Blame arrows are rampant in boardrooms, newsrooms, and rehearsal rooms. Blame is meaningless. The solution is obvious. You just have to want to change. (Oh, right. That.)
First of all, I think it’s appropriate to mention that this particular column was published on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Election day 2023. Precisely one leap year from now, the American public will be engaging in a presidential election. Who knows if the “White House” will refer to a fancy residence on Pennsylvania Avenue or a minimum-security prison in Jesup, Georgia? But after a week of counting votes—say, by November 12, 2024—we should have a pretty good idea whether or not the democratic portion of the world is ending.
It was that thought that reminded me to tell you this: the world isn’t ending, even for nonprofit arts organizations. Yes, some are closing down—more than normal—and there is an intransigence to working as a charity, which is the surest way to prove to a community (and its funders) that the organization is “essential,” the key to sustainability.
Does it matter why the organizations are closing? I’ve posited my own ideas, which have been carried in the press, along with this blog. But the press really hasn’t the faintest idea of how to treat the issue. They tend to be pretty lazy on the subject of arts coverage, mostly because they can be. All they seem to do is ask Michael Kaiser, the former head of the Kennedy Center, who has great insights and intellect. He’s a great person to call. He’s just not the only person to call.
Why can the press be lazy? Why do dogs lick their genitalia?*
Ultimately, the closing of arts organizations nationwide is a respectable—but not astonishing—story. It falls flat compared to other news. So they, as is their wont, just broadcast stuff that lays blame to the internal workings of the organizations, mostly the boards.
Board members are blaming the public, which isn’t really helpful at all. Board members are finally catching on that what they’ve been supporting and advocating only really benefits them (and those who are socioeconomically like them) and not the public at large. Not their fault. That’s been the case for a long time. It’s just that those folks are older, fewer, whiter, and less in touch (and less inclined to be in touch) with the changes across America.
Which brings up new and symbolic changes to include DEI programs, most of which are performative and the first things to jettison when the money goes away. Audiences have decided not to show up for works by people they don’t know on subjects about which they don’t care. Shows about and by those people. Not unlike the plucky, smart Black kid in any one of a million slasher movies, it’s the first to go.
Which takes us to the audiences themselves. In case you don’t get it, “audiences” means “current audiences,” which means the aforementioned white, old, conservative, moneyed, one-income-earning crowd that has supported this version of the nonprofit arts arena for years. And why wouldn’t they be upset? After all, they gave money, and in return, the nonprofit arts organizations gave them art they either already knew (The Music Man, The Nutcracker, that famous European impressionist retrospective) or art that held the mirror up to, well, not nature, as Shakespeare advised, but to the audience itself. Every time these loyal folks don’t see themselves on the stage or in the gallery, they feel unwelcome and take their ball and go home.
It’s not their fault. Many artistic directors led them down that path. They intimated that nothing would ever change for these folks. “Something for everyone!” they proclaimed. “You’ll get to keep your seat location forever!” they were told. “Great plays at popular prices,” they were assured. “Sit back, relax, and be entertained,” they were promised. And these same artistic directors who make pronouncements about “art for art’s sake” and the like, still program happy, musical, dancing stuff with lots of white people. That’s what fills the houses with the happy, rich, old, elitist white people. No one else will come, of course, but that audience is a sure bet.
And, of course, performing artists love playing in front of full houses. They don’t care who sits in the seats, even though, for the most part, those who sit in the largest houses would never give them the time of day if they saw the artists on the street. Except, of course, to smile patronizingly, pat them on the head, and tell them just how wonderful they were. Is that asking so much?
But then the white artists started losing opportunities for work. Not just because of cutbacks, but because of changes in programming. And, liberal as they are as a whole—which is commendable and serves them well—the white artists started feeling bad about it. Never mind that artists of color—unless they wanted to go the Stepin Fetchit route where Black actors caved in to stereotypes just to make a living (he was a millionaire, after all)—could not get work for decades.
The truth, of course, is that almost no artists make a living being an artist. Maybe 5% do in places like LA or NY. Everyone is always scrounging for work, even those who live in Beverly Hills or on Central Park South. But it’s easier to blame one’s loss of ability to work on those people, I guess. And when COVID came around, everything got worse in a hurry.
COVID, by itself, did not cause nonprofit arts organizations to act badly, desperately, argumentatively, bizarrely, or unethically. They were already doing that. I see good friends in the business, for example, doing the Oral Roberts School of Fundraising for their organizations – “We’ll close if we don’t raise $3 million by November.” We’ve written about that in the past, but to no avail. Me-First still reigns supreme, and it’s a shame that all of the other nonprofit arts organizations in that region (large and small) will be adversely affected by that company’s decision to make a money grab. And the next obvious issue, when donors don’t give next year because all they might have done is give early, not more. Shameful, even if the people involved are honorable.
In other words, “I don’t care if every other nonprofit arts organization closes down, as long as mine doesn’t.”
And besides which, as we all know in our hearts, all this financial ruin was coming anyway. The COVID crisis just sped things up.
So… what to do with the Wheel of Blame? Toss it away. It’s unimportant who’s fault all this is.
Then, instead of trying to reopen, reimagine, rebuild, or regurgitate your company, toss that away, too. Build a new one, one whose goals don’t have the baggage of things past. There are some excellent examples out there – look at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven or Out of Hand Theater in Atlanta. What they’re doing for their communities is more important than art. It’s art with a purpose to help people, not just to continually put on a show because that’s all you know how to do.
The nonprofit arts sector in America is not dying. Put away the hearse.
Some nonprofit arts organizations are dying, mostly because they don’t know how to be nonprofits that help others, only themselves. And, as we’ve determined as a species, that kind of elitist activity ravages a society and its prospects for everyman achievement.
Alan’s new book, “Scene Change: Why Today’s Nonprofit Arts Organizations Have to Stop Producing Art and Start Producing Impact” will be published in just a few short months! CLICK HERE TO PRE-ORDER IN THE UNITED STATES. If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE. If you live in Australia, CLICK HERE. And, of course, it is available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other large bookstores. If you can’t find it, just give the bookseller the ISBN: 978-1-80341-446-1. They’ll know what to do.
A few advance copies may be made available for those booking conferences, reading engagements, and speaking engagements. Recruit your local bookstore, conference panel, or boardroom to get a visit from Alan.
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