Strength through Coordination and Collaboration

Why do we have so many free-standing, poorly funded national 501c3 service organizations in the arts field? It seems that as each discipline matured, each created its own support entity. Now as a mature sector, with the arts providing almost $200 billion in financial activity annually, we must become much more strategic and more influential on the national stage than the current structure allows. Having a service organization catering to each discipline and sub-discipline is expensive and redundant, while providing little leverage—the exact opposite of what’s needed.

Let’s consolidate the numerous national discipline-specific arts service organizations into one robust, influential, and vital American Institute for the Arts. Each discipline would have its own division where areas of specific need could be addressed, yet the new Institute would provide substantial economies of scale (no need for many CEO’s, development officers, etc. etc.), and a cohesive, coordinated approach toward three significant outcomes:

Establish a set of unifying priorities for the arts industry. Strategic action requires rigorous priority setting. Without field-wide statements of possibility and intention, there is little chance of being heard above the din of a 24-hour news cycle. The arts could and should stand alongside education, energy, health and other national priorities. However the idea of a cabinet level designation for arts and culture is a pipedream without a compelling and unifying message that articulates the ways in which the endeavors of America’s artists and arts organizations can have optimal impact.

Turn information into knowledge, knowledge into learning, and learning into innovation. While there are discipline-specific realities and needs that should be identified and addressed; national priorities should drive an interdisciplinary approach to data gathering, and determining how such data can be helpful across all arts sectors. Such knowledge and learning would encourage bolder and more innovative strides toward a more sustainable future for the field.

Penetrate the public consciousness about the public value created by the arts. This should not be the purview of a single foundation or think tank—or for each discipline to attempt one by one. This is the critical collective responsibility of our field.  Unless we succeed, not only do we risk being further marginalized, but becoming insignificant within the discourse about our nation’s future.

Is now the time to acknowledge the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the present system and to consider seriously the opportunities of a more united and robust approach? Why not a new, vigorous, and influential American Institute for the Arts, generating and distributing knowledge and learning; stabilizing and improving the health of the sector; and increasing the awareness of the substantial contribution arts and cultural endeavors make toward a better nation?


Tagged: , , , ,

22 thoughts on “Strength through Coordination and Collaboration

  1. Thom January 2, 2010 at 1:33 am Reply

    Art is not like Wal-mart or McDonalds. As an artist you speak to the local audience, not the country as a whole. Although art has universal themes, it must relate to the specif viewer in a specif arena.

    I just don’t get this line of thought.

  2. Weekly email 1-10-09 « Culture Politick December 16, 2009 at 11:16 am Reply

    […] arts service organisations need to be consolidated? HERE This piece looks at the USA, although we think the arts sector could learn much from the strength, […]

  3. JatStraikarDude December 8, 2009 at 1:21 am Reply

    I highly enjoyed reading this blogpost, keep on creating such interesting posts!!

  4. […] arts service organisations need to be consolidated? HERE This piece looks at the USA, although we think the arts sector could learn much from the strength, […]

  5. B Z October 5, 2009 at 12:57 pm Reply

    Another problem: non-profits love gibberish. They like to use words that have no meaning, except to themselves, to sound important. It’s all bull.

  6. B Z October 5, 2009 at 12:55 pm Reply

    Non-profit organizations are notorious for their inefficiency and the incompetence of their staff. We definitely need fewer such organizations.

  7. B Z October 5, 2009 at 12:05 pm Reply

    Organizations have attitudes, flavors, moods. Some are quite negative. Some are heavily influenced by corporate culture. Most are overly bureaucratic. Many or most are overly peopled with and influenced by arts administrators and arts administration theory.

    The “arts” should be run by and represented by people who serve the artists, not themselves. There probably are too many organizations using up too much money. The arts are not a way for nice college graduates to have a nice job. The organizations should be providing employment to artists, part-time.

  8. Maureen Carruthers October 1, 2009 at 8:52 am Reply

    John–your question about “what have we not done” reminded me of a recent blog post from Seth Godin–The problem with non. I think he over states a lot but his point about organizations having a hard time with social media because it requires giving up some control over the message rung true for me. What I’m not sure about is how to get over that. Seth seems to suggest that organizations should be 100% o.k. with volunteers speaking for them–but having worked with volunteers and having been a volunteer myself I know that volunteers don’t always have all the information they need–and therefore end up saying things about the organization and it’s programs or belief’s that are just not true.

    So how do we create open cultures as John suggests without opening ourselves up to perpetuating blatant falsehoods?

  9. John September 30, 2009 at 5:01 pm Reply

    Thanks to all for such thoughtful and energizing comments! I was especially drawn to Lisa’s point about 20th century hierarchies, and the need for 21st century distributed and networked structures—and could well imagine that such structures could achieve the outcomes outlined in my original post. My question I have is, what have we not done to date to animate such structures, and what would be required of those in charge of the current hierarchies to achieve these outcomes earlier vs. later in this new century? Time marches on—and the environment seems to become even more unforgiving for systems that fail to adapt to new realities.

  10. […] by John McCann, president of Partners in Performance (it has the amorphous title “Strength Through Coordination and Collaboration“) is making the rounds of the blogosphere and the theatrosphere, and deserves debate and […]

  11. Lucy W September 29, 2009 at 7:25 am Reply

    An interesting idea, which in Canada anyway, comes up about every 10 years. In my own experience, with the right people and set of conditions, it can work but only if it is voluntary. In the Canadian publishing industry, there is an umbrella group that brings together the entire chain of organizations from the writers and editors to publishers to manufacturers and distributors, booksellers and librarians. They work on sector-wide concerns like censorship, distribution, standardization and have been doing so for more than 30 years.
    My own organization for theatre recently started a productive collaborative venture with four other national orgs for dance, opera, orchestras and presenters. It works well as we focus on common interests especially federal advocacy and accompanying research. We also use the alliance as an informal peer network and to amplify the impacts our smaller organizations can make through coordinated action.
    Whether this alliance can survive the test of time is unknown but it has already been a valuable collaboration for all our organizations.

  12. Jay House Samios September 28, 2009 at 9:06 pm Reply


    I actually think there could be more, and better arts admin jobs if we saw something like what John proposes come to pass. I know I am not the only one out here who often feels challenged to do the really meaty work, because so much time is spent on essential program maintenance and fundraising. I imagine John’s new organization streamlining in such a way that there would be a structure for advancing within the ranks, better professional development opportunities, and resources to go to the work itself, if more of the administration were shared.

  13. Maureen Carruthers September 28, 2009 at 8:12 pm Reply

    My first reaction to this post was “Great–now there will be even fewer arts administration jobs. . .” but putting selfishness aside, the efficiency and coordination such an organization could bring would be amazing—but ultimately these gains would not be enough should the unique voices of each discipline be lost.

    Luckily, I don’t think this is an either/or situation. If this new organization were conceived in the old ways with the old players than Lisa’s fears might come true.

    But what if it worked the other way?

    What if rather than developing the unifying priorities John talks about with a limited number of people from each discipline and then delivering them to the industry, this organization simply served as a tool to help the industry find the priorities it already shares but can’t see because no one has all the information and even if they did, no one is looking at the complete picture?

    What if rather than stumbling along on their own, tiny organizations needing to raise funds could “share” a development director with other organizations in similar situations?

    What if rather than re-inventing the wheel, organizations looking to update their marketing plan could easily see what other organizations have done, how much it cost—and how effective it was?

    The technology to share information and resources in these ways exists now. It’s just a matter of finding the will to work in radically new ways.

  14. Bob Y September 28, 2009 at 3:15 pm Reply

    Hi John: An interesting idea but, I think, an unworkable one. I recall that some years ago, a major city consolidated both dance and music into one service organization which didn’t last very long. The two disciplines were constantly at odds over who was getting more attention from the combined office. Having worked with and for service organizations for 36 years, I find there is much value in a single discipline service organization. In a way, it becomes home and family for its field in a minimally bureaucratic atmosphere.

    While I agree that a consolidated service org would be much more efficient and do better fund raising for itself, I fear that something would be lost – the specialness of each art form’s culture. When you speak of “divisions” within a greater whole, that is exactly what I see – divisions. Having worked in both theater and dance, I can tell you that while there are certainly great similarities between organizational structures and goals, there are also huge differences. And these differences are a reflection of the specific field’s attitudes, ways of working, responsibilities to the community and history.

    Where I would agree would be in the consolidation of those areas in which each of the individual service orgs are weakest – strong advocacy, marketing the arts as a whole, coordination and sharing of programs, certain professional development activities and perhaps fund-raising. Such a consolidation would, I think, result in stronger fund raising while freeing invaluable time and staff for today’s hard-pressed service orgs to do what they do best – serving their constituents.

  15. Roberto Bedoya September 28, 2009 at 1:20 pm Reply


    A story: In 1997 while I was the director of NAAO (The National Association of Arts Organizations) I convened 9 artists-centered and ethnic specific art service organizations to explore collective problem-solving and created a consortium to address some of the issue you have raised. We called ourselves the Peer Arts Service Organizations (PASO) Partnership project, the PASO group. Members were the Alliance of Artists’ Communities; Alternate Roots; The Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers; Atlatl, the national service organization for Native American Arts; NAAO; National Association of Latino Arts and Culture; National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture; the Network of Cultural centers of Color and the Association of American Culture.

    For two years we worked together on some joint programing, some simple data gathering of our collective membership and advocacy. Yet, we could not overcome the barrier of the politics of resource and position at work in the field. A few of the aforementioned groups no longer exists.

    As to the barriers we encountered …. we were small and mid-sized service organizations that served small and mid-sized organizations and individuals artists – one way to characterize the consortium was that it was a grassroots/poor people’s campaign and our ability to gain traction and develop was impacted by our limited resources. We did not have the deep pockets and only a few national funders (LIST, Warhol) supported our efforts. We were focused on strengthening the art-making support systems, on empowering talent and communities, and less on the delivering of art to audiences which we felt was the focus of the larger budgeted services organization and the developing field of cultural policy analysis and discourse. We worked hard on our governance and we were committed to creating a system of equivalences among us that acknowledged our differences and similarities. It was good work and a worthy effort. These days, NALAC, NPN, NAMAC, Alternate Roots continue to work together prompted in part by the PASO efforts.

    So a story of experience.



  16. Lisa Mount September 28, 2009 at 1:13 pm Reply

    Indeed, efforts of this kind have been going on for quite some time, and the 2008 and 2004 National Performing Arts Conventions were another attempt beyond AftA and NASAA and the RAO’s to create a consolidated voice. But there are good reasons why there isn’t – and shouldn’t be – a consolidated service organization. Primarily, this kind of top-down mechanism is antithetical to the ways in which people are actually working in the arts, and even more out of touch with the ways in which technology is changing the framework for organizing. Artists and cultural workers in the various disciplines have disparate vocabularies, values, and ways of working – symphony orchestras and ensemble theaters, just to name two, create their work and reach their publics in very different ways, and they hold radically different ideas about what the other disciplines actually contribute to society. While it’s tempting to imagine that there is an underlying unity in the arts sector, I believe the work of creating an organization to manifest that would eclipse the actions that are underway now to address the issues John raises – information gathering would be greatly enhanced if all 50 states agreed to participate in the Cultural Data Project, for example. So, no, this idea doesn’t grab me, it seems instead to perpetuate the kinds of 20th century hierarchies that we will watch wither and die over the course of this century as we move to more distributed and networked structures.

  17. Stephanie September 28, 2009 at 12:40 pm Reply

    I like several aspects of this idea. I have long spoken out (in my little corner of the world) against the proliferation of nonprofits as I believe it makes a lot of unstable, disjointed organizations rather than a smaller number of stronger and more organized orgs. One of my favorite movie quotes comes from the Harrison Ford remake of “Sabrina,” in which the heroine says to Harrison Ford’s character, “More isn’t always better, Linus. Sometimes it’s just more.” There is a finite pool of charitable funds, particularly in the corporate and governmental sectors, and the more orgs competing for those funds, the more diluted the funds become. As you say, there are huge economies of scale to be had by consolidation.

    The PR benefits of consolidation are also huge. I attended the National Arts Convention in Denver last year, and one of the big themes that arose was, how do we get all the disciplines to align their messages and advocacy efforts to maximize our impact? I know that the arts org I work for pays little attention to info coming out of Americans for the Arts, but generally falls in lock-step with our national service org. So if that national service org were under an umbrella arts advocacy org, we could be relatively assured that our advocacy efforts and PR messages were in concert (no pun intended) with those of our arts colleagues.

    Another potential benefit of consolidation is the development of interdisciplinary programming. I believe this will be a necessity to capture 21st century audiences, and few orgs are doing it. I have tried to move my org in that direction, with virtually no success. (Particularly difficult since I work in development, not artistic planning!) Certainly not every event can or should be interdisciplinary, but so many concerts/performances/exhibits would be greatly enhanced by integrating another art form on the same theme. Collaboration with other arts organizations then allows for cross-promotion, thereby hopefully attracting new audiences, and is also attractive to institutional funders, more and more of whom are looking for inter-organizational collaboration.

    I certainly haven’t pondered all this in depth and figured out how the logistics could work, but this is my gut reaction. Thanks for putting it out there, John.

  18. J Matthew Saunders September 28, 2009 at 10:35 am Reply

    John’s observations are apt and this conversation has been engaged for, at least, the decade and a half I’ve been involved with the Arts in the United States through the NASAA meetings, American’s for the Arts conferences, the Regional Arts Ageancy landscpe, and the myriad of state arts council conferences I’ve attended. These concepts were bandied about when I was attending grad school at Virginia Tech in the mid-90’s.

    While I believe that, if it were possible, a single united Arts front could be a powerful entity, I think there are often different agendas going on in the different disciplines. In a very real way it is akin to saying that if baseball, soccer, football, track & field, NASCAR, swimming, and target shooting would work together in a single organized block that sports would be stronger. While, indeed, this is the case – I’m not sure I see it happening. At least not yet.

    I do think it is possible for the arts (as a general community) to call out the value of the arts in American culture. I think the argument has been made in the past with more or less success. I think that how we define the arts needs to broaden to be more inclusive of practitioners outside the classic venues. We need to embrace church choirs, community theatres, scrap bookers, video game developers, and a plethora of other creative activities. There has been, for too long, a tendency to be insular within the community. Reaching out to others to help them realise that the Arts live in every moment of every day in small and large ways will go a long way to establishing the value of the Arts.

  19. Jay House Samios September 28, 2009 at 10:01 am Reply

    Wow John, this is a big, bold idea. It’s true that Americans for the Arts serves some of this function, as Kat suggests, but they certainly don’t do the discipline-specific work that TCG, the League, OA and the many others (including my own current employer National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts) do for our specific constituencies.

    It’s pertinent to today, as I woke up to an NPR report about donor-upset at high CEO salaries. If there was a time to talk about this, it is now.

  20. Andrew Taylor September 28, 2009 at 9:57 am Reply

    Hey John,

    Thanks for calling the question. And to Kat’s response, it might be Americans for the Arts in a parallel universe, but they’ve primarily shifted (or tightened) their focus on advocacy and advocacy-supporting research, and away from professional development for discipline-based practitioners.

    I’m not sure whether a single, consolidated association is the best path. Will need to ponder. But there’s a world of opportunity in more thoughtfully aligning our professional development, support, networking, advocacy, and research. As you suggest, the current system makes a bunch of small ripples in a very big pond.

  21. Kat September 28, 2009 at 9:39 am Reply

    Duh. It is called Americans for the Arts.

  22. […] Read More This entry was written by tommer and posted on Monday, September 28, 2009 at 6:25 am and filed under Opinion and advice with tags Collaboration & Partnerships. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « MICHELLE OBAMA ON WHY ARTS MATTER […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: