The Debate Around Life and Death in the Arts

In response to the internet about why “We Should Allow Failing Arts Organizations to Die”

From a fairly innocuous comment I made at Dinnervention, to an only somewhat well-attended breakout session I co-lead at AFTA last month, to a blog post that only a handful of people read, to the email newsletter that touched off a social media firestorm, it seems that “We Should Allow Failing Arts Organizations to Die” has touched a nerve within our industry. I’ve been trying to respond to tweets, and take part in Facebook conversations, and jump into discussion forums where I can, but I wanted to highlight (and in some cases rebut) some of the themes that have come up.


The original blog post captured my talking points for a live debate. I knew that I had a 5-minute opening statement, 4 questions that I would have the chance to take the lead response, or rebut, and a 5-minute closing statement. They weren’t intended to be a blog post that could necessarily stand on their own. So yes, there are buckets of points left unsaid, and the post does jump from issue to issue. Deal with the messiness of it all, and focus on the argument itself.

As talking points, there were misspelled words. Sorry about that. It’s absolutely unprofessional. Hopefully you can look past them, to the merits of the argument.

This was a debate topic I was asked to take a position on. What I advocated for in that debate is a more extreme position than what I personally believe should be done; though absolutely aligned with my beliefs, that we shouldn’t continue to provide precious resources, in an already strapped field, to organizations who continue to fail to adapt to the needs of their community and their artists. So there are nuances to the issue I very intentionally left out of the picture, in an effort to spark the conversation and “win” a debate.

As a (spoken) debate, I chose to rely more on pathos than logos. I’ve been a speaker at large conferences like AFTA many times before. Your audience can only retain so many facts and figures. Much of my data isn’t sourced, though from the Pinterest board, you’re welcome to follow the same rabbit hole that I did for debate prep. And if you can find better sources and data to confirm or refute my positions, by all means add them as an inline comment to the original post.

Your Arguments

Here are some of the most common or substantive themes that I’ve heard across all of the social conversations to date:

“You don’t define what ‘failing’ ‘effective’ ‘arts’ or ‘institution’ actually mean, so it’s too vague of an argument to agree/disagree.”
In debate prep, we (moderator Shannon Daut, ‘disagree-side-advocate’ Aaron Dworkin) chose to define the arts as essentially nonprofit visual and performing arts organizations. It was with them in mind that we all constructed questions and arguments. But it’s a point that needs to be made crystal clear: I believe that (some) of these failing nonprofit arts organizations can die, and we can still retain the beneficial value of the arts through other media (e.g. other forms of art and culture), or other business models (e.g. for profit, co-working, fiscal sponsorships, etc). Defining failing and effective is far more difficult. And is the very first issue I brought up in the post-debate Q&A about where we believed the weaknesses in our argument were. We can’t be quite so pedestrian as “we know it when we see it,” especially when so much is at stake to a given failing/effective institution.

But I believe that a “failing organization” will have failed their community by not responding to their needs (producing art that doesn’t resonate with them, doesn’t confirm and challenge their beliefs, doesn’t inspire them, doesn’t reflect their composition), will have failed their artists and administrators by not responding to their needs (being unable to pay them a living wage, unable to provide opportunities for their creative and professional growth), and/or will have failed their art form (by not preserving the history of the form, or pushing it forward into new arenas).

“You mixed real facts with made-up assertions, so I can’t believe anything you’re saying.”
I wish there was better research to support some of my assertions. How much time we spend with “traditional art” versus how much time we spend with “non-traditional art” just isn’t an area where a lot of funders and researchers are willing to spend time. The people in the “non-traditional” industry don’t care, because for many of them this argument is too inside baseball and doesn’t reflect how they operate or think of themselves. The people in the “traditional” industry have a lot to lose by comparing themselves to these more populist traditions. But ask yourself, for the average American, the average person: add up the time they spend in a given week attending a play, opera, symphony, dance, chorus, museum, or similar. Now compare that to the time they spend engaging with television, film, a busker in the subway, graffiti art under an overpass, a particularly compelling/thought provoking video game, marveling at the architecture of a building, and so on. I bet the second far outweighs the first, regardless of whether it’s 2x or 20x or 200x. Why do I get to compare organizations across this “traditional versus non-traditional” spectrum? Because A) consumers increasingly don’t make the difference between them; B) i believe they can be substitutes for each other when comparing the impact that “arts and culture” has on the world; C) artists float between these industries more and more; and D) most of the things in the first bucket are underpinned by institutions, while most of the things in that second bucket are not, and thus my advocacy for the death of failing institutions, not failing art forms, or artists. But none of those 4 assertions are sourced, so you don’t have to believe in the argument.

“Boards are responsible for killing/keeping alive these organizations. They have the power, and they should keep it. Not outside institutional funders, or individuals, or the IRS.”
I believe the second thing out of my mouth in the debate Q&A was my discomfort with giving any more power to institutional funders or the IRS, or allowing them to make these decisions, given potential conflicts of interest. However, this starts getting us into political policymaking. I would love to leave it up to individuals, whether in the community, the Board as representatives of that community, or those individuals within the organization. But in too many cases, Boards are not actually reflective of their community, and they’re not making responsible decisions on behalf of that community. And individuals have no plausible way to collect themselves into a decision making body and actually shut an organization down. I proposed a few ideas in the original blog post, but they’re a stretch at best. We need a body with significant purse strings, a (relatively) objective point of view, and frankly, power.

I believe institutional funders are the best choice,
among the options we have.

It’s like choosing to support the bill that you know isn’t the ideal version of the regulation, because you know you can actually get the votes for it. We don’t get to choose the “mythical best.” We have to look at what kind of “regulation” would actually “pass” so we can move on with the doing, and stop with all the discussing.

“You can’t compare everything to for-profit companies. The parallels don’t exist, or you’re proving your own point that those industries have in fact failed.”
I often find myself comparing nonprofit arts industry to other for profit, and non-arts industries to try to find a new angle, a new point of view, a new way of looking at the same old problems. Too often, we take for granted that our industry is a special snowflake, and the issues we’re dealing with are so different, and so much harder, than other industries. I think that’s bullshit. We talk ourselves in circles when we only consider what has already been tried within our own industry.

And those other industries can be our test case studies for how to (and not to) adapt. The general public is more informed on a wide range of foreign and domestic issues, even though many local newspapers and radio stations have gone out of business. Even as record companies die, indie musicians are still making a living, choosing to be musicians, and continuing to push the art forms of rock, and rap, and blues, and folk forward.

Institutions may fail, but the benefit that we’re seeking from
the “arts industry” will live on.

Art inspires personal reflection, empathy, economic development, aids in reforming the criminal justice system, provides aesthetic and aural beauty to the world, preserves our history, employs a diverse set of artists and administrators, and on and on. But so do other industries, and other business models. Sometimes better than the nonprofit arts. If they can do those things better than we can, from a rational point of view, money should flow towards them. If arts peg their value to economic revitalization, but it turns out opening a restaurant is more effective at doing that than opening an art gallery, I want my tax dollars (and tax incentives) to go to that restaurant.

Because this debate took place in Nashville, AFTA took pains to include a wide variety of Nashville artists in the discussion of the arts sector, so was I. AFTA sponsored an “arts tour” I attended to an arts co-working space that had screen printers working alongside motorcycle repair shop, next to a darkroom, with a skateboard shop on the side. We went to a hat-shop, and a leather-making studio, and a distillery. Those are all valid forms of art. To me.

“New arts organizations won’t step in, if the ones we have now fail.”
A long time ago, I worked at Intiman, and was crushed to see it fail. But the Seattle arts community has stepped in to fill the gap, where it’s been needed. The death of one institution can be a blessing for a community, by reallocating resources more effectively across the organizations that remain.

A funder from the San Jose arts community attended the debate, and during the Q&A spoke about the frustration the community at large felt that this organization hadn’t responded to the changing demographic of their potential audience, and even after millions of dollars in emergency funding, and an army of consultants and advisers, they couldn’t make the business model work. Why should that failing organization continue to receive funds from the city government, when there are more worthy arts organizations standing ready to better use those resources?

I’d rather fund a thousand individual artists in Detroit,
than prop up an institution that has infrastructure
too large and expensive for its now much smaller community.

“Why do you have to kill them? Why not transform them?”
I’m totally on board with this one. Death and radical rebirth are equivalent in my mind. I believe that radical change is often needed to “give birth” to a new organization, and that it often requires new leadership, a new business model, or new programming. If there is an institution that is failing, but we can use its infrastructure (its building, its assets, its cashflow, its artistic capital, its influence in the community, its institutional knowledge) to create something new and more relevant, all the better, and that absolutely deserves an opportunity to compete for the resources and attention of the community and of institutional funders.

On the value of influencers over channels.

One of the really interesting opportunities this controversy provided me was an opportunity to get first hand metrics around a “viral” post, and start to unpack the value of “email versus social media” and a “broad versus deep network” and “ideal venue for commenting.” First, some quick stats.

This debate happened on Saturday, June 14. I posted the blog entry to Medium on Sunday, June 15. I tweeted about it that day. In its first two weeks, it received about 30 views, and a handful (<10) of comments across social media. Two weeks later, on June 30, Thomas Cott featured it in a You’ve Cott Mail email newsletter. 36 hours later, the post had nearly 7,000 views, hundreds of tweets, a barrage of Facebook comments scattered across public and private accounts, and quite a few complimentary and angry emails in my inbox. Even if only 1 in 5 people who saw the blog post actually read it.

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As of 10pm EST of July 1.

So email newsletters are really important as a channel, right? That is the distribution channel that launched the story. Just writing the blog post, or just tweeting about it, yielded very little. Only, the way Thomas Cott found that article was via Twitter. He follows me, in large part because I’ve published lengthy blog posts in the past. But here’s the intriguing thing:

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as of 10pm EST on July 1.

Nearly 80% of the traffic to the post came via Facebook. A channel I never promoted it on, and nor did Thomas Cott. Facebook is where the arts community took up this issue for debate, and passed it among each other. I participated in many of those conversations, but I only knew about them when someone would explicitly tag me. It’s nearly impossible to search Facebook for this blog post, so it’s a closed loop of people chatting amongst themselves. Whereas Twitter is totally open, you and I both can see all of the commentary (minus a few DM’s). And amidst the hundreds of tweets and facebook posts (even an article) debating this issue, only a single comment on the blog post itself. Compared to the original Dinnervention article, which engaged most of the same audience, on a similar topic, and yet which had dozens of comments on the post, with traffic driven primarily by email.

In other words, its an ecosystem. If I was advising an arts organization trying to “figure out social media” and how they could get 7,000+ people to read and engage with a substantive piece of content they had created, I wouldn’t tell you to focus on growing the number of fans for your Facebook Page (mine played no role in distributing this blog post). I won’t tell you that if your blog has no comments, you’re failing as a blogger (though I will tell you the importance of paying attention to where the comments are taking place). I wouldn’t even be able to tell you which channel to put your resources into—all three of email, Facebook, Twitter (and even that Pinterest board), played a valuable role for me. I do know that Thomas Cott continues to be an instrumental influencer in the field, by starting conversations (thanks for that insight JF). And it wouldn’t matter what channels I was using, without connections like him, and Clay Lord (who gave me the opportunity to co-lead this debate), and Gwydion Suilebhan and Margy Waller and Dan Brady (whose Facebook friends were all instrumental in helping me shape this response).

Medium says that truly viral posts last about a week, and peak on their 3rd day. I’m hopefully that tomorrow isn’t our peak. That this conversation builds more momentum. And becomes something that isn’t just talked about, but inspires action. I’m actively looking for another venue to host version 2.0 of this debate. Get in touch if you’re interested. I’m actively looking for suggestions for how to fix failing organizations, and an industry in decline, that fly in the face of this model. Get in touch if you have ideas.

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Here’s to preserving success over punishing failure.

Written by

PDX small business owner, statistics nerd, reluctant consultant, avid vagabond, arts & #nptech. Co-founder @measurecreative — strategy for progressive causes.

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