FROM TC: The following is an excerpt from a debate at the 2014 Americans for the Arts conference in Nashville. Please click on the headline to read the full post.

COMMENTARY: We should encourage failing arts organizations to die
Devon Smith,, 6/15/14
Arts organizations are dying. And I think that, not only should we allow it, we should encourage it. Over the past 20 years, 40% of arts organizations have perished. But they are being replaced even faster. For every arts org that survived between 1990  [and] 2010, 2.6 more were born (NEA research). And I don’t have the stats to support this, but for every hour of “traditional” nonprofit arts that a consumer experiences this year, they’ll spend 20 or 30 times that experiencing “nontraditional” arts and culture. And none of those experiences required an arts organization to support them. So I don’t buy the idea that, if arts organizations die, so will our ability to access art.
So if we’re not saving arts organizations for the art [or] for the audiences, we must be saving arts organizations for the artists? Only we already know that the vast majority of artists don’t earn their living exclusively, or even primarily, through the wages from an arts organization. We are left saving arts organizations for the administrators who run them. Which isn’t altogether a bad reason. Creating and sustaining jobs is important to our economy. And it’s not out of the question to ask the government to subsidize the wages of a given sector. We do it for farmers and for teachers and for other public sectors, because they’re all providing a public good, just like the arts do. But if our goal in saving the arts organizations is because they’re providing financially & professionally rewarding careers for our administrators, then I think many of you would believe we are failing. So it’s hopeless, right?
What if we framed the question in a different way? Instead of, “Do we allow failing organizations to die?” what if we were asking, “How do we save ONLY those organizations who are succeeding?” If we were focused on saving the best among us, we’d need to let go of some, maybe even many, of the rest. A productive crop can’t grow when it’s being choked off by weeds. There’s no doubt this will be a difficult transition. [However,] like a forest after a fire, regrowth is not just possible; it will surprise us with its innovation, its beauty, and its resourcefulness.
Who decides? I see 3 interesting, and I think feasible, possibilities:
  • Institutions (corporate, foundation) are a small enough group of constituents, with reasonably similar interests, that they could make the decision and then discontinue funding. We trust these institutions to make decisions about who to fund right now. This is asking them to make a more broad calculation about which factors to consider. Impact-driven giving is on the rise, and we need to get better at supporting experimentation and micro failures, while simultaneously eliminating support for structural failures to adapt.
  • Individuals could make this decision, though they are so diverse in their makeup and intentions, we’d need an objective rating mechanism. Already there exists Charity Navigator, GiveWell and LikeMinded, and investigative venues like TinySpark that are trying to evaluate nonprofits on the “on the ground” impact they’re having. I’m also really curious about what an “arts stock market” would look like. Economists believe that all knowledge about a given company, its current and future prospects, are incorporated into the price of its stock, so it’s a useful way to compare one company to another, as well as a signal to the industry about which companies are healthy or not.
  • Finally, we could leave this decision up to the government. Already, the IRS will take away 501c3 status if you don’t file your 990 for 3 years. But it’s not impossible to imagine they’d start evaluating the content included in that 990. That they could require a minimum threshold of financial viability and/or “cost per outcome”, in order to continue receiving that tax status. Alternately, they could reward efficiency, like with the “Pay for Success” movement being explored by the Irvine Foundation and others. The government regulates plenty of other sectors—finance, and energy, and healthcare.
How will allowing arts organizations to die affect the arts landscape/ecosystem? I’ll start with your most likely fears:
  • We’ll lose the historically valuable. We have never had easier/cheaper methods of preservation, without institutionalization. We lost the Library of Alexandria, but we relearned euclidean geometry.
  • We’ll lose the art made for communities of color. We haven’t seen this in the music industry. Consumers have never [had] more options for niche music.
  • We’ll lose the most expensive art to produce. Even with the decline of print media, we haven’t seen this in journalism. VICE TV is making some of the most interesting and valuable stories; Matter is doing the same with long form digital.
  • Producers will flee to the popular/contemporary. Even with the decline of broadcast TV, we haven’t seen this in Netflix. House of Cards and Orange is the New Black were produced in response to the glut of reality TV.
  • Closure will negatively impact collaborators. Yes, sudden disruptions are undoubtedly bad for the ecosystem, but slow absorption of collaborators is great.
There’s a lot of potential upside coming out of allowing failing arts organizations to die. The same pie with fewer slices means each is bigger for successful organizations. We might even be able to expand the pie, if funders see a positive impact of death by design. [And] the perception of value increases, thereby increasing consumers’ willingness to pay. Culling the weak from the herd leaves everyone else stronger. All this said, there are no industries composed solely of adaptable and successful organizations. We’re always going to need to learn to deal with failure.
Are there arts organizations that should be deemed “too big to fail”? Banks that were Too Big to Fail were identified as such because they served such a structural component to the global financial system, that a failure of one, would lead to a failure of all.  It’s hard to imagine an arts org that is supporting so many other arts organizations that, if it failed, so would they. Look at Intiman’s closing in Seattle, or San Jose Rep, or Detroit Art Museum. Other organizations and artists are stepping in to fill the gaps. In a market economy, if artists have something willing to give, they’ll open up avenues to create art. If audiences want to consume art, they will find it, and support it.
Closing Statements. Hospice care in this country largely rose out of the AIDS crisis. When young people were suddenly facing the ends of their life, we didn’t know how to cure them, and we needed a system to help them die more gracefully. This required an entire field of professionals to work together to figure out how to address the issue, even as we were also trying to find a cure.

There are arts organizations [that] are succeeding brilliantly at serving their communities, their artists, their administrators, and the art form itself. We need to learn from them. But we need to hold accountable the artists, and administrators who consistently contribute to the failure of their organizations. We should not only allow those failing organizations to die, we should encourage and support their graceful exit.
These issues are important to our field, and it’s a problem that will never be solved through talking alone. We need to start taking action. For more resources, see this Pinterest board, and follow the conversation on Twitter.

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