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March 10, 2005

Doug's Deliberations ....

Doug asks two questions with respect to the ‘oversupply’ thesis (i.e. the argument that there are currently more nonprofit cultural organizations than can be satisfactorily supported through a combination of earned income, available public sector support and philanthropic contributions):

i) So how come places like the Met and MoMA are heaving with people?
ii) So how come there aren’t more 501(c )(3) organizations keeling over and dying?

I am not sure whether attendance figures are the only indicator of success. Or rather I am sure they should not be, but anyway….I think the answer with respect to the first question is very similar to what happens in professional sports leagues – that of ‘winner takes all.’ There is an increasing divide between the ‘top tier’ (premier league) institutions that are in a virtuous circle of civic and philanthropic support, high profile product, extensive media attention, and that have the ability to attract and retain punters, and ‘the rest’, that are caught in a more vicious circle.

The dilemmas of the top tier museums, for example, that are competing globally now for media attention, visitors, product and, above all, individual donors, are the dilemmas of success – issues like crowd-control and the degraded aesthetic experience that jam-packed shows offer. One response has been to charge lots of money to those who can afford to come in when the museum is ‘closed’ to less affluent folk. Their salaries are competitive, people fight to join their boards and discreetly write-off their year-end deficits, and the media follow their every twitch.

Move one step away from this privileged international band and the challenges are wholly different – it is how to secure a sliver of the cumulative media attention, or how to access the exhibitions and acts that are increasingly cartelized, and in which a cash market has replaced traditional barter relations. You literally have to pay $millions to secure shows that were once part of a more genteel system of long term reciprocity. In short you cannot take the success of the top tier as indicative of the health of the overall sector.

This is incidentally an international phenomenon – the front page story of this month’s Art Newspaper, which is on Japanese museums, contains the following, perfect, illustration:

“Despite the popularity of some shows [blockbusters that have got unprecedented visitor numbers], the total number of visitors in museums in Japan has actually been declining. Most institutions lack funds for acquisitions and long term exhibition planning. This has led to two extremes: at one end a small group of blockbusters, to which most of the money for planning and publicity is diverted, and a large number of small inexpensive shows that attract very little attention and few visitors.”

I think that the answer to the second question – why aren’t more arts organizations simply giving up the ghost – is, first, as Doug notes, that some are. But more important is that as the struggle for survival becomes more and more intense, the mission of the organization becomes subverted, so that energies are increasingly devoted to the act of survival rather than the informing purpose of the institution. This is not just the Guggenheim’s problem. Look at the Princess Diana exhibitions and the Titanic exhibitions that Clear Channel, National Geographic and Anschutz Entertainment Group are selling to museums. Institutions also under-invest in anything they can get away with under-investing in: building maintenance, professional development, scholarship, R&D, commissioning, etc. The result is not the dead organizations that Doug is looking for but ‘living dead’ organizations, a bit like ‘failed states’ that still exist but that no longer dispatch their primary responsibilities effectively.

Doug also asks ‘What is to be done?’ A separate posting I think…

Posted by aellis at March 10, 2005 08:09 AM


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