Change or Not to Change–Social Capital in Arts Organizations

Dinnervention 6: The Flexibility of a New Skin

October 4, 2013 by  1 Comment

groupblogThis last Dinnervention post is an experiment in group blogging–I wrote the core piece, and then three of my fellow Dinnerventionists– Margy WallerLaura Zabel, and Devon Smith–were kind enough to react to it in commentary.  It was really interesting to watch happen–hopefully it is interesting to read as well!  The blogging platform allows limited capability to demonstrate in-text comments.

A new movement in the arts must break from the old, and must be flexible and moldable enough to accommodate our inherent decentralization.

  • We need to stop over-preferencing the artist over the point of the arts institution (note: thepoint of the institution, not the institution itself) (second note: the point of the arts institution, not the point of an institution itself).
    • Laura Zabel: Oh man.  This wording is so challenging to me.  I re-read this bullet several times and think I know what you mean (and that I probably agree with you), but I fear that very few institutions preference the artist’s needs.  I would reframe this as a need for increased leadership from artists, diminished separation between artists and arts managers AND a mutual head turn towards the point of the organization.
    • Margy Waller: This bullet points makes me think about the preferencing of the art — as someone at the institution defines the art.  That leads to a great deal of focus on traditional ways of experiencing the art. (More on this in comments later).  And campaigns that plead “our-art-is-so-precious-please-save-it” lead to the kind of Kickstarter campaign the New York City Opera tried this past week–an effort that failed miserably (see: “The Failures of Crowdfunding: No, Kickstarter Cannot Support an Opera Company”).  
      I disagree with the title of the article.  Kickstarter may not be the wrong platform for opera fundraising–but the offer was clearly wrong.
      I’m curious though–what are the classical music and opera leaders doing that has halted the decline in audience–unlike museums and theater which are seeing a decline? (See the new NEA’s  “Survey on Public Participation in the Arts 2012″).
      And hopefully we’ll speak up when there’s a “we’ve always done it this way” attack on a leader who is willing to try new approaches, to focus on social capital, to take risks that might build audience. (A leader who BTW is increasing attendance and membership at her museum, like Dinnerventionist Nina Simon.)
      When stuff like this is published–which sadly the New York Times decided to feature–let’s start reacting in public, and out loud.
  • We need to stop creating institutions built to generate social capital that are instead preoccupied with creating actual capital, and we need to understand that such capitalist impulses are not heretical, they’re natural inside institutions of a certain size, scope and responsibility.
    • Devon Smith: That’s hard to reconcile with social good/social entrepreneurship organizations (B-Corps, L3C’s, the Toms/Warby models, etc) whose forms were created for just the opposite reason: capitalist institutions, intent on investing in social capital, who felt they needed protection from shareholders.  I don’t think the problem is being preoccupied with creating capital, it’s misunderstanding how to do so effectively and efficiently.  The idea that corporations’ sole purpose is to maximize shareholder value is a modern urban legend.  It’s not the law.  The idea that a nonprofit can’t or shouldn’t be profitable is another modern urban legend: see hospitals, unions, PACs, etc.
    • Laura Zabel: I agree that those “modern urban legends” are prevalent and counter productive.  But I am a skeptic of the Tom’s model, which I think has demonstrated that there is a difference between mission-driven work and “charity-washing” of for-profit ventures.  Obviously, lots of nuance and gray area on that continuum to think about.
  • We need to stop shouting about innovation and new outreach without recognizing either the instability that goes along with that or the length of time necessary to test out new approaches before they should replace the old ones.
    • Laura Zabel: I’m in favor of less shouting and more doing.  I don’t know if the world will wait for incremental change, though.  A huge challenge for our existing infrastructure is that it is not well suited for the pace of change required “these days.”  Epic strategic planning, the need for board approval, funding cycles, multi-layered hierarchical staffing structures: these structural elements really inhibit the kind of iterative, creative thinking needed to move incremental change to systemic change rapidly.  But the world doesn’t care.  We expect change and responsiveness now and we have the tools to demand it.  For example, check out this Tumblr page created with essentially $0 and no institutional support.
  • We need to stop encouraging ourselves to swallow the whole issue of relevance at once like the Chinese brother swallowing the sea, which leaves most organizations with nothing to do but keep their head down against the storm and simply try to stay alive.  At the same time, we need to embrace and celebrate the “positive incremental” as acceptable movement.
  • We need to stop being so selfish about how much we like our forms, our circumstances, thenuances of ritual that are draped all around them–and to stop being oblivious to how difficult those things together make carrying forward.
    • Devon Smith: Anyone know of a blog post or article that tracks the shape/size/constituents of either arts organizations, or their relationship to audiences, or the audience’s relationship to the stage, across the centuries?  It strikes me that our desire to “preserve the form, and nuances of ritual” are representative of about the past 2% of organized arts’ history.  Prior to that, audiences looked and behaved quite differently, as did arts “organizations.”
    • Clay Lord: Devon, yes, but. I agree that being all misty eyed about the good old days of the non-profit arts institution is a bit silly, given you know, Groundlings talking through (and at the players in) plays, eating, throwing food, standing up, etc.  But I think also (and this may seem schizophrenic since I wrote the first bullet) that there needs to be some understanding that the clinging is happening because all of that was Before, and we are Now–and that that’s not terribly unusual in any environment.

Or maybe we don’t.

    • Laura Zabel: I have this feeling, too.  I’m optimistic that this new movement is already taking place and confident that some of our infrastructure will recognize the value of being a part of the movement.  And equally confident that we’ll lose some organizations along the way…and that’s okay.  Rebirth is good.  All we can do is make the work and try to make it better.

One of the most unexpected feelings I had leaving Djerassi was the feeling that maybe all of this consternation is for naught.  Maybe we are like the person cutting to feel the illusion of maximal control, self-flagellating to convince ourselves that we actually have any real say.  Who is the group of twelve that could have actually turned thought to action in a field so decentralized and without a core governing body?  What is our chance for change when our funding models don’t allow for flashpoint innovations, runways, security in the face of risk?  What is our chance for change when even within small communities the stakeholders can’t get on the same page, pulled between short-term and long-term desires, and in which there is no arbiter both strong enough and willing enough to exert strength to make a change?

    • Margy Waller: Well, it seems that a large, national, membership, support and advocacy organization is in a position to model long-term thinking. :-) 
      Most arts organizations don’t have the time or staff to track national media coverage of the arts or the legislation proposed at the national level.  Moreover, they (mostly) don’t get the calls for interviews on topics that have the potential to change the landscape of public understanding, to build broad support for the arts, etc.
      So most artists and arts staffers (whether they know it or not) are depending on leaders like AFTA and GIA and the NEA to get it right.
      Major shout out to the NEA for Our Town here, because shining a spotlight on the role of arts in community (building social capital, making places special/unique/desirable, bridging communities and people) is a great way to build a sense of shared responsibility for the arts. That’s what we need to generate a sense of the arts as a public good.
      But the way we talk about what we do is only part of what the national megaphones can do…
      Also, as Kimberly made clear in her final comments on the evening, funders can make a huge difference here.  It’s working in Cincinnati, where the major arts funder led the way, changing its mission and funding goals to focus on neighborhood vibrancy and bringing people together.  Is it a painful transition?  Yes.  Is it working? Yes!

Why is it that we feel we are too fragile to attempt and fail—and why is it that sometimes we really are?

I was talking to Alli Houseworth recently and we found ourselves hitting upon the hackathon phenomenon in the tech world.  A bunch of tech geeks of different stripes come together—a set of ideas are thrown out, teams are formed, and they go to town for two days, developing code, creating business plans, crafting whole ideas from thin air over the course of 48 hours.  And then they pitch and someone gets seed funding—the ability to actualize on an idea that hadn’t been articulated a few days before—and there’s the understanding it might not work, or that it might not be the end product, or that it might not completely solve anything.  There is a celebration of creation, of creativity, that we, as a field of creatives, seem to feel shy about embracing.

    • Margy Waller: Let’s do it.
      Before dinner, we (with Laura) talked about a two-day (or so) gathering to come up with new action steps.  Will it change the world?  Maybe not.  But what wonderful things might happen if a group of arts lovers is unleashed?  What if they (we, I hope) are given the mandate to come up with something new, take risks, abandon tradition (if they want to)?
      It’s an extended version of the Dinnervention–with seed funding at the end.
    • Clay Lord: I’m up for it.  Funders?  Anyone want to throw that party?

We have created an ecosystem where the slowest to change can stick around essentially indefinitely, where the most obvious organizations are often the ones most mired in the exclusive aspects of our forms, and where the incentive to invite new audiences in is so slim in the short-term as to overshadow the dramatic positivity it would engender in the long-term.

The latest SPPA data shows white audiences dwindling, and dwindling even faster for many of the benchmark disciplines.

So perhaps it all just has to fall apart.

As Ricky Fitts says in American Beauty, “There is so much beauty in the world.”

And there always will be, whether we wrangle ourselves into helping it truly shine for everyone or we don’t.

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