Sunday, May 6, 2012

Demand for More Arts Organizations is Internally - not Externally - Driven

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

Supply and Demand:
In the latest issue of the GIA Reader, Adrian Ellis provides an excellent summary of the Supply and Demand issue for the arts.

Quoting the latest Americans for the Arts National Arts Index, this overarching statistic is a sobering comment on the debate:
"......between 2003 and 2009, a new nonprofit arts organization was created every three hours in the US."
Arguably that growth happened at a time of economic prosperity when some of the current problems occasioned by that growth were of less concern.  But I'm not convinced that the growth is not going to continue despite the economic downturn.  And if that trend does continue we will add an additional 2,920 arts organizations to the fold this year, and over a five year period, nearly another 15,000 arts organizations.  Is this a good thing, or a negative?

With support (audience participation, philanthropic giving, public support and earned income) down in the past five years, the net result has to be that an increasingly smaller pie is being divided by an increasingly larger number of organizations.  There seems little debate that the "demand" is not leading the growth in the supply.  So why is this happening? Clearly the nonprofit arts are not truly market driven.  Where then is the demand coming from?  I think we are hung up by discussing supply and demand in the usual market driven sense - demand from the public or private sector for the arts.

I suggest the demand to create new arts organizations is coming from us; from inside the arts sector.  Some of it is logically new people not currently involved in the nonprofit arts infrastructure wanting to provide art; much more is very likely existing people in the arts who, for whatever reason, do not find what they are looking for within our existing organizations and want thus to start their own organizations.  Their motivation isn't some logical market analysis of the chances of success and cannot be analyzed or discussed in such a context.  It isn't necessarily rational - driven rather by ego and passion, and perhaps frustration as well.  Some of this trend is off the grid - meaning it is not really part of the status quo arts infrastructure as we know it - higher tech entries; migration from "professional" to "amateur" or whatever.   Much of it is likely supported by the very sources (arts agencies - from the Endowment to local city agencies - and foundations, plus all those that facilitate the growth by providing such services as fiscal sponsorships) that decry the overbuilt result in the infrastructure.  Because the funding pie is finite, allocation to one organization literally comes at the expense of another.

What does the growth - and support of that growth, even if indirectly or reluctantly, do to the sacrosanct goals of capacity building and sustainability?   If you fund the XYZ Theater group on Main Street, and at some point some of the talent of that company decides it wants to form a new organizations (assuming, arguendo, legitimate reasons - at least from the new founder's perspective - for so doing), do you then also fund that new ABC Theater Company located just down on Main Street?  Does that new company take some of the donor support with it?  What if neither company has its own stage facility, but both rent from a municipal facility - crowded scheduling increasingly then narrows to the breaking point.  For example, there are two hundred plus dance companies in San Francisco.  Many want to have space at Yerba Buena Center's auditorium facility - which is one of the few in the city conducive to dance - yet the facility cannot possibly accommodate the demand for even the established companies, let alone all the new ones.  Does unbridled growth make capacity building and sustainability a futile exercise?

Yet there is no logical reason to simply continue to support the status quo and ignore newer entries.  To do so would stifle new creativity.  And so the growth continues.

The question though is why do so many (of our) people apparently feel the need to start new organizations rather than find a platform for what they want to do within the existing infrastructure?  What are the needs that are not being met that gives rise to this kind of unbridled growth - given that the public demand is, at best, constant?  We don't seem to have any reliable hard data that would give us some handle on the motivations of all of those that feel compelled to go outside what exists and start a new structure to do what it is they want to do.  So we don't have any real discussions about whether or not there are factors at play that we might be able to impact so as to give those seemingly dissatisfied or unhappy with the existent structures available to them more opportunity to stay within the infrastructure as an alternative to going outside of it with yet another new enterprise.  It would be enormously valuable to have some reliable data as to the reasoning behind this trend.

I wonder if we might be able to address some of the major issues that are at the heart of the dissatisfaction?  First, of course, we need to figure out how to identify what those major issues are.  The simple explanation is the understandable and common yearning in many leaders to have their own "shop" as it were.  Arts people are entrepreneurial and many want to do it their "way". But I think that factors behind that yearning may be broken into several broad categories:
     1.  Decision making:  I suspect that many of those that decide they want to start their own organization, do so because they have come to the conclusion that existing options simply don't allow them enough (or any?) role in the decision making process - either because of the legacy of the structural system in which they find themselves wherein things are done a certain way because they have always been done that way, or because they feel marginalized or ignored.  This situation may be particularly acute in artist / founder driven organizations, and those where the board is insular and protective of the legacy of the organization within the community.  Some of those that want to start a new organization may rebel against the hierarchy of leadership; others may feel that the philosophical differences between them and the senior leadership and / or board are too great; still others see limited career advancement opportunities resulting from their being excluded from the decision making process and so they opt to strike out on their own.
     2.  Artistic Differences:  Certainly, many new organizations are born out of the frustration of artistic differences wherein there is no room for any shared vision for the future.
     3.  Geographic:  Logically, a portion of the newly formed organizations are created to fill a void in certain geographical venues, or because the entrepreneur relocates.
     4.  Generational:  As alluded to above, a percentage of new organizations are created because there seems little to no room for upcoming generations to transfer into senior leadership positions.

The problems for the sector is that this growth in the number of organizations is not on any parallel track with a rise in funding available over the sector.  Smaller pie, more people who want a piece.  And each new organization, for the most part, duplicates certain overhead costs ranging from personnel to accounting, to marketing, to rent to advertising.  More jobs perhaps, but not necessarily better pay or more career advancement routes.  More competition, and perhaps more confusion in the public mindset.  I suspect this works in a backhanded way to the benefit of the more established  cultural organizations with a more recognizable brand in the marketplace.  Yet, many of the major cultural institutions have felt the pain of a diluted support base in the past five years.

So what, if anything, might we do to provide mechanisms within the existing infrastructure that would address the needs that feed the demand for the creation of so many new organizations.  Might we create umbrella organizations that might house a wide swatch of these new enterprises - providing the structure allowing for the independence and freedom to create and provide art, yet which might cut down on the duplication of many of the overhead costs?  Is the Fractured Atlas model of fiscal sponsorship already doing this?  Is there anything we can do to address this demand and neutralize any of the negatives that result from it?  Are there other negatives to this increased demand beyond the dilution of funding, audience support, competitive marketing, public confusion?

And on the other side, is the growth in new organizations really a positive trend despite the complications it seems to be causing?  Do we really want to consciously try to inhibit the desire to create new structures, particularly if, in so doing, we are stifling creativity and putting up artificial barriers to the recruitment of new talent to our field?  While we don't operate in any true market sense, do we not have our own funding market mechanism (clumsy though it may be) which will, ultimately, weed out the organizations that are not viable?  Which approach will result in the most healthy and vibrant arts ecosystem and ecology?

I think we have to move to understand what drives this trend (demand) of our own people to create new organizations (the supply) and whether or not there is anything we can do to stem that growth without creating more problems than we would solve.
Have a good week.  I'm taking off next week.  Traveling.  An early Happy Mother's Day to all.

Don't Quit.