Art Supply and Demand Debate Continues…

The NEA’s, Rocco Landsman, certainly struck a nerve with his blog post  Supply and Demand. A number of interesting posts have since been written about the topic, three in particular, which I would like to share with you. Two are by Diane Ragsdale, a scholar studying the economics of nonprofit regional theaters – and Landesman’s interviewer. The other by Arlene Goldbard a writer, speaker, activist, and consultant at the intersection of culture, politics, and spirituality.

I would encourage you to read these posts and think about what’s at stake for you and the arts and where you stand. The obvious problem is the  expansion of nonprofit arts groups when resources and audiences are in retreat. Landsman based his position on statistics by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts as well as the NEA: In the recession years of 2007 to 2009, the nationwide ranks of nonprofit arts organizations had grown by 3,000. At the same time, Landsman says, a 2008 NEA survey of public participation in the arts showed a 5 percent drop from 2002 in the number of adults who had visited an art museum or attended a live performance.

The Washington Post, February 13th, 2011 offers a good summary of the debate.

Supply and Demand Redux: Rocco’s Comment and the Elephant in the Room
Diane Ragsdale wrote this post on February 7th, 2011

I’ve been following the responses to Rocco’s ‘decreasing supply‘ comment and his subsequent post on the NEA blog. Some believe that supply/demand is the wrong framework through which to look at the sector; some that there is no such thing as too much art and that we should increase patronage rather than ‘kill’ organizations; some agree with him but believe it was inappropriate for him to make the statement; and a few seem to agree with his points and believe that it was beneficial for him to make them. I’m in the last group.

Rocco has done the arts sector a service with his ‘decreasing supply’ comment as I think it has created an opening for a candid discussion about an elephant in the room: the US lacks a mechanism for identifying and dealing with mission-failing arts organizations and (because competition for resources exists) the nonprofit arts sector might be healthier overall if some mission-failing organizations were to close. Following on my overstocked arts pond post of a few weeks ago, here are some further thoughts on the supply/demand issue.

Competition among arts organizations for earned and contributed income exists. Some markets and organizations experience more competition than others, but it is not uncommon for arts groups located in the same city to be competing to secure patronage and trustees from among the same (narrow) demographic of upper middle class well educated arts-goers and funds from one or two government agencies and a small number of private foundations and corporations.

Many arts people take the stance that we should ‘let 1,000 flowers bloom’. While one might theoretically argue that there is no such thing as ‘too much art in the world’, the same cannot be said of arts organizations: to the degree that resources are not growing at the same rate as organizations (and they are not according to the most recent National Arts Index report), every new firm that enters the sector reduces the chances of every other to secure sufficient resources to operate.

(Read the rest of her post here.)

What is a mission-failing arts org? Like its opposite, perhaps you know it when you see it.
Diane Ragsdale wrote this blog post on February 13, 2011

In last week’s post I suggested that the sector might be strengthened if some ‘mission-failing’ organizations were to close. I defined mission-failing organizations as those that were not providing sufficient cultural or social value relative to the investments in them. It’s an awkward phrase and I find it difficult to describe a mission-failing organization with any confidence; however, I can give an example of its opposite–an organization that is providing great cultural and social value–and did so in a talk I gave in 2010 called The Excellence Barrier.

Here’s what I said (additional comments follow the excerpt):

Susan Sontag once wrote, “Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.”  I take particular note of the phrase, “precarious attainment of relevance.”  No organization can be granted relevance in perpetuity based on the size of its endowment, the permanence of the building it occupies, the fact that it was the first or largest of its kind in its region or city, or its historic accomplishments.  The institution exists to matter to people, in a particular community, today.  That is the impact that must be assessed.

What does impact look like if not the metrics we’re currently assessing?  Alan Brown has done terrific work in assessing intrinsic impacts and community engagement, and I couldn’t begin to summarize his research here—but I suggest you take a look at it.   I would, however, describe what I consider to be one of the best examples in the US of an organization that is brokering relationships between people and art.

In 2003, choreographer Elizabeth Streb opened a performance space in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. called S.L.A.M. Instead of creating a church-like space that patrons visited once a week for a sacred experience, Streb opened the doors and let people come in anytime to watch rehearsal or use the restroom. She added popcorn and cotton candy machines and let people walk around and eat food during the performances.

(Read the rest of her post here..)

Triage Culture: The Mideast, Wisconsin, and The NEA
Arlene Goldbard wrote this blog post on Feb 22nd, 2011.
Triage is the process of culling and prioritizing patients to apportion medical treatment: those who will survive without treatment and those who will die regardless of treatment are given lower priority than those for whom care and attention will increase chances of survival. You need to practice triage in a field hospital, at the scene of a large accident, or in a crowded emergency room—wherever the need for care outstrips the supply.

But more and more, triage as a political philosophy is being practiced voluntarily, from the public squares of Tripoli to the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, to the offices of the National Endowment for The Arts (NEA). What works in a field hospital, where there are only so many doctors, so many beds and bottles of medicine, is being transferred to domains awash in surplus arrogance, in which the worst scarcities are compassion and wisdom.

In the medical domain, the process is systematized to prevent bias and self-interest from dominating: the triage nurse has nothing personal at stake; the guidelines are set according to a consensus of medical necessity; the goal is to help as many as possible. But the salient facts of triage politics are a stark contrast: someone with a hyper-inflated sense of personal power feels authorized to decide who will get help and who will be expendable; and to blithely allow everyone else to suffer the consequences.

Everywhere I look, the people who have been declared expendable are refusing to lie down and die.

(Read the rest of her post here.)

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