Sunday, August 1, 2010

How Do We Accommodate New Forms of Creativity and Creators and Protect Our Past

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on………………………..”

Just back from an outstanding Southwest Arts Conference in Phoenix where I had the pleasure to deliver a keynote on rethinking our models. Hot and muggy (yes, muggy) in Phoenix.  My thanks to Bob Booker and Jaime Dempsey. 


This from Marcus Westbury, an observer from Australia talking about the need to redefine their approach to a national cultural policy:

“We need an agency with a contemporary brief, to ensure that we are a nation that is a creator and not merely a consumer of culture, and that Australians are active and enabled participants in the increasingly globalised cultural pool.

This is not an argument about throwing culture on the mercy of the free market. It's the reverse. It's recognition that right now the market decides everything by default. We need an agency with a brief that is primarily cultural, not economic, but that recognizes that culture has an economic and social component. Culture is ethereal and beautiful but it's also constantly subject to market forces, and can bring great economic benefits.

Australia needs an agency that understands and can effect the market regulations for the cultural industries. The design of cultural markets, the rules and regulations that govern them and the incentives that they provide are often created by government. They have profound cultural consequences that no agency is currently charged with addressing. It's not about public subsidy for commercial markets or protectionism, but a belated recognition that the market fails to support many art forms beyond just orchestras and arts centres. Right now less than 2 per cent of Australia Council music funding and little policy expertise goes to jazz, rock and other forms of contemporary music while we spend vast sums on orchestras and opera companies.

It's time to think beyond the funding paradigm, to ensure the tax system, intellectual property laws, social security regulations, compliance costs in the built environment and other policy areas take into account the realities of contemporary cultural production. Australia needs to ensure that contemporary Australian culture is prioritized, funded and resourced at least as well as heritage arts, and that its policy priorities are elevated to at least the same level.”

These are the some of the same issues that Bill Ivey and Steven Tepper and a host of others have been talking about. How do we expand our definition of culture and the involvement of our field beyond what the author above refers to a “heritage arts” – the old Eurocentric fine arts of the past – to one that embraces a wider sphere of creativity; one that promotes a balance inherent in a more inclusive platform?

Here in America, just like in Australia, those organizations that comprise what we have often referred to as our “major cultural institutions” (Westbury’s ‘heritage arts’) – the large (and even smaller) opera, symphony, ballet and fine arts museums, of course have a logical invested interest in the legacy apparatus of the nonprofit arts sector that supports them and keeps them systemically at the center of our universe.

There has been a certain uneasiness in this subsector that understandably might feel threatened about any attempt to move in a direction that might dilute their funding stream sources, and, at their expense, expand the definition of what might constitute culture more broadly – and thus more entities eligible for, and deserving of, time, attention, money and otherwise. And, there has been a degree of territoriality based on this uneasiness. This isn’t often a sentiment expressed prominently, but rather lies just below the surface. I understand that fully and were I running one of these organizations would likely feel the same.

The fact of territoriality within our sector is hardly confined to any one sub-sector. All across the spectrum there has long been a mindset of “what’s in it for Me”. That has been one of the major obstacles to our pursuit of working together for the common good. Too often, in too many places, the seemingly innate need for us to consider everything from our mailing lists to our programs as proprietary, we are still reluctant to give up too much to the common good. There is still the mindset in many quarters that wants to know exactly what is in it for “me” (for my organization or cohort) before taking those first steps to working together. Whether information, advice, money or expertise we don’t always make the time to share or join together for efforts that are bigger than our own self interests.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting we are in any way anti-collaboration, nor that any interest area within our universe fails to understand and appreciate the changing scope of what constitutes the arts, culture or creativity. We’ve come a long way in expelling our insecurities in sharing and adopting an open arms attitude towards a wider universe of creativity, and even in sharing information and expertise formerly considered proprietary with each other, but I think we still have a long way to go – to get past the fear that sharing too much compromises our strengths somehow, that the other guy needs to be the lead in taking that first step in support of some collaborative effort, that expansion of policy to make the “big tent” bigger is not ultimately both inevitable and desirable. It is difficult to share even such mundane proprietary interests as mailing lists, let alone come to consensus on where cultural policy should ideally head and how new directions in shaping the mechanisms that comprise implementation of policy might both positively and adversely affect any of us, let alone the whole of us. Part of not wanting to be too far out in front of anything, is of course, that we don’t have a lot of time to expend on ideas and new efforts that might not go anywhere. We want to be sure something is actually ‘real’ before we sign on, and there is nothing wrong with that. And of course those long the beneficiaries of priority funding have, if not an actual sense of entitlement, at least a sense that what they get is both reasonable and fair. Then too there is the perception - not entirely without basis - that we are in direct competition with each other.  But too much trepidation and reservation in moving to accommodation of the needs of others (and working to address those "other" needs) is not necessarily the best approach – at least not for the whole of us.

Creating a collective, sector wide psyche of what is good for the whole of us seems to me anyway to be a huge issue. The lack of that sense of community continues to compromise everything from our advocacy to fundraising efforts to the formation of new cultural policies. Our natural inclination is to think first and foremost about our own survival – the survival of our sub-sector, our organization, and, indirectly, of ourselves. To the extent we can tame our instincts to always think in terms of what is in it for “me” (and my organization, its mission and its values), and think rather how does something advance and move forward the whole of us is a pre-condition for us being able to really act in concert and improve the very way we collaborate. In a very real sense, that posturing holds us back from leveraging the strength of our numbers on several fronts from meaningful funding and advocacy to audience development and how we collaborate.

I don’t criticize any organization or any of us, for reacting in ways to protect their turf – including all that which they have worked hard to amass and create – whether that is an idea, a funding stream, a program idea, a mailing list, or even just an approach to doing something. But, sometimes that gets in the way. I know not everybody shares the belief that all boats rise with the high tide. Not all of us honestly think that a major victory in this or that area ultimately benefits everyone else, and it’s doubtless true that working for this or that goal, no matter how laudable or beneficial on its face, does not benefit everyone – certainly not directly, and arguable in many cases not even indirectly. And in terms of policy formulation, changing priorities to allow for the expansion of the core constituency that defines us all can legitimately be threatening.

But even a de facto vivisectionist mentality is one of the reasons I think that there are huge groups of artists and arts supporters out there who are detached from the nonprofit arts sector, who see no meaningful relationship because they do not perceive any reason for having that relationship. We don’t fund them, we don’t really serve them, we seemingly have little to no connection to them or them to us, and so they remain outside of our universe. I honestly believe we must somehow figure out a way to reach out to all of those who comprise that creative sector and, at the very least, build bridges to them. That’s of course a lot of work, will take a lot of time, money, resources and thinking and planning, and it probably isn’t a priority because the payoff is likely way down the line. But even before we can do that, I think we have to learn to reach out more to each other, and find ways to alleviate any suspicion that moving in one direction to welcome a new sub-sector does not come at the direct expense of any other – whether that movement is on a macro or micro level.

This remains a lingering challenge, and there is a legacy out there that keeps us to one degree or another from reaping the rewards of a “culture of willingness” to cultivate more collaboration and deeper relationships with each other, and, most importantly, the development of new bridges. And we must figure out how to expand the ecosystem of creativity to be more widely inclusive, while at the same time, protecting those that perceive it may not always be in their best interest to embrace that logic – both in little ways and large ways. If we are to figure out how to develop cultural policies that embraces the growing dimension of creativity that is outside our realm, while simultaneously addressing the needs and concerns of those that must move over to make room for that new constituency, we will have to work more assiduously on advancing the sense among all of us that we are in this together, that we a true community and that we will act in concert more often than not if it benefits the whole of us, even if it doesn’t benefit each of us singularly at the moment.  And that needs to start with the sharing of some of the little things we have long held too close to the vest as it were.

Here's another wonderful story about the arts from my favorite eclectic newsletter BrainPickings

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.