Sunday, November 20, 2011

What IS more important - the Chicken or the Egg?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on......................"

Diane Ragsdale raises the issue of living wages for artists in American theatre companies top-heavy with administration, noting that the only salaried actors are likely to be ones that do double duty as administrators.

While confining her entry to theatre, the issue is much larger.  Have we grown the arts administration infrastructure to the point where its' survival (and not the survival of art and artists) has become the prime directive?  Is the sustainability of the nonprofit arts industry now the driving force in all we do and the insatiable beast that has eaten (or at least threatens) the very lamb it was created to protect? Is art and are artists now the second class citizen(s) we espouse as our client and clients, but is that really now just semantical spinning of the true purpose of growing the industry we have spawned?  I know I am biting the hand that feeds me here, but we ought to ask ourselves questions like this once in awhile for our thriving depends on occasional self-assessment.

We talk from time to time about the arts being overbuilt with too many organizations, but is the problem more accurately not too many organizations, but that the model of each of those organizations naturally seeks to expand its capacity exponentially.  The question looms whether by design or default, has that expansion come at the expense of the art and artists?  Have, as one of Diane's commenters opined, we 'the nonprofit arts administrator class' become the corporate agro business and the artists the migrant workers that toil in the fields for subsistence wages.  And more germane, has that 'system' precluded the artists from having any meaningful input into the direction art takes?

To be fair, the half century old model of nonprofit arts provision in America sought not only to nurture and support art and artists, but also to expand public access to that art.  Nonprofits are accorded privileged tax status precisely because they benefit the public, and early on public "access" to art was institutionalized as a benefit equal to the art itself.   Moreover, the fine arts have for centuries depended, in part, on patronage - with which comes infrastructure and 'management'.

But have we overemphasized "access" (and justified in the process the machine we created to promote access) at the expense of artist survivability - let alone growth?  And is the current trend towards emphasis of the 'experience' of the public access over the 'excellence' of the content being experienced disturbing, or a welcome, positive - even egalitarian - development, one arguably pro-art at its' core?

Even were we to conclude that the 'infrastructure' has grown too large so that it now subverts its' original lofty purpose of supporting art and artists (and one can, I think, make a convincing argument to the contrary), what's to be done about it?  Is our sector not as much a victim to the institutional politics of the budgetary process wherein once a program (or organization) is funded, it tends to take on a life of its' own seeking as its principal objective its' own continual existence?  Are we arts administrators very likely to undertake some kind of transformation, the ultimate result of which is our own undoing - even were it to benefit the art and artists we are bound to serve?  Are we not a kind of bureaucracy now - one that demands to be constantly fed, even if one that honestly believes it best serves its art and artist client base by insuring that it is first at the dinner table?

Is one of the consequences of this reality, that artists (particularly younger artists) no longer see our version of the arts as offering much to them - either as artists or consumers- and how do we deal with that?

I don't know, but I think the question of whether or not things have gotten out of hand, and whether or not the growth of management has subverted that which is was created to manage is a legitimate one.  Ideally funding would be sufficient to support the apparatus created to facilitate art and nurture artists, and enable those artists to earn a living wage and create art, but the truth is that such a level of funding does not now (nor perhaps did it ever) exist.  And at least in the long term, consideration of how artists can make a living from their art and the relationship of that to the growth of our structure is relevant.

Have a good week.
Don't Quit.