there are primary. A pilgrim is required for a hajj, but the intent is for the participants to be uplifted by objects or experiences. In the arts hajj, it is the audience/visitor who is transformed or edified; the art is fixed and not altered or affected by external concerns, interests, or influences. For the art to be so would be sacrilege. The arts organizations that treat their offerings as a “city on a hill” that the public is lucky to have available fit this metaphor. What is important, again, is the art.
  • Commons, as in a resource accessible to all members of society. The commons belongs to everyone, even those who do not take advantage of it. People can utilize it individually or collectively. The commons is extremely valuable, but its purpose is to be of benefit to those who use it. While it might exist if no one took advantage of it, it would not be fulfilling its core purpose. In addition, as time and society changes, the merit of individual expressions of the commons may change. (Hitching posts for horses are not nearly as valuable today as they were in the West in frontier times.) Arts organizations that see art as a means of improving individual lives and collective experience are living out the commons metaphor. For them, if a work of art is not speaking to the community, that’s not the community’s fault; their response is either community-focused education or selection of alternative works.

I suspect I may be missing a metaphor somewhere between hajj and commons, but this is the best I can do today. The important thing is to consider what the focus of an arts organization is. As I suggested in Shifting the Center, the simple act of thinking about community interests in programming decisions can pay great dividends. Moving away from a reliquary- or hajj-like approaches will prove far more sustainable for the long term.



Reliquary Photo: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Art History Images (Holly Hayes)
Kaaba Photo: Attribution Some rights reserved by Al Fassam
Commons Photo: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Jack W. Pearce


  1. Was art ever about business?
    I have been reading numerous art administration blog posts all with the same message – the reason art organizations are struggling is because they are not giving the people what they want. This attitude stems from the populist notion that everyone is “creative’ which has swept the art organization world like a fire storm. The notion suggest that if everyone is creative, and they are not attending our institutions, then we must not be giving them what they want and we need to change.
    The problem with this overly simplistic notion is that it doesn’t fairly portray what art is and neither does it identify who “the public” is and what it is they want.
    But even more importantly, it’s not what art does. Our societies most moving books, movies, plays, and paintings weren’t made by catering to what people supposedly want. Art isn’t created by consensus.
    Thinking of art as a business simply creates one Lion King after another.

    • Many of my posts may deserve this critique since my focus is primarily on arts organizations rather than artists. But I think you have gotten caught up in the word “business” in the way that I sometimes do when I see people use (I might say mis-use) the words engage or engagement. The real focus of this post is on the fundamental nature of the arts (maybe you could think “mission” rather than business) as lived out/demonstrated by arts organizations. That said, I don’t have serious disagreement with the point you make about the topic you are raising.