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Why Are Nonprofit Arts Groups Looking More and More Like Social Service Organizations?

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It was great to hear President Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, and interesting for him to talk about the need for cooperation. "What works in the real world is cooperation," he said, and then he went on to say that without cooperation it's hard if not impossible to get things done. While I generally agree with him, it occurred to me that the nonprofit arts community is a unique exception: Decades of personal observation have convinced me that nonprofit art groups suffer from an overly developed cooperative spirit that has resulted in artistic mediocrity.

As a seasoned nonprofit arts consultant, I can say that arts groups will at the drop of a hat flex their cooperative muscle by willingly leaving their studios and rehearsal halls, donning their good citizen hats, and responding to action alerts from arts authorities, funders, and art institutions. They write countless letters to elected officials and happily appear before city councils to plead for larger art budgets. They attend town hall meetings, workshops, round tables, lectures, and panel discussions. Arts groups embrace the notion that the greater their willingness to cooperate, the better the chance of their own advancement.

This willingness to cooperate without question has turned the arts community into a community of Pollyannas. The scarcity of nonprofit resources furthers the notion that "We're all in this together" and that cooperation is the only way to get ahead. The arts community is, after all, nonprofit. So sad. The word alone conjures up images of shoeless artists in threadbare tuxedos and tattered gowns -- exhausted, all possibilities lost, hopes dashed, like the morning after the prom. Arts groups and artists willingly play into the idea of "starving artists" to romanticize the creative struggle and the need for a hand out.

Such high regard for cooperation has stifled the artist's voice of disagreement. We don't have to look far to see the importance of disagreement. Heck, America was founded on disagreement with England and the monarchy. But even more important than disagreement itself is the singular kind of energy and engagement that results from it. Disagreement spurs debate while deepening commitment and clarifying opinions; it allows us to see more clearly our differences and similarities. It is particularly important for artists because it creates energy, and that energy leads to intuitive, organic artistic evolution.

Inherited Culture

In the 1960's when the Ford Foundation made the first arts grant, hundreds of thousands of artists across the United States clustered together in small groups to form thousands of nonprofit arts organizations. They dreamed of arts grants for themselves and happily donned the nonprofit organizational mantle. Arts groups adopted the organizational structure of the social service nonprofits that preceded them, and at the same time, embraced the social service culture of cooperation.

Among social service organizations, where the need is great and resources are limited, cooperation is critical. Community issues (such as hunger and homelessness) or health issues (such as cancer and heart disease) or challenges in education -- all these issues and more require thoughtful cooperation at every level often in the form of partnerships and coalitions. Without cooperation, social service organizations cannot possibly fulfill their missions.

Service organizations respond to the needs of the community. They are reactionary groups that exist to put themselves out of business. Homeless shelters and food banks are no longer needed when no one is homeless or hungry. Alzheimer's and cancer research will be unnecessary when there is a cure, and so on.

But arts groups are not service organizations.

Arts groups exist to interpret the past, elucidate the present, and imagine the future. To borrow from Dewitt H. Parker's The Principles of Aesthetics, "The intrinsic value of art must be unique, for it is the value of a unique activity -- the free expression of experience in a form delightful and permanent, mediating communication."

Nonprofit arts groups and the artists that run them are not reactionary entities. They are visionary entities.

You may be thinking, "But what about art groups who work in schools? Artists who work in hospitals?" In my opinion, those are arts service organizations -- a rarely made but critical distinction. Arts service organizations exist to create and provide ancillary programs that help fulfill the missions of social service nonprofits such as schools, community centers, hospitals, etc. In schools, for example, art techniques are used for the betterment of education and artists willingly turn a blind eye to the quality of the work created in these programs because that's not the point. The point is not art, the point is service!

Among these arts service organizations cooperation is essential because, like the social service organizations they serve, the need is great.

As arts service organizations continue to grow in number and popularity, the conversation within the broader arts community focuses more and more on social service-y topics. In fact, I recently got an email from the LA County Arts Commission inviting me to some workshop or panel or something and this email referred to arts groups as arts "agencies" -- social service-y, indeed!

Because no distinction has been made between arts groups and arts service organizations, the general arts and arts policy conversation (set by funders and designated leaders) is getting more and more muddled. And artists who exist in organizations that are only concerned with artistic excellence are beginning to feel marginalized.

When sweeping generalizations about a single "arts field" are not questioned, they are accepted as truth. Too many assumptions have seeped into nonprofit arts conversations. I assume that every artist exists to create excellent work. Others assume that every artist exists to advance the missions of social service organizations. And arts leader put us all in the same room and talk about the "field."

Unless and until arts groups find their voice of disagreement and set aside fear of funding or political ramifications long enough to speak up for themselves, the conversation will continue to focus less and less on challenges facing arts groups that are committed solely to artistic excellence. Eventually these arts groups will fade from view completely.

So thanks, President Clinton, for your thoughts on cooperation, which prompted this little meditation, but I prefer the admonishments of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick: Now is the time "to stiffen our backbone and stand up for what we believe!"

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