Making Do with More

“Humans are really good at dealing with scarcity, but terrible with abundance.”

Clay Shirkey, author of Here Comes Everybody

Being distracted by the wrong questions can severely debilitate any effort, especially when the stakes are high. This is such a moment for the arts. Out of the box, the President’s budget calls for reductions in both the NEA and NEH budgets through the consolidation of administrative functions. So with Obama already negotiating against himself and the House leadership ravenous in its pursuit of reducing or even zeroing out the budgets for both agencies—along with NPR and the CPB, it’s not a pretty sight. What’s even more scary are the sizable reductions—through legislative initiatives and budget reductions—for arts and cultural activities and organizations in virtually every state and at many local levels.

So, now is hardly the time to have an argument about whether we have too many or too few arts organizations, and/or whether the large ones or the small ones should get support. This is plain silly.

In 1961 we had 23 regional theatres, now we have well over 1800—some say 2000. The question isn’t whether we have too many or too few. The question is, what does it mean to have such abundance? The opportunity residing within this national theatre ecosystem is especially critical to identify when, even with this hundred-fold increase in organizations, a playwright still can’t make a living at her craft; there is, by some estimates actually less theatre activity in our schools than 25 years ago; and for all their ‘professionalizing’, these theatre organizations derive only 39% of their revenue from ticket sales (down from 48% in 1997). And this is with really, really smart people running these organizations! Something’s not working.

What to do:

Collective impact must become the core strategy for funders, policy makers, and arts organization leaders. We got it wrong, building and supporting an endless number of arts organizations is not the same as achieving unfettered and ever-increasing creative engagement by our citizens. We need to set our sights higher—and imagine new ways of getting there—together. We saw such wondrous examples of this approach at our January Powerful Partnership institute in New York!

A focus on creative learning systems, like with Big Thought in Dallas should be adopted by all communities. Stop trying to reinvent the wheel, if something works, franchise it, parlay it, replicate it, make it happen across the nation. If Dallas can do it, Detroit can do it. We have 4500 local arts councils/agencies. Beyond simple self-perpetuation, how could they re-imagine their roles as catalysts and/or structures for collective approaches to learning, innovation, and engagement across their communities?

Priorities must be recalibrated. While a focus on ‘professional’ and ‘excellence’ may have had its place, these emphases have gotten us in trouble. How ‘committed’ is the organization to the community that supports its very existence; and how ‘relevant’ are its outputs to that same community are the questions that must drive visioning, planning processes, and priority setting. It should be the answers to these questions that inform what we should do to support our artists and sustain our organizations. Not the other way around.

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One thought on “Making Do with More

  1. Catherine Maciariello March 1, 2011 at 11:40 am Reply

    In reading these comments, I see a parallel to the sermon I heard last Sunday at my church in New York in which the pastor talked about the responsibility of the “new Christianity.” The fundamental argument was that organized religion today needs to be much more concerned about building commitment and community and perpetuating a culture of service than about buildings, strengthening denominations, and perfunctory attendance. If we are successful, lines are blurred, and there is increased strength in inreased numbers of people acting collectively to improve services to those in need. He noted that our membership had grown by 50 percent over the past decade, but that attendance on Sundays had remained constant….yet the impact of the real work of the congregation had increased dramatically outside the walls of the building. And isn’t that the true measure of value?

    Maybe this is a moment when we must begin asking big questions about collective impact across all our social institutions. It could be a rich dialogue—if only we ask the right questions.

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