This first attempt at blogging is a somewhat maddeningly disconnected ramble that I hope you will be able to piece it together like the tiles of a mosaic and create something thoughtful and worth considering.
Let me begin with a cliché and by reminding all of us of the obvious: we are in a time of great upheaval and significant, permanent change. Now, I am not being your typical late self-obsessed American baby-boomer – the type who thinks that “his generation experiences the most difficult, most wonderful, most important, etc., time of all.” Mine is an impression that we are moving quickly into a very different set of methodologies regarding how arts managers will facilitate the presentation of our artists’ creative work in our communities. And, to add to the confusion and to the excitement of the opportunity, we need to think about how we define the communities we serve in this age of global access, presentation, and interaction.
After decades of unprecedented economic growth in the United States and relatively strong recognition of and support for the arts, we are stuck in a horrible economic state that has adversely affected not only weaker and less stable organizations but large and healthy institutions, too, in both the non-profit and private sectors.
It seems as though every week we read of another American symphony orchestra considering bankruptcy or, worse yet, dissolution of the company. Or we hear of other performing arts companies facing labor action by their artists as a result of bargaining impasses. Or we see museums scaling back their hours of operation, laying off staff and eliminating vital education programs.
Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, once observed: “We have been scared into thinking small. And small thinking begets smaller revenue that begets even smaller institutions and reduced public excitement and involvement.”
The immediate and somewhat natural response is defensive: retrenchment – protect what assets we have left, try not to cause trouble, and hope that we survive– and the hope that we somehow float out of the crisis.
Ben Cameron of the Doris Duke Foundation once offered this interesting metaphor for our condition: “We can close our doors and say, ‘OK, we’re the dinosaurs. Let’s just leave this to the next generation.’ Or we can be inspired by an anecdote regarding the Flying Wallendas, a high-wire team. The Wallendas, when crossing the wire, were always told that when the big gust of wind comes and blows you off the wire, you let go of the balancing pole and you grab the wire. Ultimately, one of them is on the wire and a big gust of wind comes up. He’s got the pole, but that pole has sustained him his whole life; he’s never walked the wire without the pole. The pole has tilted here and tilted there and brought him back more than once. When the wind comes up, he refuses to let go of the pole and over he goes down to his death.” Cameron went on to say that we are in gale winds on the wire, and part of our challenge is whether we have the courage to drop the pole.”
Drop the pole. Let go of what you’ve known and trusted, and seize the wire. Will it get you across to the other side? No, but it will save your life. It will allow you to face the challenge again in the future.
How do we approach this new environment?
Most of the arts leaders I know have dropped the pole. They have climbed back to the platform and are considering new options and tools to enable them to cross the wire. Unfortunately, these managers are facing stiff resistance to change, though not only from policy-makers and political leaders but also, surprisingly and disturbingly, from some of their own board members and artists who wish desperately to cling to their poles.
Here’s a further complication. Some years ago, during the previous recession, Douglas McLennan wrote of the strategy that the cultural community adopted in the early 90s as a way of defining and protecting its position as it emerged from the culture wars of the 1980s. We defended our work, our role in society, on the bases of what the arts did for economic development, for urban youth, for increased educational achievement, for community development: “for” everything but art for the sake of art and what it really means to us.
Unfortunately, times are very tight for those previously supportive state and regional governing bodies. And our “cost/benefit” argument has backfired because there are far more “efficient” ways of generating economic development, increasing educational achievement, and so on, than through arts and culture. We have been put down quite effectively by our own arguments in debating the matter.
A suggestion as one approach to the new environmental conditions: Regain the high ground, reposition the arts as the tool of civilization by mobilizing the human resources within our organizations – our boards, our donors, our audiences and our artists – and demonstrating to our political leaders the power of the cultural community through the sheer number of people to whom the arts and culture truly matter.
It worked before at the local and regional level – in the 1980s – when the narrow-minded right-wing threatened our institutions over artistic content. A number of political leaders were surprised to discover just how wide and deep support ran for some of these institutions within their own roster of donors and supporters. They backed off.
But regaining the high ground is not the lone answer. We also need to understand that we will never go “back to normal.” In my few decades as a working manager and now an academic studying that field, I learned that as situations change, there may some slight movement back to the previous condition, but the new position, the new situation, always becomes the “norm.” So while we must reinforce the position of culture as a tool of civilization on the one hand, we must find new ways of doing business on the other. We need to find new tools to cross that wire.
These new structures and systems, and decisions surrounding them, are not easy to implement nor are they pleasant. Machiavelli once warned that “progress often comes from hurting others.” People and their fate matter everywhere, absolutely. But, unfortunately, cultural executives are making difficult decisions – facing the difficult truth – in order to be at the service of their overarching mission and long-range goal: a thriving and vital arts and culture industry.
We, the academic community, have an opportunity – even a responsibility – to help in this process. First, we can investigate and analyze these changing systems and structures as they are implemented and provide valuable, objective feedback. We have to help our practitioner colleagues navigate the ship or cross the wire. Second, in our training of future cultural leaders, we must instill in them a willingness to respect and learn from the past, but to have a future orientation, along with the courage and skills to confront their new challenges aggressively and not to retrench.
Times of struggle – like this one – can and should be a time of great progress and change, not retrenchment.