This is probably as close as I'll ever get to a "manifesto". It's about the nonprofit arts system and how it can have an exciting, relevant future in a complicated, dynamic world.
In the beginning there was Ford. Or at least the Ford Foundation.
It was the significant investment from the Ford Foundation (and a few other foundations) that created the modern nonprofit arts organization. Like any child, the nonprofit arts industry was built in the image of our industrialist parents.
If you think about the structure of a typical arts org - Board, CEO, multiple (siloed) departments, a defined hierarchy - you can see the fingerprints of the Industrial Revolution all over the thing. This was a necessary step. The arts industry needed a sense of stability. It needed organizations capable of creating art year after year.
It makes sense that people would assume that what created stability in so many other industries (hierarchy, systems, etc.) would do the same in our world.
They were right, for a very long time. People embraced the structure because it worked. It created an industry that has employed hundreds of thousands of people and (more importantly) has helped deliver great works of art to millions of people.
I want to emphasis those last points. It's easy to rip the nonprofit world. It's easy to judge the choices arts organizations make. But these organizations (big and small) and the people that have funded them have enabled some fantastic artistic moments.
Sunshine and Shadows
Every bit of sunshine has a shadow. In this case, we have two major ones. The first shadow is a strong, institutional resistance to change. This is by design. Hierarchy, structure and change do not mix. The world is filled with groups that either couldn't see the world evolving or couldn't summon the will to deal with the change.
The second shadow is an emphasis on short term thinking. In an industrial world, the emphasis is on hitting the quarterly and yearly numbers. The leaders of our world are judged on short term statistics:
The annual fund
The attendance for a particular event
Yearly growth in subscribers numbers
Hell, I'm as guilty of this as anyone. I work as a Marketing Director of a large nonprofit theatre. Right at the top of my bio is the fact that I have exceeded my revenue number for multiple seasons. I'm not immune to short term/number based thinking.
But while we all had our heads down going through the grind of artistic planning, executing fundraising campaigns, etc. we didn't really have the time/energy/willingness to deal with the wave that is coming straight at us.
If the issue was just getting people of color into our institutions we could handle it.
If the issue was just building the next generation of audience and arts leaders we could deal with it.
If the issue was just communicating with an increasingly fragmented audience we could find smart people to manage the problem.
If the issue was just staying competitive in a digital world filled with cheap entertainment we could cope.
Our industrial structure could handle any one of those problems. Maybe two.
It's when all those problems hit us at once that our shadows begin to overwhelm us.
The nonprofit arts system as you and I know it is only about 50 years old. That's not as old as you think. The world wide web is only 30 years old.
Like any young(ish) industry, we are now hitting a crucial point. The gifts of our parents - the industrial revolution - have taken us as far as they can. Those gifts were not designed for this world.
So now we have to tackle the shadows. We have to consider our structures and how we can remove the natural barriers to change. We have to question whether our emphasis on yearly budgets, goals and benchmarks fits with our current environment.
If we can grapple with those shadows then a bright future awaits.
When I continue the series, I will take a look at our structures and how we can make them fit the new world.
NOTE: Part 2 is here