Dinner Conversation

On September 6, twelve arts and culture activists/leaders/thinkers gathered at the Djerassi Artist’s Retreat at the invitation of Barry Hessenius to discuss the following question:

Traditional audiences are declining and participation patterns are shifting seismically, which is having a deleterious impact on arts organization’s traditional revenue streams. How can we address this pattern on a macro scale? What would a new movement around the arts look like?

One of the attendees, Clayton Lord, has been blogging about the experience this week and he closed his series with a particularly thought-provoking post co-created with three other attendees, Laura Zabel, Margy Waller, and Devon Smith. Because my thinking was provoked by this post (as it often is by this group) and because I’ve had some professional interactions with each of them[1], I hope they won’t by mind if I (virtually) drop in on their blogfest to offer my own thoughts on the six bullets in Clay’s post:

  1. We need to stop over-preferencing the artist over the point of the arts institution.”  Like Laura, I find this wording challenging, in large part because the category “artist” is itself stratified.  From my perspective working with early career artists – some of whom are trying to start an arts organization — I often see the opposite happening. Or, rather, I see arts organizations overlooking the talent of people who don’t carry the star cachet that might draw in traditional audiences.  What I don’t see are a lot of arts organizations that preference the development of new work and the support of lesser-known artists.  We do indeed see some art “stars” in every arts discipline who overshadow the mission of the organization(s) with which they are affiliated, but in general, I’m not seeing artists being preferenced by much of anybody at the grass roots level.
  2. We need to stop creating institutions built to generate social capital that are instead preoccupied with creating actual capital.”  I’m with Devon on this one, especially regarding the B-corp model. An organization that is generated to build social capital or — more to the point – cultural capital, needs financial capital to do so.  What would be key here to enabling arts organizations to more effectively focus on creating social and cultural capital would be funders who are wiling to provide the financial capital needed to do so.  I don’t mean private giving for bricks and mortar, but the kind of capital investing Janet Brown has been talking about to shore up the sector against the vicissitudes of the larger economy.
  3.  “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.”  Innovative artists are going to make innovative work.  Established institutions can embrace that work and support that work or, eventually, be left in the dust. Laura points out some of the institutional barriers to change.  Perhaps someone can conceive of a network of institutions across the country that are designed for change – that serve as laboratories for innovation – whose innovative products can then get picked up by both commercial and nonprofit “distributors” as appropriate. Maybe, our university-based arts programs can fulfill that function more effectively than they do now (see University R&D).
  4. We need to stop being so selfish about how much we like our forms, our circumstances, the nuances of ritual that are draped all around them–and to stop being oblivious to how difficult those things together make carrying forward.” Yes, and as Laura notes, this is already happening.    Change is a constant and culture is constantly evolving. The rituals of what we think of as traditional arts organizations are traditionally Euro-centric and elitist.  But that’s been changing for a while now both from within these organizations and from organizations beyond that are not.  Street performance, for example, including the street performances one sees here in the Southwest around this time of year, are spontaneous (or spontaneous-seeming) and extra-institutional.
  5.  “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?” “Strong enough” implies that the change would come from the top down via organizations like AFTA and GIA. Change there is important. But change also comes from the bottom, from the grass roots, and is sometimes more effective.  The generation that I see entering the arts and culture sector are not committed to nonprofit institutional models. They are committed to making art happen and will use whatever organizational tools are best suited for them to do so. For some it means joining a large established arts organization, for another it might mean incorporating their storefront theatre company as an LLC, and for another launching a nonprofit community-based arts organization. My point, again, is “change is gonna come.”
  6. …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.”  I see this occuring often in the burgeoning field of “arts entrepreneurship” and in events like Ignite or other fast pitch competitions.  Even some state arts agencies are getting on board with the idea of creating, pitching, and then seeding innovation.  Seed funding should be thought of the same way seeding a garden is – some seeds will grow into strong plants that last long and provide beautiful flowers, and some won’t even begin to sprout, but unless the seeds are sown, nothing at all will grow.

I so wanted to be a fly on the wall at your dinner table on September 6. Thanks to Clay Lord and friends, I now feel like I was.Fly_on_the_wall

[1] Laura Zabel returns to ASU in the spring to talk about “Making a Living and a Life” as part of our biennial Pave Speakers Series; Devon Smith was a speaker on the series in 2011; Clayton Lord authored an article in the very fist issue of Artivate: A Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts published by the Pave program; Margy Waller and I have discussed at some length the excellent report she authored on “The Arts Ripple Effect,” which is required reading for my Arts and Public Policy course.

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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2 Responses to Dinner Conversation

  1. Angel Mark says:

    Spot on! I was about to comment in one of the Dinnervention blog series done by Clayton Lord, but seems like you had all points covered.

  2. Pingback: Around the horn: just another government shutdown edition | Createquity.

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