an artyr for the cause

The Boston Globe reported that some small arts groups are responding creatively to the Boston Foundation’s recently released report (PDF) on the state of the arts community in the greater Boston area.

Tomorrow night in an alternative gallery space in Cambridge, a self-proclaimed group of “artyrs” will drink Kool-Aid, eat chili, and participate in a “die in.”

Many feel that the report — which recommends smaller, struggling arts organizations consider merging, or an “exit strategy” that would lead to their quiet demise — took an unnecessarily cold, actuarial view of the plight of the small arts nonprofit.

It’s actually a fair bit more balanced than that. The report does recommend a number of strategies for struggling arts organizations, including seeking more grants and sharing performance space. But on the whole, the report appears to stand as a simple testimony to what are some harsh realities in today economy.

  1. Audiences are declining
  2. Subscriptions are declining
  3. Public and private funding has diminished

Is there a limit to creativity? To art? To the possibilities that a handful of passionate people can acheive?

No, of course not.  But there is a zero sum of donor dollars, and of audience members.

A more useful take on the report might be, to quote the authors, “to promote honest conversations and decision-making” about serious issues like sustainable staffing levels, leadership succession, the cost of maintaining facilities, and the public perception of and engagement in the arts.

These issues, or more precisely, the neglect of these issues, are what will doom a small or “wrong-sized” nonprofit. Caught up in the day-to-day struggle for survival, small arts groups often fail to address their overall strategic plan. Stop-gap measures and band-aid fixes are often easier to embrace.

Foundations like the Boston Foundation have the resources, expertise, and time to assemble the data and take a high-altitude view of the cultural sector. The vision laid out in this report is one that prizes innovation and the new, supports principles of sound fiscal governance and sober judgment, and calmly assesses the changing tastes and expectations of the local and tourism audience.

Imagine the ideal. An innovative sector that welcomes new ideas, new art, and organizations, and preserves the treasures of the past; a sector where organizations can grow, or end operations gracefully; a sector of resilient organizations with the resources to invest in ideas and programs that excite audiences and donors.

One might ask, what is the purpose of a report like this? To what constructive end might these findings be applied?

A few possibilities:

  1. Regional organizations might use the data to make the case for a large grant to address some of the more troubling issues. Maybe some arts groups could be helped by the building of some co-op performance space. Maybe a collaborative marketing plan would entice more visitors to explore smaller arts groups. Maybe a trail, a series of podcasts, or an interactive, multimedia map.
  2. Lobbyists might use the data to make the case for increased state and federal funding of the arts. Cultural facilities funding, artist live-work space, local arts agency grants, international tourism advertising, are all things that come up in budgets — when the data is there to support the need.
  3. Arts organizations might use the data: to try to attract seasoned businesspeople to their boards, to create or reassess a strategic plan, to finally talk about the unthinkable –what will happen when our founder is no longer here?

The Boston Foundation’s report is a physical exam, a check-up. The temperature of the arts and culture community has been taken, and a few questions have been asked about how healthy and proactive our habits are.

Does the Boston Foundation want you to die? I doubt it. But I think it would rather you see a doctor for that cough, rather than have you continue to maintain that it’s just a sore throat.

1 Thought.

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