Swimming Downstream in the Current of History

Michael Kaiser is fed up with the ceaseless chatter about the need for “new models” in the arts.

If I hear one more pundit or read one more blog suggesting that ‘old models’ of arts organizations are dying and that ‘new models’ are needed I am going to scream. Expert after expert are calling for ‘new models’ without explaining what these new models are or what specifically they are meant to address, except for a vague unhappiness with how things are working (or not working) now.

As one who has spoken and written frequently on this subject, I feel an obligation to respond.

First, let me say that I know Michael Kaiser and have a great deal of respect for his contributions to the field. Fractured Atlas has benefited from his strategic planning and board development advice. More recently, we’ve partnered with the DeVos Institute on a couple of technology-related professional development projects. It’s a relationship that I hope will continue to grow and evolve.

Second, Kaiser is correct to complain about a lack of specificity in much of this talk. Artists and administrators feel in their bones that something is broken. Every day they read about another venerable institution going under, while the empty seats in their own houses proliferate. This is scary stuff. It feels like an existential threat. But it’s not always easy to tease apart the effects of the current economic crisis from the long-term social and economic trends that are changing our world. Sometimes we get lazy and conflate the two. It’s also a lot easier to observe the problem than it is to propose a credible solution, and a lot less helpful.

From there, however, Kaiser’s perspective and mine diverge.

What exactly do these people mean by ‘old models’ anyway? Do they mean that arts organizations are all going to die and that there will be no more arts institutions in the future? I doubt that will be the case. I predict that in fifty years there will still be large and mid-sized and small organizations producing theater and music and dance. There may be more or less of them than there are today and there may be several venerable organizations that do not survive. But that does not mean that big arts organizations are going to be extinct.

The 19th century railroad barons famously failed to thrive in the 20th century because they thought they were in the railroad business and didn’t realize they were actually in the transportation business. They were so focused on the product they had to sell that they forgot that their real purpose was to fulfill a customer need. In this case, though, the “art experience” is the customer’s need, while the arts organization has become the product we’re selling.

The non-profit arts organization is just a delivery system. We’ve had art for 10,000 years or more, but the modern American arts institution for less than 100. Perhaps in Kaiser’s vision these organizations will radically evolve over the next 50 years. Perhaps they will survive by adapting to changing demographics, the pro-am movement, new tax laws that reduce the value of charitable deductions, and relentless competition for attention from online media. If, however, he’s picturing more or less the same marble-columned institutions that arose in the second half of the 20th century, then I have a hard time believing that a majority will still be standing in 2062.

So what’s the alternative?

Do these experts mean that in the future all art will be created by groups of artists who work on specific, individual projects and then disband? I hope not. That means that every time artists conceive of a project they must start from scratch to find the resources they need. They will not benefit from the family of donors and ticket buyers that current arts organizations count on for support year after year. They will have to reinvent their support bases anew every time they wish to produce art. And they will not benefit from the huge marketing networks that established arts organizations have created. It will be far more difficult and expensive to attract audience members if this scenario obtains. There will be no subscriptions because there will be no organization that can guarantee a series of performances. And the name recognition enjoyed by major arts organizations will be a thing of the past.

You mean like Amanda Palmer? Or how about the artists in Fractured Atlas’s fiscal sponsorship program, who are on pace to raise a collective $10 million this year and serve an audience of over 7 million people?

The frictionless post-internet marketplace is unkind to intermediaries who don’t add a lot of value. Record labels and movie studios are the canaries in this coal mine. Arts institutions aren’t in quite the same position, since their branding power does provide for some ability to showcase “undiscovered” talent. (Record labels, by contrast, are mainly leeches whose market power comes from their iron grip on archaic distribution channels.) Increasingly, however, that same talent can be discovered through viral propagation via online social networks. Yes, we’re still figuring out how that works in practice and as a field we’re a long way from cracking the social media nut, but does anyone doubt that it will happen eventually? At that point, what value does a subscriber database of 10,000 have against Facebook’s audience of 900 million?

I agree with Kaiser that big arts organizations are not going to go extinct. I just think we will have far fewer of them than we have today, and even fewer non-profit corporations operating with annual budgets under $5 million or so. This doesn’t have to be scary! Not every brilliant, creative idea warrants creating a new legal entity that is designed to exist in perpetuity and survive its founders.

At the same time, I’m optimistic that the explosion of artistic production in recent years will continue, just outside of an institutional context. Witness the 100+ new applications for fiscal sponsorship that Fractured Atlas receives every month, or the 72 hours of video that are uploaded to YouTube every minute. When I meet grad students who aspire to careers in the business side of the arts, they are increasingly tax-status agnostic, and open-minded about using whatever tool fits the job at hand.

Quoth Kaiser:

Do they mean that large-scale arts projects will be replaced by smaller ones? That would be a shame. As much as I truly enjoy a chamber-sized program, I also enjoy large scale works. Are we never to experience Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand again? Or Der Rosenkavalier? Or Swan Lake? Must we toss out an entire canon of great works in an effort to make way for the new? Of course we must invest in new operas and dances and works of theater. But we can also cherish the great works that have formed the foundation of our culture.

Here again: I don’t see Mahler going away, I just see the distribution changing. Producing art at that scale requires enormous fixed costs. As long as you’re performing in a 1,000-seat house, ticket prices must be exorbitant, and even then you still need substantial charitable subsidy to balance the books. But what if the distribution model completely changed? The Metropolitan Opera is broadcasting in HD video to movie theaters across the country. Fifty years from now, I suspect we’ll look back on that as a crude early experiment that laid the groundwork for currently unimaginable aesthetic experiences, like virtual reality immersion and environmental projection. If Mahler’s symphony can be performed “live” for an audience of millions, then suddenly the economics look pretty healthy. Of course, it only takes one arts institution to do that, not 1,000.

Look, I’m no futurist and I’m certainly not clairvoyant. I don’t know exactly how our field is going to evolve over the next 50 or 100 years. But I’m certain it’s going to change, and in some pretty radical ways. It strikes me that each of us has three options in the face of that change:

  1. You can wring your hands in powerless panic, a la the experts and pundits that Kaiser references.
  2. You can deny that change is at hand and keep on manufacturing buggy whips while brand new Model Ts drive past outside.
  3. Or you can remind yourself that you’re in the art business, not the organization business, and do your best to swim downstream in the current of history.

I know which one I’d choose.


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13 Responses to “Swimming Downstream in the Current of History”

  1. Alexis Frasz:

    Great post. I could not agree more.

  2. Gwydion Suilebhan:

    This is fantastic, and I completely concur with your assessment, which is largely simpatico with similar things I said at TEDxMichiganAve last year:

    http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxMichiganAve-Gwydion-Suilebh

    I often tell people who (like me) are frustrated with opinions like those expressed by Kaiser NOT TO WORRY. Because change will come, whether he likes it or not. We will be discussing, 100 years hence, what happened, not WHEN it will happen. And the “old models” will indeed be gone.

    Thanks for writing this. So much.

  3. Randal Fippinger:

    Adam,

    I could not agree with you more that “the ‘art experience’ is the customer’s need, while the arts organization has become the product we’re selling,” which is why I land on Michael’s side, not yours, on this argument.

    I believe you are glassing over why we still have spaces for live art. Yes arts will happen in other places and formats (the YouTube Orchestra being one of the most extreme) but the key to the performing arts is not finding a new delivery system but rather getting people to get back to the basics: being in a common space where live people come together to engage in the process of creating and absorbing art. I think there is a fundamental reason why, unlike any other technology or philosophy or religion or any other major forces in our history that have evolved, morphed, and adapted over the millennia, a performance at the Herodes Atticus is essentially – necessarily - the same experience as when I was one of the stage mangers for a performance of R&J with ABT as on its opening night in 161 AD.

    I do agree that we are losing site of the experience in favor of the organization, “Save the XYZ Dance Company” before the evil market forces it to face reality! If there is a “new” business model it is that of an efficient business, like the great work Amanda Palmer and Fractured Atlas are doing. These are perfect examples of what Michael has been advocating for decades. Get back to the basics, cut the overhead, experience the art. Don’t cut your programming, in fact increase it especially in hard times and build the “family” that supports what you do. I have never heard him advocate for any organization over the art.

    I am not a futurist either. I agree that one of the only things we can predict is change. I do think, despite whatever the hot technology comes down the pike, it cannot replace individual contact, especially with an artist.

    Thanks for the engaging discussion.

    Randal Fippinger

  4. Adam Huttler:

    @Randal

    The problem with getting back to basics and cutting overhead is that most arts organizations don’t have much overhead to begin with, unless you’re prepared to cut the organization itself (which I’m arguing we should be prepared to do, in many cases). But there’s also only so much you can do to improve your financial performance when you’re only addressing the expense side of the ledger. At some point, we have to get creative about revenue generation.

  5. Randal Fippinger:

    Amen to the need for creative revenue generation!

  6. Paul Vandeventer:

    Adam
    Provocative and compelling piece. Thank you. Randal Fippinger stated the point well: “whatever the hot technology [that] comes down the pike, it cannot replace individual contact, especially with an artist…in a common space where live people come together to engage in the process of creating and absorbing art.” This made me recall taking my older son when he was 12 years old for the first time to Disney Hall in Los Angeles to hear the LA Philharmonic Orchestra. He had taken 4 years of oboe and clarinet lessons by then and was quite familiar with orchestral performance. However, I was unprepared for his visceral response to the very “alive” acoustical and human-scaled space and experience Disney Hall provides. He said, “I’ve listened to music and I’ve played music, Dad. But I have never been IN music the way I was just now.” He was completely captivated, even captured, by the immediacy of the live performance and the close contact with artist, sound and fellow audience members it allowed. Civil society - for which I believe art serves as catalyst, prod and balm - arises from the shared, the communal. Intimacy - chosen or compelled by circumstance - transforms absolutely. Paul

  7. Linda Essig:

    Great post, Adam. It’s going on the list of readings in the “business models” module of my arts entrepreneurship course. I particularly like the connection you make to the evolution of the railway industry. Similarly, universities are not in the lecture business, they’re in the education business.
    - LE

  8. It’s Not the Economy | Creative Infrastructure:

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    [...] our last episode, I responded to Michael Kaiser’s frustration with “new models” [...]

  10. Karen Stokes:

    “In this case, though, the “art experience” is the customer’s need, while the arts organization has become the product we’re selling.”

    The arts organization is the product we are selling? Actually, ART is the product being sold. The organization is simply a vehicle to assist getting “the product” to “the customer.”

    I’m all for arts business models. But I am wary of arts business leaders who start to talk about selling an organization without mentioning the art form.

    As far as the future, regardless of business, artists will continue to create.

    It is lovely to have business models that assist to bring the work to the public. But this doesn’t happen easily now, and its unlikely it will happen perfectly in the future. I have seen many fine works disappear completely with very little fan fare. But life is like that - impermanent.
    In spite of a plethora of challenges (which sometimes includes a disproportionate amount of funding towards service organizations rather than to artists) . . . art continues to be made. Artists are like that.

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  12. Lisa Niedermeyer:

    I’ve been incubating on this topic and the spectrum of opinions since the post first published. Today I happened upon a statement on the Galapagos Art Space website I felt articulated a vision worth including here as discussion continues:

    “On a city-wide scale, we need to be able to point to meaningful change in what a cultural business model is, and toward the civic policy that enables that change. In short, we need to directly relink the purpose of any cultural business model with the fiscal health of the organization its serving.

    As cultural participants and leaders in New York City we can’t be placeholders, bystanders in the midst of what others before us have built. We have to lead. Locally, we have one metric to be judged by: If the best and brightest emerging artists and the best young cultural thinkers can’t see themselves possibly affording to live here, then we’d better find ways to make them think they can’t possibly afford to live anywhere else.

    In the end only one thing matters: good artists and the best young thinkers follow ideas, and ideas flourish only when there is opportunity to realize them. We need to urgently reimagine our role and our generational responsibility in stewarding culture, and we have to accept full responsibility for the results of our work as expressed by the conditions we work within, not by some distant goal. Our careers are ocuring right now, and the needs of our city and our cultural community exist right now.

    - Robert Elmes
    Director, Galapagos Art Space”

    For the full statement visit http://galapagosartspace.com/about/background/our-ideas

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