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Supply is Not Going to Decrease (So It's Time to Think About Curating)

[caption id="attachment_6882" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Image by Flickr user Waddell and Conder"]Image by Flickr user Waddell and Conder[/caption]

(Cross-posted from the NEA's Art Works blog. The version that appears there was edited for length; this is the original.)

I've been waiting for a while to respond to the controversy that erupted after Rocco Landesman's comments on supply and demand in the arts at Arena Stage in January. (A good round-up of the situation by Aaron Andersen is here.) Most of the very thought-provoking commentary in the interim has taken issue in one way or another either with the notion that demand cannot increase, or the appropriateness of the supply/demand construct altogether. Now that the dust has settled a bit, I want to propose a slightly different way of thinking about the situation.

The first thing for us to understand is that Rocco's comments did not come out of nowhere. People in arts policy circles have been grumbling about the dramatic increase in arts organizations for years. I had actually been collecting links on this topic all through last year in preparation for a post on oversupply when the news of Rocco's speech hit. Here's Michael Kaiser, for example, noting that "so many people" over the past two years have suggested to him that we must thin out the field (he does not agree). Jim Undercofler, arts management professor at Drexel and former CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra, admitted recently that he was questioning his "initiating assumption" that there are too many nonprofits.1 Here's former Mellon Foundation Associate Program Officer Diane Ragsdale with a post on oversupply 10 days prior to Rocco's address at Arena Stage. And this past fall, Grantmakers in the Arts's much-heralded National Capitalization Project Report ended up making a lot of people nervous, primarily because of the inclusion of this statement among its core hypotheses: "there is an oversupply of product in some marketplaces, and...current funding practices do not address this issue."

I take the view that, whatever the merits might be of reducing supply, there is virtually nothing anyone—funders included—can do to actually make it happen. For one thing, conversation about supply and demand breaks down a bit when the suppliers have an intrinsic motivation to be in the marketplace. Classical economic models assume that suppliers don't have any particular emotional attachment to what they're supplying; all they really want to do is to make money. As a result, if they're not making money, they'll exit the industry, leaving more to go around for everyone else.  As we see from Kirk Lynn's contribution to the discussion, however, many artists (especially artist-entrepreneurs) have far too much passion for their work to consider exiting solely for financial reasons. The result of this lack of exit is a surfeit of fantastic art that few aside from its creators have time to take in.

Notice that I didn't say in that last sentence "a surfeit of fantastic art that few want to take in." An immutable fact of contemporary culture is that the volume of expressive content and product available for us to consume overwhelms not just our desire, but our physical ability to experience it all. The number of albums released on CD in 2008 is enough that a listener couldn't get through more than an eighth of them even if he had his headphones on for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Users upload the equivalent of 176,000 full-length movies to YouTube every week. And that's just the stuff that's being released today! Meanwhile, every creator must compete not only with all of her contemporaries, but also with all of those who came before her whose work survived to the present—and that supply is not about to decrease anytime soon. (Unfortunately, creators cannot similarly count on dead audience members to be a part of their fan club.) Moreover, the phenomenon of oversupply—or, put another way, hypercompetition—is far, far bigger than the nonprofit arts sector. It affects industries ranging from video games to smartphone application stores, Facebook, cable TV, and yes, blogs. In many ways, it is existential in scope: our brains and lifespans are not built to withstand this onslaught of choices. The supply of artists, arts organizations, and even capital may increase with relative ease, but the supply of time in the day, last I checked, remains pretty constant.

So to me, the conversation we should be having is not about reducing supply. Instead it is about defining the responsibilities of cultural institutions to provide stewardship for a world in which supply of creative content is exploding and will never shrink. In this era of infinite choice, there is a desperate need for guidance as to how we should allocate the precious few hours that we have to experience something that will feed our souls, make us think differently, or incur a hearty laugh. In other words: for curation. We need someone to listen to, watch, and view all of the chaff so that we can confine our own time to the wheat. But quality curation-that is to say, curation that results from independent, original research and informed, critical judgments-is not just good for us as consumers. It's just as important for the artists. In particular, in a hypercompetitive environment like this one, we need to look out for the artist with the talent and drive to make great art, but without an income stream that will support her as she makes it. The voices of these artists—the gifted but resourceless—risk getting shut out unfairly because many others have the capital and connections to bring their work to the attention of gatekeepers, even if that work is inferior.

I believe it's critically important that, as we seek to impose structure and sanity on this world, we do not cut off the flow of new ideas and new voices in the name of triage. The main reason why we have this proliferation of nonprofits, I think, is because 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 available alternative structure in which to accomplish one's artistic goals. With fiscal sponsorship, there is no assumption of perpetuity; no mandate to form and submit to a board that may not understand or share the founder's agenda; and much less in the way of paperwork and reporting requirements.

So why would anyone form a nonprofit? A nonprofit still makes sense, in my view, if its focus is not on a specific artist or group of artists. Any organization that provides infrastructure - presenters, community arts organizations, arts education providers, local arts councils, service organizations, and the like - is a good candidate for the nonprofit form. Rule of thumb: if an organization would have no reason to continue on if its founder(s) left tomorrow, it probably shouldn't be a nonprofit.

If I were a funder, I would be thinking about how to focus my support on organizations that are nonprofits for the right reasons. Funders can accomplish more impact by supporting institutions that work with and involve a wide range of constituents, be they artists, audience members, community members, etc.  And yes, that does suggest—as both Rocco and Grantmakers in the Arts have suggested—larger grants to fewer organizations. However, this only works with the other pieces of the puzzle if all of the following three things are true about the organizations receiving grants:

  1. They actually pay the artists. This is how we can get away with not supporting artistic producers directly. There needs to be a mechanism for those producers (i.e., dance and theater companies, musical ensembles, individual painters, sculptors, etc.) to make money through the system that is being set up. If grantees that present the work of artists to the public are not compensating their creative collaborators proportionately with the support they're receiving, this strategy is undermined.

  2. They're performing their curatorial duty. If all the organizations that hire artists and ensembles are too lazy or hamstrung by commercial pressures to seek out new voices and instead simply work with the same narrow pool of established names, there will be no room for innovation and the field will stagnate. Many funders' well-intentioned focus on butts in seats in the name of community relevance creates incentives counter to providing good curation, while failing to instigate widespread increases in arts engagement. Institutions already have all the incentive they need to maximize butts in seats - it's called earned revenue. By accepting charitable support, I would argue, organizations have an obligation to seek out work that isn't guaranteed to put butts in seats. And if an institution's cost structure won't allow for that, even with subsidization, that is a telling sign that it may be overbuilt.

  3. They play well with others. At this time of extreme pressure on philanthropic and especially government support for the arts, the field needs to make efficient use of scarce resources like buildings, equipment, real estate, and attention. There's no sense in pouring millions of dollars into a new facility only to have it sit dark three-quarters of the time. That's not only a huge waste, it is deeply uncharitable. Donors (including institutional funders) should demand accountability on this point.

Much has been written about the increasingly blurred line between creator and consumer of art. With plummeting production and distribution costs, unprecedented levels of global interconnectedness, and nearly 50% of the United States population engaged in some form of personal creation, it's no surprise that we are faced with art all around us - more than at any previous point in history. Abundance of creative expression isn't going away; it is our future. Maybe what really needs to be "fixed" is not supply and demand - since, with due respect to the NEA, that issue is a whole lot bigger than us - but rather, the processes and rationales we use for determining how to distribute public subsidy.


1 All of the "too many nonprofits" talk reminds me of how differently we treat nonprofits from businesses for no good reason (after all, donors are customers too). You never hear anyone saying "there are too many small businesses"—by contrast, private-sector entrepreneurship is recognized as a critical mechanism for spreading innovation and a key source of real economic growth, especially in a recession.