Supply and Demand (the economic force that dare not speak its name)

So Rocco really stepped in it. The NEA Chairman is under siege because he dared to suggest that perhaps there’s an oversupply of arts organizations relative to the (well-documented) dwindling demand. He’s not the first to bring this up, but it surprised a lot of folks that he used his bully pulpit to express an idea that many in the arts community find repugnant and misguided. To his credit, Landesman addressed the controversy on the NEA blog today.

On the one hand, it’s nice to have an NEA Chair with the cojones to speak his mind, even if it means occasionally getting into trouble. On the other, I have to question whether this is the right time for this message to be coming from the NEA itself, given that its very existence is under attack and this may well serve as red meat to its political opponents.

Regardless, it’s hard to deny the fundamental logic behind Chairman Landesman’s assertion. The number of arts patrons in this country has been on a slow decline for a long time, while new non-profit cultural organizations are proliferating at an unsustainable pace.

No More Lincoln Centers!It seems to me, though, that there are some unspoken assumptions in this debate that are worth bringing to the surface. I haven’t yet heard anyone argue that there’s an oversupply of art, just that there’s an oversupply of non-profit arts organizations. The real problem is that our industry still worships the cult of the eternal institution. Repeat after me: corporations, including non-profits, are perpetual entities that are expected to outlast the participation of their founders. Not every idea - no matter how brilliant, creative, lucrative, etc. - warrants forming a new perpetual entity just to house it. Lincoln Center is not the only valid model for eager young MFA grads to aspire to. In fact, it’s a rather expensive, inflexible one, and it’s particularly ill-suited to artists whose creative interests lie on both sides of the conventional boundary between commercial and non-profit fare.

What this community needs is a little lean-and-mean, with some agile thrown in there as well. We need to embrace flexible new business entities like the L3C and make greater use of tools like fiscal sponsorship that allow ephemeral collaborations to raise charitable dollars.

And for those of us running the big honkin’ institutions that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon (yes, that includes you, Rocco), we need to get better at supporting and facilitating this kind of work. Because as long as serious funding is only available to organizations with granite columns on their front lawns, and as long as major non-profit service providers devote the lion’s share of their attention and resources to those same organizations, then the proliferation of aspiring mega-institutions is only going to get worse.


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7 Responses to “Supply and Demand (the economic force that dare not speak its name)”

  1. Tweets that mention Fractured Atlas Blog : Supply and Demand (the economic force that dare not speak its name) -- Topsy.com:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sydney Skybetter, Fractured Atlas. Fractured Atlas said: NEW BLOG POST, Adam Huttler — "Supply and Demand (the economic force that dare not speak its name)" http://bit.ly/fvz313 [...]

  2. #SupplyDemand: It’s all a matter of perspective | 24 Usable Hours:

    [...] Adam Huttler on worshiping the cult of the eternal institution [...]

  3. pressler:

    I can’t believe that some arts leaders are ruffling at Landesman’s assertion. It’s like donning a nametag that says: “Hello, I’m out of touch!” — the last thing we need around our field.

    And you hit the vital point:

    “I haven’t yet heard anyone argue that there’s an oversupply of art, just that there’s an oversupply of non-profit arts organizations. The real problem is that our industry still worships the cult of the eternal institution.”

    It makes me feel optimistic seeing the idea of new models based on temporary existence of orgs gain traction…

    Aging Gracefully: http://www.fracturedatlas.org/site/blog/2010/06/23/aging-gracefully/

    The Epoch Model: http://20under40.org/chapters/chapter-2/

  4. Paul Botts:

    The facts around us appear actually to suggest that regarding demand for the arts in America, Rocco is correct in detail and incorrect overall.

    Demand for the specific experience of sitting in the seats watching professional artists do what they do onstage is indeed flat or declining. That appears simply to be less of what Americans want to do with their time and that decline appears to be long-term.

    Demand for the personal experience of being artistic, however, has been steadily rising for at least a generation now and there is no flattening in sight. There are two basic ways that demand is expressed: attempting to become a working professional artist, or making creative activity part of one’s daily life.

    The former just keeps rising without regard to facts on the ground such as competition for arts jobs. The National Arts Index reported some really startling data on this: the number of young people seeking college arts degrees, the number of American high school students choosing to take four years of art or music, etc. Music and theater conservatories are just booming, literally cannot build capacity fast enough to meet the demand for enrollment. And of course the steady ongoing boom in young artists starting new arts organizations, recession be hanged, is the entry-level-professional expression of this same demand.

    The latter form of arts demand — adding creative pursuits to daily life outside of seeking to be a professional artist — is also booming. We’ve all seen the various statistics about the “rise of creative participation” that’s going on in this society and the obvious signs of it are all around us. The steady rise in the numbers of Americans signing up to take dance or music or art lessons, the proliferation of reality-TV shows about singing or dancing, and so forth. The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago literally cannot build new classrooms fast enough to meet the demand and that story is being told in every city now. Etc.

    So if we want to discuss demand for the arts and what potentially to do about it, we need to be clear about _which_ demand for the arts we’re talking about. Or do we mean some sort of overall sum total? It’s not clear that either Rocco or any of those responding to him have yet reckoned with this critical distinction.

  5. Selena Juneau-Vogel:

    Amen!

  6. Adam Huttler:

    @Paul - Very well said. I think you and I are actually very much on the same page, although I’m taking an abstract/structural view and you’re taking a much more pragmatic view focused on the nature of creative practice. The point is that demand is falling for “the old ways of doing things”. That includes both austere institutions and “fourth-wall”, non-participatory aesthetic conventions (these are often linked in practice, of course). At the same time, “the arts” are not in jeopardy and are arguably thriving; they’re just headed in a direction that makes many folks uncomfortable and will cause some inevitable career carnage along the way.

  7. Fractured Atlas Blog : Supply is Not Going to Decrease (So It’s Time to Think About Curating):

    [...] artists think it’s the only vehicle they have available to them to do their work. But as Adam Huttler points out, it’s not - in particular, fiscal sponsorship provides an attractive and immediately [...]