We have got to get it together

For those of you who don’t know, Culturebot is not a paying gig. (Yet.) I do it as a side project – one of many – while for my day job I work at a foundation in the Jewish world. It is less exciting than being at P.S.122 but it is a pretty fun job, I work with cool people and I get to meet lots of great artists and academics.

The other piece of what I get to do at work is meeting big time philanthropists and family foundation types. It has given me enormous insight not only to the philanthropic world but into the business world and the ways that people with access to capital approach their giving. The Jewish world is incredibly sophisticated when it comes to philanthropy, so I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to learn a lot – not only about giving but about the theories and strategies that grow up around this sector.

At the same time, in other parts of my life I have friends that work in Hollywood and at major ad agencies, people who regularly work on projects that cost in excess of $20 million for, say, developing a single video game based on a movie. They have a very interesting approach to capital and content development. And more and more I’m realizing that content – whether art or entertainment – is rapidly converging. And more than that, for them innovation is a way of life. In that biz you have to constantly be willing to scrap everything and do it in a new way, you must evolve or die. Not so in the arts.

And let me tell you something: people in the arts + culture sector need to wake the heck up if they don’t want to go the way of print media, vinyl LPs and land lines. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things – they’re wonderful. But nobody is investing in them.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see so many arts organizations – and artist “service” organizations focusing on educating artists to “be more entrepreneurial” when they are not innovating their own behavior in any meaningful way. Artists don’t need to become more entrepreneurial, most of the ones I know already are. No, the institutions that support, develop and present them need to change. Significantly.

In terms of philanthropy, most foundations see philanthropy as a tool to strategically direct capital towards creating social change. The entire philanthropic infrastructure is predicated on funding initiatives and ideas that might languish in a purely market-driven environment. So whether it is social services or social justice to social studies- somebody somewhere has prioritized this field of inquiry and made capital available to move the conversation forward and influence the social reality.

The difference between the business sector and the non-profit/philanthropic sector is that business is for personal gain whereas philanthropy is for social good and the support of a civil society (however you choose to define it). As such, developing strategic giving structures and impact criteria is much more challenging and much more important. Very, very few philanthropists are going to fund artists to make art for arts sake. While the big arts organizations that present work of dead composers, playwrights, choreographers, etc. will probably not be significantly affected, those organizations that support living artists – the ones that actually require money to live on – are going to continue to get hit, big time.

Visual artists are more protected because they create a tangible product that can be made to increase in value; they create objects which become commodities & capital and as such are insulated from the sort of existential challenges to the living artist making non-tangible stuff.

So I’m reiterating something I’ve said frequently before – the arts has to come up with tangible, identifiable, strategic, outcomes-based justifications for funding. Whether issues-based, ideas-based or innovation-based, there has to be engagement with the world at large and a demonstrable link between the work being created and society. That doesn’t have to be overt like the WPA funding people’s theaters that reinforced leftist ideology, etc. It can take any number of forms. That’s the challenge.

But in a world where everything is adjusting to new realities, it is not about finding new justifications for art, its about changing art & art-making to engage the public in new ways.

To be continued….

8 thoughts on “We have got to get it together”

  1. Pingback: Innovation and Cultural Capital « Culturebot
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