99 has done another great post talking about how sports have been able to make themselves part of the fabric of mainstream American culture in a way that the arts have not. (h/t to Thomas Cott for bringing it to people's attention.)
In many ways I love the sports comparison, but there is a vital difference between the two that we should discuss. So let's do that and then I'll offer a different industry that I think the arts could learn from.
Part of what sports offer to us is a clear outcome.
I know, for a fact that the Chicago Bears beat the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday 25-19. This is our starting point. If I'm talking about the game with anyone in the world, we all can agree on who won the game and who lost.
Now what we can debate in the sports world, and debate endlessly, is why certain things happened during the game and how those things could impact the next game. We can talk about whether the Bears need to run the ball more effectively, or whether the Seahawks have a viable backup quarterback in Seneca Wallace.
But when I call my friend to discuss those things, we both know the context of the discussion. The Bears won. The Seahawks lost. Both teams are trying to do the same thing, win the Super Bowl.
Now imagine if I called my friend and we first had to discuss whether the Bears won or lost, or the standards for winning or losing, or whether winning or losing was important in the first place.
Then we would have the arts. Thousands of organizations. Thousands of individual goals. No clear standards by which to judge success or failure.
This is why it's hard for "the arts" to have a huge national profile. It's far too complex an organism for that.
This isn't a good thing, or a bad thing. It's just how it is.
But I do think there is an industry far closer to ours that we can learn a lot from.
Thousands of churches. Some big. Many small. More opening up every day. Just like the arts.
Hundreds of variations of religious doctrine. Just like there are endless variations on artistic styles.
And also like the arts, the end purpose of a church is difficult to define. Is it to save souls? Make people better? Avoid damnation? It all depends on who you ask.
Most churches even have a performance element, better known as the Sunday sermon.
So what does a good church (emphasis on the good) do that we can learn from?
When you talk to a leader who runs a church that is really working well, that leader gives most of the credit for that to his/her congregation.
Essentially, a church is only as strong as the community they serve.
It's the community that provide the bulk of the money, bodies and other resources they need to get things done.
Not the government.
Not some foundation.
Not a corporation.
A church lives or dies based on how well they serve a selected community.
Hold that thought for a second and let's move on.
Think about the church leader doing a sermon for let's say 2,500 people.
The leader has the spotlight, the audience, the platform. It's a lot like an actor doing a particularly good part of a play.
But here's what the good church leader gets that some of us in the arts can't grasp yet.
That spotlight he gets on Sunday, has to be earned.
When is that spotlight earned?
Monday through Saturday.
It's earned when they teach classes in their community center, or stand by the side of a dying parishoner, or offer marriage counseling, etc.
They understand that if they don't do those things then the sermon (the performance) doesn't really matter much.
In the arts we are great at Sunday. We are great at the sermon. We know how to perform.
But all too often we disappear Monday through Saturday.
We treat outreach - real sustained outreach - as something to think about every once in a while . . . as something we do in between the "real work" of performing.
But outreach . . . the work of connecting our art to communities in creative and effective ways . . . IS THE WHOLE DAMN SHOW.
There is nothing else.
This is particularly true for emerging organizations that don't have the history and artistic reputation to stand on yet.
All arts organization are service organizations. That's what a wise man shared with me and it's the gospel truth.
So go serve somebody. Be creative. Think of ways to add relevance and context to work you are sharing with them. Think of ways of adding their own creative urges with your own.
If you do that, if you effectively serve a community, then in return they will give you your Sunday. They will give you the platform you crave. They will fill your seats and donate to your annual fund.
If not then you'll be like all the rest, screaming at the top of your lungs and wondering why nobody hears you.
I'll say it again.
Go serve somebody.