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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
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March 09, 2005

Artistic Risk

Bill and Ben's riff on the relation between all this stuff and artistic risk is perhaps THE issue...

Many of the newer, more instrumental responsibilities that arts organizations have embraced are often inimical to the protection of informed artistic risk-taking, which I for one regard as a central responsibility of anything that deserves the name of a cultural organization. (How one defines 'artistic risk' would require several more blogs but anyway I'll assume we all have an least heavily overlapping if not identical ideas of what it is.)

There is, I think, an innately problematic relationship between the transgressive modus operandi of artistic expression and the agendas of community builders. They may well coincide on a given issue, and the coincidence can be a source of strength to both art and community, but an arts organization needs to be able to choose the terms of its engagement with power. Organizations that are weighed down by wider civic responsibilities and the financial obligations that are required to exercise them risk losing that ability to make choices - especially when financial survival is dependent upon the ability to demonstrate effectiveness as an instrument of someone else's policy.

This dilemma has grown more acute as the criteria that funders expect to be met have become more explicit and the methodologies of evaluation more exacting, which in turn has led to a greater interest in those areas that can be measured and a neglect of interest in many of the ineffable qualities that are the raison d'etre of artistic expression.

Whether the source of funds is the public sector, foundations or corporations (but as Glenn pointed out way back when -- Monday I think -- less so individuals), they are all increasingly strategic in their purposes, increasingly willing to call the organizations they fund to account, and less and less willing to fund general operating costs as opposed to the variable costs of specific programs that further their strategic agendas.

In seeking at least a partial escape from this dilemma, many organizations look increasingly to new sources of earned income - expanded retail and catering, licensing, partnerships with for-profit organizations etc. etc. These can absorb considerable time and effort from senior management and board members that displaces attention paid to core functions and pushes organizations into new and unfamiliar areas of risk - and that as often as not tempt organizations down the path of imagined cross-subsidy that subsequently fails to materialize.

Many of the organizational and physical means required to dispatch the newer, more instrumental ends that arts organizations pursue are themselves often inimical to risk-taking. The inclusive, often cumbersome, structures of governance; the generally consensual and process-heavy nature of the managerial paradigm that has become received wisdom for non-profit management in the United States; and the rapacious demands of planning, constructing, occupying and maintaining high profile civic buildings (a.k.a. the edifice complex) all militate against the maneuverability and entrepreneurial opportunism that is the breeding ground of artistic innovation - and indeed of commercial success.

Posted by aellis at March 9, 2005 07:27 AM


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