A couple weeks back the Irvine Foundation launched an online Q&A series, Are We Doing Enough?—aimed at “exploring tough questions about engagement practices and programming.” I was delighted and honored to be one of a small group of “outsiders” asked to provide some reflections in response to one of the Qs. The first two issues of the series (Part 1 and Part 2) featured a group of Irvine’s current grantees, as well as Irvine arts program director Josephine Ramirez, addressing such questions as: Should artists be responsible for creating art for the purpose of engaging communities? What purpose do “engagement events” serve if people don’t start showing up at the museum? and Are culturally and racially-specific organizations negatively affected when mainstream arts organizations offer diverse programming?
Clay Lord, Vu Lee, Karen Mack, Teresa Eyring and I were asked to address the question: Is there an issue in the arts field that is more urgent than engagement? You can read how we responded here. I want to use this post to elaborate on my response, the conclusion of which was this:
While lack of meaningful engagement in the arts is indeed troubling, I would offer that a larger problem is that the nonprofit, professional arts have become, by-and-large, as commodified, homogeneous, transactional, and subject to market forces as every other aspect of American society. From where I sit, the most important issue in the arts field these days may be that the different value system that art represents no longer seems to be widely recognized or upheld — by society-at-large, or even within the arts field itself.
As I’ve mentioned from time-to-time on Jumper, the topic of my dissertation is the evolving relationship between the commercial and nonprofit theater in America—how it has changed over time, why, and with what consequence. Some of the deeper questions motivating my research have been:
- What is nonprofit professional theater for?
- Are there clear differences between the way the theater that exists for the primary goal of making money relates to its employees, customers and market and the way the theater that exists to improve society through art relates to its front-line missionaries (i.e., staff and volunteers), beneficiaries (i.e., artists and audiences) and the community-at-large?
- If not, or if these have been eroding over time, is this cause for concern? Can and should we stem the tide? And if so, how?
In 2011 I helped to plan and document a meeting of nonprofit and commercial theater producers, who were gathered to discuss partnerships between them. Candidly, the room seemed rather stumped for an answer to a version of that first question. A few ideas were tossed out but nothing stuck–in large part because, as more than a few participants observed, nonprofits and commercial producers “are more and more the same in practice.” As I wrote in the report (available here in paperback or free e-file) anaylyzing the meeting:
Many noted that it is no longer evident what value nonrofits bring to the table, distinct from commercial producers. Some suggested that the interests of nonprofit and commercial producers are now aligned to the point where the shape of [their] intersection is less like a crossroads and more like two lanes merging on a highway.
And why is that?
Well, lots of reasons. But part of the issue seems to be that the 20th century witnessed not just the professionalization of the community arts but their corporatization. Once labors of love by amateurs, arts groups across the US incorporated as not-for-profit corporations but then put corporate leaders on their boards, hired staff with more corporate management skills, adopted corporate marketing techniques, and looked to major corporations like hospitals and universities for models on how to raise money and advance their institutions. Savvier arts nonprofits also opened for-profit subsdiaries, formed partnerships with commercial enterprises, or became real estate investors or developers … basically, they pursued any and all means of exploiting their assets. And, ironically but not surprisingly, much of this sort of activity was actively encouraged by private philanthropists and government agencies.
What’s been the cost?
In her book Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf writes:
If people are highly successful in their professions they lose their senses. Sight goes. They have no time to look at pictures. Sound goes. They have no time to listen to music. Speech goes. They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion—the relations between one thing and another. Humanity goes.
I don’t know about you, but I find this statement to be disturbingly resonant.
Here we are in the 21st century and it strikes me that the nonprofit arts have become increasingly dehumanized–which is ironic since arguably one of the primary benefits of the arts is that they stimulate the senses, awaken us to beauty, fill us with awe, connect us to others, and inspire us to be better humans. But as David Brooks seemed to be arguing in his January 15 column When Beauty Strikes Back (for which he took quite a bit of flack), the arts have forgotten or rejected this role and society is poorer for it. He writes:
These days we all like beautiful things. Everybody approves of art. But the culture does not attach as much emotional, intellectual or spiritual weight to beauty. We live, as Leon Wieseltier wrote in an essay for The Times Book Review, in a post-humanist moment. That which can be measured with data is valorized. Economists are experts on happiness. The world is understood primarily as the product of impersonal forces; the nonmaterial dimension of life explained by the material ones. …
The shift to post-humanism has left the world beauty-poor and meaning-deprived. It’s not so much that we need more artists and bigger audiences, though that would be nice. It’s that we accidentally abandoned a worldview that showed how art can be used to cultivate the fullest inner life.
Perhaps the arts are losing a battle over the minds and souls of society in large part because we don’t seem to recognize that we have been fighting for the wrong side–don’t recognize it because, as Woolf says, we have lost our senses. We have been swept up in econometrics and CRM theory and funder logic models and we have lost our ability to see what is in front of us and to be distrubed. It now seems normal to us that some heads of nonprofit resident theater companies, for instance, earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year while even great actors in America are leaving the industry because they just can’t bear living on the cliff’s edge of poverty year-upon-year–a circumstance that should be appalling to anyone running a nonprofit theater, if one recalls that a fundamental purpose for nonprofit professional resident theaters when they were envisioned in the mid-twentieth century was to provide a stable, living wage to actors.
That’s losing the relations between one thing and another … that’s losing your humanity.
Speaking of poverty, if you didn’t see the press a few days back, the Irvine Foundation made the major announcement that it will “begin work on a new set of grantmaking goals focused on expanding economic and political opportunity for families and young adults who are working but struggling with poverty.”
President Don Howard wrote in a blog post:
These are mutually reinforcing goals. If all Californians are to have real economic opportunity, their voices must be heard and their interests counted. Responsive and effective government shapes the policies that allow people the chance to earn a wage that can enable a family to live in a safe, healthy community, send their kids to school, and realize their potential. Conversely, if all Californians are to be heard, they cannot teeter on the precipice of poverty, lacking the time and the conviction to meaningfully participate.
This is Irvine’s evolving focus, and as the words suggest, the changes will occur over time. As many of you know, we are deeply engaged in important and successful grantmaking. We remain firmly committed to our current grants and initiatives, many of which are in the middle of multiyear plans driving toward specific impacts. We will see all of these current grants and initiatives through to their planned conclusions. And some will evolve to be part of our future work.
As I read the last paragraph I thought … Hmmm, I wonder how the arts program will fare in this evolution? Will it be one of the programs phased out?
What’s the case for the role of professional arts groups in expanding political or economic opportunity for families living in poverty? Venezuela created El Sistema. What have we created of late that comes close to having that scale of impact on the lives of the most impoverished? Has there been anything since the Works Progress Administration (a New Deal initiative under FDR), which gave us the remarkable Federal Theatre Project and related projects in other disciplines? The Federal Theatre Project, if you don’t know it, was a work-relief program that made significant funds available to cities and towns across the US to hire out-of-work artists. It resulted in a flowering of hundreds of new ad hoc companies that collectively brought vital, relevant theater—including The Living Newspaper, a form of theater aimed at presenting reflections on current social events to popular audiences—and other forms of art to millions of people who had never had such experiences. It was a short-term relief program intended to do two things: alleviate artist unemployment and awaken and inspire America as it struggled out of a Great Depression.
And it exemplified the extraordinary role art can play—when it is for the advancement of the many, rather than the few—in helping a nation that is struggling to find a way forward.
*The photo is of James Turrell’s Roden Crater and is mentioned in my post for the Irvine Foundation. (Here’s the link again!)
william osborne says
Artistic honesty and integrity will always be more fundamental to good art than market-oriented concepts like entrepreneurship and engagement. The philosophy of entrepreneurship and engagement has led to an arts world too willing to embrace whatever is expedient even if it is superficial and one-dimensional. This philosophy too often leads to the pornigraphicization of beauty.
Seen from a larger perspective, the market is by nature an economic system of schematic expediency that often leads to the cheapening of aesthetic and even ethical standards. These forms of expediency ares readily observable in our government, business practices, media, arts, and educational systems. We expect, for example, to be lied to by our government and media and consider such expedients a norm. When these forms of expediency become widely accepted, the arts also become morally and aesthetically debased. This is why the arts should always maintain a careful and ethically balanced relationship with the market and superficial concepts of public appeal.
Todd London says
All I can add is Yes. You’ve nailed it.
Andrew Simonet says
Great piece here, and I’ve been sharing it with colleagues.
I wonder if the “different value system” you describe is still present in the arts, just not at the level of mid-size to large nonprofits.
In my 25 years working as a choreographer, I have a seen a couple full cycles of Radical Visionary Interventions shifting to Named and Validated Structures shifting to Supported and Entrenched Institutions. (I would even say my dance company went through that cycle in — I hope — a thoughtful way.)
At the grassroots and in the trenches, I see brilliantly different value systems springing up constantly, particularly from artists, not organizations. I see many of these quietly grow and morph sometimes fade, and a few get held up as Valid/Scalable/Best Practices/Next Big Thing. The Fringe movement, Creative Placemaking, and even, I would argue, Engagement.
While I think we could better direct some resource towards that grassroots and toward artists, I wonder if the shape of this process, Intervention-Structure-Institution, is a permanent feature of the nonprofit world, something to be expected and managed.
Curious what you think around this.
Diane Ragsdale says
Andrew, thanks! I completely agree that (a) this anti-corporate “different value system” is often upheld by smaller arts groups (whether ‘grassroots’ or ‘artist-led’ or however you might describe them) and (b) that this different value system seems to be at risk as organizations grow and become more structured, formal, professional, etc. And, as you note, such growth and professionalization, etc. can be the result of interventions (investments of money that come with expectations of adopting more business-like structures, etc.) Additionally, organizaitonal theory tells us that with growth comes a tendency toward risk aversion. And as one of my advisors said to me once, “What’s the riskiest part of an arts organization? The artists!” Therefore, in addition to adopting more business-like structures, processes, practices, and values it seems that the art/artists/artistic elements of the organization become problematized as areas in particular need of risk management/containment/neutralization. Just a thought … Thanks for reading, sharing, and commenting!
william osborne says
Mr. Simonent runs an organization designed to help artists become better entrepreneurs. This stress on entrepreneurship has been around for over 30 years, and has even become something of a fad surrounded by a lingo of vague buzzwords like engagement. These philosophies centered around entrepreneurship were established by neo-cons in the 1980s as a riposte to Europe’s comprehensive systems of public arts funding. The market (and its extension in private foundations and corporations) is to fund the arts, not government.
It would be helpful if the many American proponents of entrepreneurship would offer some substantive empirical evidence that their concepts and methods have significantly improved the situation for the arts in America. Twenty years is more than enough time to have achieved significant results, but it would appear that the evidence is lacking. If anyone disagrees, show me some numbers?
Diane Ragsdale says
Thanks for your comment. I will allow Andrew Simonet to speak for his own organization and philosophy on this matter; but I would offer (following Richard Swedberg) that there are actually great parallels between the entrepreneur and the artist (if you examine Schumpeter’s list of the qualities that distinguish the entrepreneur, or “man of action”, from the “static manager”). This suggests that the larger problem may be management programs that are specifically designed to indoctrinate arts leaders with practices and philosophies from the corporate business world than those that encouarge a more entrepreneurial relationship to the world (which implies risk taking, questioning the status quo, etc.). One of the challenges is that “entrepreneurship” has come to be a euphemism for “find a way to make money without private contributions or subsidy” or “find a way to contribute to economic growth.” We believe we can place a good bit of the credit or blame on governments and private foundations for this turn. This is all to say – I think the way the concept/term “entrepreneur(ship)” has been deployed, particularly in relationship the arts in the late 20th and early 21st century, is more problematic than entrepreneurial behavior itself, if we revert to an earlier notion of entrepreneurship.
william osborne says
A very helpful post. It is useful to consider the correlations between entrepreneurship and artistic creativity. Both forms of thought can learn much from each other, and judging by his website, I think that is the focus of Mr. Simonet’s work. Unfortunately, the term entrepreneurship is also closely associated with for profit business enterprise. That use of the term has led to a lot of confusion about the nature of art and its position in the marketplace. If we are not using the term in that sense, we need to make it clear from the outset.
Hanlu Zhang says
It was a pleasure to read your article. As an arts management master student who studied business administration for undergraduate, what you mentioned in the article is a really interesting topic to me. Indeed, in my current arts management program, we talked a lot about audience engagement when talking about the most urgent issues facing the arts industry. (i.e. arts audiences are aging, arts administrators should find ways to engage young audiences, especially, millennials.) Many discussions we have for the past one-year in the graduate school were how to reach certain targets, how to involve local communities in the arts, how to utilize social network or technologies to engage younger generations to the arts, and etc.
You mentioned in the article that the different value system that art represents no longer seems to be widely recognized or upheld — by society-at-large, or even within the arts field itself. You also said that the nonprofit, professional arts have become, by-and-large, as commodified, homogeneous, transactional, and subject to market forces as every other aspect of American society.”
I’m wondering if this corporatization of arts organizations only happens in Unites Sates? Do you think this is happening because of the unique U.S arts funding model? Without relatively stable fundings from the states, adopting for-profit business model might be necessary for arts organizations to survive in a competitive society? In other words, do you think this trend is evitable without any change of the cultural policy or funding model?
What’s more, do you think there is no way that art values and business values can reach a middle point, or better say, be creatively combined? For example, if arts organizations can keep the high quality, originality, and authenticity of their arts, but using corporate marketing techniques to engage more audiences, do you think it is still in some way eroding the different value system that art represents?
Look forward to your reply ☺
Diane Ragsdale says
Hi Hanlu Zhang, thanks for your comment. Without a doubt I think that the “business” and “art” values can “reach a middle point” in the sense that I think that arts organizations can both pursue and achieve their artistic and social goals and also be sound businesses. It is not unlike social enterprise organizations that can make money but also do good in the world. These are not incompatible goals. It takes, however, some principled behavior for this to happen (i.e. ethics for lack of a better notion). In the same way that we expect that a social enterprise firm is going to set some clear goals (read: values) that are different from a typical for-profit firm and that these will guide practices, the same is also true for nonprofit arts organizations. Making money is fine. But if suddenly making money becomes more important than taking artistic risks, or preserving great works, or having reasonably priced tickets, or paying artists and staff a fair wage (for instance) then one has to ask whether a line has been crossed where making money is coming at the expense of mission. While this might be OK for a for-profit firm it seems questionable for firms that are established as nonprofits and are granted nonprofit status presumably because they have goals and practices that are distinct from commercial firms. As far as whether this is also happening in other places I would say that, yes, a neoliberal (read: market society) ethos can be felt around the globe. At the same time, it is fair to say that this strongest in the US (relative to Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South America, etc.). But the notion of the creative economy, for instance, is cropping up more and more (which, essentially, values arts and culture first and foremost for its contributions to innovation and the GDP rather than as stewards of culture). Hope this helps and thanks so much for reading Jumper and taking the time to comment.