Of Missions and Diversity

But at the end of the day, and let me be very clear about this: at the end of the day, the job that I am entrusted to do is to find plays that I believe as artistic director will serve the mission of the Guthrie and do so in a way that is commercially viable and artistically satisfying

So said Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, explaining why the 2012-13 season looks the way it does (predominantly white and male).  My intention is not to criticize Dowling’s choices specifically, that has already been done by myself and others, but rather to look at the relationship between mission and diversity more generally, and to relate the situation Dowling has created at the Guthrie to a piece from a few years ago by Michael Kaiser on the Huffington Post about diversity in the arts in which he wrote, “But I do not think I believe anymore in forcing Eurocentric arts organizations to do diverse works”

The “forcing” comes in the form of incentives in the funding pipeline.  In part because those incentives exist (and with good reason), many arts organizations have evolved to include a commitment to diversity, variously phrased, in their mission statements.  Not all large performing arts organizations are acting on that mission, however.  The Guthrie situation, with its mission to present “both classical literature and new work from diverse cultures” is only one example of such a disjuncture between mission and programming.  In the MPR interview, Dowling refers repeatedly to diverse “stories,” but does not claim they are from diverse “cultures.”  There is a difference between the two, illustrated, for example, by the variety of creation stories one finds in diverse cultures from the Judeo-Christian Bible story to the Popol Vuh of the Maya to the Vedic hymns of the Hindu.  These are examples of diverse cultures, the literatures of which the Guthrie is bound by mission to draw from.   The mission statement of the Goodman Theatre, to cite a counter example to the Guthrie, states that it is guided by the principles of “quality, diversity, and community,” and it appears to be acting on those values  with gusto in its programming.

What does this have to do with Kaiser’s statement? What if a theatre like the Guthrie, that presents excellent work from a particular point of view embraced a mission to do just that?  For half a dozen seasons or more, I designed for the Utah Shakespeare Festival.  Its mission statement gets right to the point, “The Utah Shakespeare Festival presents life-affirming classic and contemporary plays in repertory, with Shakespeare as our cornerstone.”  Even as a lighting designer, the mission statement guided choices – not too dark, has to work in rep, classical approach.  A Euro-centric arts organization can have a mission that says it is Euro-centric or, if it is male-centric, a mission that says that, just as companies devoted to the work of women playwrights say so in their mission statements.

The nonprofit status of these theatres is a social contract. The government exempts the theatre from having to pay taxes, provides a tax deduction for donors thereto, and in return, the nonprofit organization serves a social mission, providing a social good.  Fiscal responsibility is an important task of both the management and the board of nonprofit organizations, but there is a difference between being fiscally responsible and commercially viable.  When off-mission programming is justified by the need to make “commercially viable” choices, then it seems that the social contract is broken.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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5 Responses to Of Missions and Diversity

  1. Pingback: Quality, Diversity, and New Year’s Food | Creative Infrastructure

  2. Pingback: Personal Ethics | Creative Infrastructure

  3. Great post. It leads my brain into thoughts about identity and voice…don’t want to take the discussion too far off though.

  4. David Dower says:

    I tried (and failed) to write this thought out on Twitter, Linda. So a repeat and an elaboration, for clarity, here.

    I think you have done a great job making this concise and clear. One thing that bears highlighting in this whole mess, though, is that a 501 (c) 3 is granted based on the specific social purpose you tell the IRS you are going to serve. That social purpose is contained in the mission statement– that statement forms the basis of your contract with the public who are being asked to give you the right not to pay your share of taxes for the business you are running. You receive an exemption because you ostensibly have some charitable purpose that benefits society at large and it is defined by your mission. In this case the mission states “diverse cultures” are part of that contract with the public. Not just with the public of your city, and ESPECIALLY not just with your “audience”– and most certainly not just with your Board and donors. It is a contract with the American taxpayer.

    Here the purpose becomes restated as to produce works of theater that are “commercially viable and artistically satisfying”. That is a valid mission for a business, but it is not a nonprofit mission. This is the mission and purpose of every commercial producer in the country. And yes, they’d LOVE to get the same benefits as those afforded a 501 (c) 3 theater producer, but they can’t have them because they’re not first and foremost providing a specific (and specified) social benefit to the American taxpayer.

  5. Kate Powers says:

    Nicely argued, Linda!

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