The arts will always exist.
Wherever there are human beings the arts will be there.
It is far less clear that today’s arts organizations
will survive through the next several generations.
(You know you are old when you begin to use self-quotes as epigrams.)
This post responds to three things I’ve read recently that have me stewing (again) about the future of big- (and medium-) box nonprofit arts organizations, the ones that bear the DNA of the European aristocratic cultural tradition.
First, in articles about healthcare for all, I learned that one group of supporters views the elimination of the entire health insurance industry as a feature, not a bug. They believe the industry’s very nature is incompatible with the provision of cost-effective, responsive care. While I’m in total support of an approach that leads to universal healthcare, there is a mind-boggling investment in the healthcare infrastructure. I found myself wondering if eliminating it at a stroke is wise. And that reminded me of my frequent observation that we as a society have invested so much financial and human capital in the nonprofit arts industry that it needs to be re-directed so that it can far better serve the broad public good.
Second, the NY Times article The Earth Is Just Alive as You Are was a fascinating discussion of the theory that the earth as a whole is a living organism. It evolves as a sum of the parts that inhabit it. One of my takeaways was that there will always be life on earth so long as there is an earth. Even immediately after a nuclear war, there is a good case to be made that some species would survive. But there may not be human life. Careful readers, note the quote at the beginning of this post.
And third, my blogging buddy Trevor O’Donnell says he’s throwing in the towel in his effort to get arts marketers to adopt customer-centered marketing. (I’ve Been Wrong This Whole Time) He has become convinced that big nonprofit arts organizations, because of their core nature, are incapable of change and we shouldn’t annoy them by trying to make them do things differently. I pray they can change but I won’t swear to it.
One of my very first public presentations about the arts and community engagement took place nine years ago in St. Louis. My title was “Turning a Reluctant Battleship: The Arts Establishment and Community Arts.” I got a lot of pushback then that the big organizations were incapable of change.
I won’t swear that significant change is possible; but I live in hope fueled by awareness of what a terrible waste of societal resources it would be if it’s not. And I do see people–many people–working to transform thinking in our industry. But the inertial forces that preclude community-focused thinking are certainly overwhelming. That’s why I used the battleship metaphor.
I would ask that we all keep doing all we can as long as our energy lasts and trust that when we can’t handle it any longer others will step up. (And Trevor, thanks for being a voice in the wilderness.)