In a 2018 I was invited by Melanie Joseph to write an essay for a book that would mark the final production of the company she founded 25 years earlier, The Foundry Theatre. The book, A Moment on the Clock of the World (pictured above) was published by Haymarket last fall. I am deeply grateful to Melanie Joseph & David Bruin for the invitation to make a contribution as well as for their editorial support, which made it a much better essay than I could ever have written on my own.
Melanie Joseph is a true activist-aesthete and The Foundry Theatre is that rare institution that has seamlessly produced exquisitely beautiful work while upholding social justice values. I write in my essay, on p. 118 of the book:
Among its most distinguishing features, the warp and weft of the organization were art and social justice. While these began as dyadic complements crossing in the organizational weave they eventually blended to create an entirely new and unexpected hue.
There is a great lesson in the Foundry’s work and evolution in this regard for many arts organizations at this particular moment and thus I highly recommend the book itself.
My essay, “To What End Permanence?,” takes a broader lens than the Foundry, however. It grapples with Institutionalization and the difficult organizational question of When to Stop. More specifically, it seeks to get beyond the question of economic solvency to examine other signs that it may be time to shut a thing down and other motivations for closing. As I write on p. 121:
The decision for an arts organization to endure beyond the founder needs to be about something more than whether there is a stash of fixed assets, sufficient cash in the bank, subscribers and donors willing to renew, players wanting to play, and individuals technically qualified and desiring to take over. And this something more has to do with what it means to be a living art firm.
There are predictions that we could lose a significant number of cultural institutions in the coming months due to Covid-19. As I began to argue in last week’s post, we should care greatly which institutions persist and the values, cultures, and practices they advance, represent, and embody. Put another way, given expected closings, we find ourselves at an inflection point when, between Covid-19 and the more than 750 cities protesting as of June 8, it should be possible to allow / stimulate a long overdue evolution in the arts and culture landscape—an evolution specifically in the direction of pluralism and cultural democracy.
To be clear, the evolution in a field or sector suggests the death of some types of organization and the birth and growth of other types of organizations–that is, those with characteristics that are better suited to the present environment. Organizational deaths have tended to be emotionally difficult and operationally clumsy for arts organizations. On p. 115 I write:
Arts organization deaths seem to come in two varieties: the shockingly swift kind, which leaves staffers, artists, and audiences out in the cold wondering what the hell happened; or the painfully slow kind, characterized by drastic measures and multiple resuscitations in the form of eleventh-hour appeals to stakeholders to step up with cash infusions to keep the doors open.
This is in part because the ideal of permanence has been baked into the DNA of the nonprofit-professional form of organizing since its inception. To a great extent the essay is aimed at unpacking and challenging the merits of permanence (or institutionalization) in the living arts, while weighing in on the decision to close the Foundry Theatre, rather than invite a cohort of producers in the company to take it over.
What the essay does not address head-on is the present moment and the implications for under-performing White Arts Institutions. By under-performing I don’t mean financially challenged (as most nonprofits consider themselves to be thus); I mean failing to deliver on their missions and goals. Now is the time for such organizations to exercise some moral imagination. Now is the time to recognize that the persistence of an institution that is in decline—and that is unlikely to turnaround and emerge as more relevant to the changing cultural context—harms the field because its existence comes at the expense of the necessary evolution I am describing.
Beyond the economic or mission-based reasons for closing, there are moral reasons for privileged White Arts Institutions that persist decade after decade—in large part because day-in and day-out, as well as at times of crisis, historically and today, they quite often have had easier access to money—to consider the resources, as well as the physical and cognitive real estate, they are capturing and controlling year-upon-year at the expense of organizations largely staffed, governed by, and serving one or more BIPOC populations.
For those brave leaders who recognize in the coming weeks and months that Now is the time to bring things to a close, one final thought: Perhaps consider how you might further advance necessary change in the landscape of arts and culture in the US by gifting any remaining assets to an organization that is, again, largely staffed, governed by, and serving one or more BIPOC populations, or one that is perhaps advancing pluralism, cultural democracy, or social justice goals through its existence or work.
I hope you will read the full essay published in A Moment on the Clock of the World (linked below) and I would love to hear your thoughts in response to it, especially in the context of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter.
“To What End Permanence?”
In A Moment on the Clock of the World, A Foundry Theatre Production, Edited by Melanie Joseph & David Bruin with a forward by Cornel West (Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2019) 111-122.
My contract with the Foundry Theatre generously gave me permission to post and distribute my essay as per April 1, 2020. Given the number of organizations that are currently struggling and trying to determine next moves now seemed as good a time as any to share it with a wider audience. However, I hope you will still consider buying the beautiful book, A Moment on the Clock of the World, edited by Melanie Joseph and David Bruin. At the moment Haymarket is offering a 30% discount if you purchase directly through them. It contains essays by 15 thinkers and reflections on the Foundry Theatre by Melanie Joseph running through the footnotes.
Here’s the essay. It’s a little of 3,000 words (a 10-minute read) so perhaps grab a cuppa jo.
Stay safe, stay awake, and thanks for reading!