A Modest Proposal for Arts in America

Not too long ago Chloe Veltman wrote a blog post suggesting that the San Francisco Fringe Festival set some criteria for their completely un-juried curatorial process.  A motivational speaker had successfully submitted his corporate lecture to the festival and, in light of this, she felt that corporate encroachment would somehow negatively affect the spirit, quality and intent of the festival. I respectfully disagreed, pointing out that if you have a deliberately un-juried festival then you are stuck with what you get, that the corporations already fund pretty much all art in America anyway and, finally, that the arts in general (and theater most of all) are clinging to an anti-corporate “us vs. them” mentality that is both self-defeating and largely irrelevant in this day and age.

I promised I would follow up with new insights and suggestions on the relationship between corporations and the arts as this is something I’ve been exploring for quite a while and has been my particular focus for at least the past two years.  And I will. But before I speak at length about new models for corporate/arts partnerships I want to put forth a few overarching observations and suggestions on fixing the arts in America.*

The following essay outlines Five Points for Revitalizing the Arts in America. (Download the PDF here if you want to print out and read later.)  

(also – I don’t have an editor so there are some typos and grammatical irregularities. Sorry, but hey its FREE!)

Oh and keep this in mind:

“It’s obvious that the new economy – whatever we’re going to emerge into – is going to be built by the innovation that will emerge during this recession.” – George Colony, Forrester Research in The Boston Globe.


1. Consolidate, Innovate and Reposition

The first thing we need to do is reposition the role of arts + culture in society. For many reasons the arts have moved to the fringes of cultural conversation. We need to reintroduce the idea of the arts as a place of civic discourse. Artists and curators need to work much more closely with non-arts partners – economists, sociologists, scientists, computer programmers, city planners, demographers, etc. – to identify the pressing conceptual issues of the day. Art  – no matter the form- is about creating an object or event that focuses attention on a specific idea; it is a tool for enabling human beings to collectively and simultaneously focus their thought processes –  thus the arts need to collaborate directly with non-arts disciplines and start leading the conversations America will be having as we move into a global future.

Part of repositioning is innovating the modes of public engagement.  Taking its cue from Harold Skramstad’s seminal 1999 article “An Agenda for American Museums In the Twenty-First Century,” the contemporary museum world has already made great strides in redefining the way the public interacts with art. In a multimedia, multidisciplinary, hybrid, networked, on-demand world we can no longer privilege one form over another.  We should be looking at the members of the Contemporary Art Centers networks (The Walker, the Wexner, Yerba Buena, etc.) for scalable, multidisciplinary presenting models that will allow us to consolidate resources, streamline curatorial processes and cultural production as well as promote multidisciplinary ideas-based investigations. Certainly as the economy falters and the visual arts lose their economic engine the value of other art forms will rise – we need to leverage this for the benefit of all.

Part of this innovation is to consolidate bricks and mortar. Contemporary arts and culture spaces must be multidisciplinary with adequate, adaptable theatrical space for all different kinds of performances integrated with visual art space, screening rooms and multimedia/virtual spaces. They should be smaller. As we become more and more accustomed to mediated space and networked environments, where mass entertainment happens in sports arenas and stadiums, the unique experience of intimate live performance and/or interaction with art objects and other human beings becomes ever more valuable. Keep it small and keep it flexible. If you are presenting an artist who can draw 10,000 people, then do ten shows for 1,000 people each. It’ll be a better experience for everyone involved.

In this day and age, where one person’s iPod may well contain a dozen different kinds of music next to each other, discipline-specific delineations are less relevant than ever. While some may prefer dance and some theater, some classical and some world music, all of these disciplines can – and should – cohabitate. If we view art and culture as an essential part of civic dialogue then the public should be exposed to all forms, frequently in juxtaposition. The public must be educated to experience culture regardless of discipline and become as savvy in the parsing of cultural product as they are savvy with entertainment, movies, popular music and video games.

The hardest part of Consolidating, Innovating and Repositioning is making room for the new by LETTING THINGS DIE. It is absurd to have a regional theater, a symphony, a ballet company, an opera, and other cultural enterprises all with their own buildings, all with their own administrative infrastructures, all in competition for the same funds. Let the regional theater system die. It is antiquated, expensive and largely irrelevant. Consolidate, share resources and place art in juxtaposition. Let’s focus on the notion of a cultural “civic center” run by trained, qualified administrators and housing a variety of different arts organizations – of varying sizes, disciplines, aesthetics and ambitions.

2. Develop Sustainable Cultural Infrastructures

There are many different components to creating a sustainable cultural infrastructure. In America today it is more likely that an arts institution will embark on a capital campaign to build a new building then it will engage in an endowment campaign targeted at increasing its general operating budget to provide living wages and better quality of life to its employees. This is a HUGE MISTAKE. The arts – more than any other industry – requires sustained institutional knowledge management, innovative and nimble administrators and the ability to retain the most qualified and effective workers. However, wages in the arts + culture sector are phenomenally low, there are almost no incentives or rewards for success, opportunities for professional development are few and far between and human capital is widely seen as expendable.  I could go on a foul-mouthed furious tirade about this -and have – but for decency’s sake, I’ll leave it there and move on to the key issue that is: if you want to have sustainable arts ecologies then you need to invest in people. Here are a few ways in which arts + culture could improve the lives of its workers and make it a more attractive profession:

  • Pay a living wage with health benefits, retirement, etc. Arts administrators should at least be on a level with teachers, the two professions are deeply related and require similar skill sets.
  • No more M.F.A.s! There is nothing more useless than a Master’s degree in arts administration or an arts administrator who possesses one. Not only does the “book learning” rarely have anything to do with the real world, it creates a peculiar breed of person who feels entitled to respect (and a senior position) without possessing any prior actual experience. Cultural institutions don’t need more MBA-style administrators who are constantly looking for the next best opportunity. Cultural institutions need administrators who are hands-on and capable. More importantly, because of the extraordinarily ephemeral nature of arts + culture, the institutions need the knowledge management which comes from long-term employee retention.
  • Bring back apprenticeship! A young arts administrator should come into an organization and be able to stay for 5-10 years, learning the trade and gradually moving up. Cultural institutions are not corporations, they are organic and complicated, they are about knowledge, creativity, education and imagination. As such, without a tangible product or revenue stream, the “collective memory” of the institution must be sustained and moved forward through the cultivation of its human assets.
  • Reward success. Provide opportunities for professional development, provide clear pathways to promotion and advancement, implement institutional mentoring programs, subsidies for continuing education and skills acquisition. Treat Arts Workers like Valuable Human Beings!!

In addition to revamping the culture sector’s approach to managing its human resource capital, there are other key factors to developing a sustainable arts ecology/infrastructure. I return to my previous point of consolidation.

Despite what Wall Street would have you believe, running a cultural institution is incredibly hard work. The kind of crap the banking, automotive and real estate industries get away with would never fly in the non-profit sector. For every arts organization, theater, dance company, etc. to have to function as its own 501(c)(3) is just insane.

We need to not only consolidate bricks and mortar but consolidate arts administration. The Public Theatre in NYC has actually made great strides towards housing multiple companies of various size in its building. Here is where urban planners and cultural institutions need to start innovating – how do we devise public cultural spaces that provide both physical resources and administrative infrastructure for multiple arts organizations. If a ballet company, theater company or a musical ensemble didn’t have to have a fundraiser and an executive director and a bookkeeper and all this administrative overhead, they could focus on making art. They could probably make it faster, cheaper and easier. How do we build an infrastructure that alleviates the administrative burdens on arts creators and incentivizes top-notch administrators to stay in the culture sector?

Public cultural spaces should be transparent public/private non-profit partnerships. Administratively they should be managed as public trusts, dedicated to serving the community-at-large through arts, education, humanities and enrichment. The administration of the physical plant, the fiscal dealings of the organization, all of the operational logistics should be completely separate from the creative and curatorial administration.  In addition there should be alternative, innovative housing solutions that integrate artists and educators into the daily life of the community they serve.

We must renew the civic commitment to public cultural institutions. Just as those of us in New York are constantly being asked to underwrite the construction of stadiums, ballparks and basketball arenas for the benefit of massive corporations, so too should the public be responsible for funding arts and culture. The arts, at least, provide intellectual development, aesthetic refinement, the cultivation of emotional complexity and moral uplift; considerably more positive benefits than the steroids, arrogance, sexual violence, licentiousness and ignorant conspicuous consumption promoted by so-called professional sports.

This leads back, inevitably, to the notion of repositioning – if we are going to ask the public to participate in sustaining and arts + culture infrastructure we need to reassert arts + culture relevance in civic life. Which leads back to requiring artists and curators to work much more closely with non-arts partners – economists, sociologists, scientists, computer programmers, city planners, demographers, etc. – to identify the pressing conceptual issues of the day and what conversations we need to be having for the future and start having them.

Funding-wise if arts organizations had sustained and reliable general operating expenses this would alleviate the fear and stress engendered by a constant state of financial peril. This would encourage evaluators to assess administrator performance using other criteria – such as relationship building with non-arts institutions, program impact, possibly even revenue generated through the creation of intellectual property.

If arts + culture institutions invested in human capital to make administrator jobs really valuable and hard to get, they would attract better people by introducing a wider field of competition – just like Wall Street! This would also open the field in a way that no longer privileges the privileged. Currently the major qualification for executive arts leadership is  often donor cultivation – which is best done by peers. This does not necessarily correspond with managerial prowess, vision, leadership or accountability.

Providing an adequate baseline of funding for a multi-disciplinary shared civic cultural space and increasing arts administrator wages so that it could be a lifelong career would create competition; rewarding experience and talent over privilege.

This would also require the implementation of a more visible and definite line between the administrative and curatorial arms. But an adequate baseline of funding would alleviate the fundraising pressures, strengthening the administrator’s ability to manage in a responsible way. It would also remove the pressure for art to be commercially viable or conventionally successful – concerns best left to the entertainment industry.

3. Decentralize Cultural Production

Think globally, act locally, get connected. Use the internet, new media and all tools available to facilitate conversation and information-sharing and artist exchange. “Regional” rtist shouldn’t have to mean “provincial” artist.

As the cost of cultural production skyrockets in major urban centers, we need to decentralize the process – finding cheaper places to build arts and culture while assuring quality and sophistication that will be competitive in a global arts market.  In this day and age there is no reason why cultural civic centers can’t facilitate ongoing global dialogue, artist exchanges, residencies and public programs on the relevant issues of the day.

In addition, we need to cultivate and improve networked performance and real-time trans-geographic interaction. We must identify new ways for artists to collaborate over distances, find ways for audiences to engage regardless of place.

Ultimately this will not only benefit the field of arts and culture but it will bring the arts to life in a new way in each city and/or region. Local art museums should show local artists. Local theaters, symphonies, operas and cultural centers should all actively support the creation of new work in their communities. Projects like the New Museum’s 3M or Museum As Hub initiatives suggest possibilities for collaborative development.

Alternately cultural production could be distributed regionally according to resource availability.

4. Increase Arts Education, Widen the Frame and Democratize Cultural Access

Let’s start by “widening the frame” of what we identify art so that young people find arts and culture are RELEVANT and USEFUL. We must now remedy the 30 years of intentional destruction of the arts education in America and make the arts accessible to all and relevant to the younger generation.

That doesn’t mean forcing them to listen to opera or go see mediocre, didactic plays – it means identifying the new, encouraging innovation and inviting young people into the process of creativity; it means identifying what young people are already doing with technology and encouraging them to contextualize their natural curiosity and creativity as art.

Video games, digital music production, digital video production, web-based interaction – all of these new technologies are not merely utilities they are landscapes for imaginative play. We must encourage young people to move beyond utility and look at technology as fun – a way to make art and play and imagine and dream.

We can’t start arts education with the old, demanding that today’s kids learn about theater, classical music, poetry, etc. on our terms. We must re-frame expression and experience in a way that affirms the aesthetics of our on-demand, “personalized” society and creates new access points to art. Once we re-introduce the idea of imaginative play we can grow young people’s awareness of the history of the arts and culture, point to precedents and empower them to investigate the world around them.

We must be willing to relinquish the dominant narrative and educate young people, give them the tools to express their personal agency in the construction of narrative with intellect, insight and responsibility.

Widening the frame cannot succeed without a commitment to arts education and art appreciation in the schools. It cannot be an afterthought – it must be restored to the core curriculum along with basic science, mathematics, English and social studies.

As culturally-specific museums renegotiate their representations of identity, they are creating literally thousands of new access points to culture for people of all identities, ethnicities, backgrounds and social status.

We need to reintroduce the arts as an educational tool and a tool for empowering young people with the skills of critical thinking, creativity and innovation.

We also need to understand that arts education is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor and consciously tailor artistic educational programs to demographics. Affluent students who come from historically philanthropic backgrounds may well require different educational access points and priorities from those who come from less comfortable backgrounds. The end goal is not unified arts education but providing as many access points as possible and giving young people whatever tools they need. Democratizing access to cultural resources also means scaling those access points strategically. It is not enough just to make things cheap – we need to make things relevant.

Arts Education is not one-sided – arts + education need to be integrated more fully and thoughtfully. We must revise and innovate the integration of educational components into the cultural production process. Every cultural institution should have in-house dramaturges and educational curriculum development professionals. They should keep records of research and process during the creation of new work, developing bibliographies, guides, online documentation and all the paratext surrounding the work. By having educational and dramaturgical professionals on-hand, working on parallel and simultaneous tracks, we can increase the transparency of the artistic process and reinforce the connection between art, ideas, public policy, politics, cultural attitudes, philosophy, economics and entertainment.

To have an informed populace in the information age, they must have the tools to parse the media – and art can create a critical context for developing skills in media analysis. Even though this sounds abstract, the right approach can make it accessible to anyone. Whether it is talking about why video games look the way they do, or why a specific camera angle is chosen, today’s youth need to be educated as much in visual and media literacy as in textual literacy.  Arts + Culture is a great tool for that.

In this new world, everything is art if you see it that way. Culture is vast and all-inclusive. We must provide the citizens of tomorrow with the tools to frame cultural experience in an intelligent, empowered way. If America is to remain a dominant global cultural force then we have to be artistically and culturally advanced, conscious of the images we create and messages we disseminate and we must have a population that is literate enough to engage in these conversations.

5. Innovate Funding and Revenue Models For Cultural Production and Distribution

This is the big one – and I’m not giving it away for free. Not yet. But if you’ve read everything I’ve written thus far and think I’m talking big government and socialism, um, you’re wrong.

*I HAVE WRITTEN LITERALLY HUNDREDS OF PAGES ON THIS and would be able to write a much more cogent and complete assessment if offered a book deal [and editor!) that would enable me to quit my job and devote my energy to writing. I would love to write a lengthy treatise on the economics of cultural production in the U.S. and the systemic function it breeds, but for expediency’s sake I am reducing it to some bullet points and short paragraphs on how to fix the arts + culture infrastructure and reposition the arts in relationship to both the public and private sectors

2 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal for Arts in America”

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