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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.