Is There Such a Thing as “Too Big to Fail” for the Arts?


broadwayIn catching up on some online reading, I found Doug McLennan’s post, “A Culture of Failure,” on his blog, Diacritical. McLennan has been cogitating on the idea that AIG is being bailed out by the federal government because it’s “too big to fail” — that it’s failure, like the failure of Lehman Brothers, will create repercussions of such staggering proportions that it would fundamentally and irrevocably damage the nation’s fiscal health. At the moment, that’s like fretting that the mortally wounded patient has a hangnail. Still, the idea is that it’s the devil you know versus the devil you don’t.

McLennan asks, in essence, wonders why failure in science is ok, and why failure in the arts is ok, but why failure in economics is not ok. The AIG “too big to fail” doctrine, he writes,

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…got me thinking about the culture of failure. Science is built on failure. Make observations, posit solutions, try them out, fail, learn from your failure and try again until you find a solution. Scientific breakthroughs wouldn’t be possible without failure. Funding for research is predicated on extremely high rates of failure. Ask a successful person what they learned on the way up and they’ll likely talk about how they dealt with their failures, not their success.

The hippest, most interesting and successful arts programmer I ever knew told me once that the secret to his success was failure. “If more than 10 percent of the things I do are successful (he was, after all, a programmer of new work), I feel like I’m not doing my job,” he said. What he meant was that without trying many things that didn’t work, he couldn’t be open to the possibility of greatness. It was only his willingness to learn from mistakes and embrace failure that produced transcendent success.

Yet why does it so often seem that the goal of arts organizations is to neutralize failure or deny it? If AIG was “too big to fail” maybe it stopped learning from failure and found itself in trouble only after it was too late. In the 90s the arts economy expanded and many arts organizations got bigger and more institutional. With growth and soaring expenses, the cost of failing [read: the capacity to fail safely] often got priced out. And how many arts organizations, when they do do something that fails, rush to deny that it failed? Like admitting failure is a bad thing.

No, admitting failure is never a bad thing — well, unless you’re Bernard Madoff, and that’s an extreme version of failure. Rather, I think my issue is that experimentation and failure in science and the arts generally do not lead to mass unemployment and trillion-dollar deficits. (Yes, I realize that failure in science does often lead to death, so, in fact, maybe there’s some moral equivalence here.)

And there are exceptions, clearly. For example, failure in the arts can lead to a different kind of death — the death of a theater company, say. Or a situation like that of Scott Elliott, artistic director of The New Group, who clearly took an ill-advised chance with his recent Off-Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, and, as Adam Feldman of Time Out New York reported, the consequence was that the company laid off some people. But that’s an extreme, relatively rare example of how experimentation and failure in the arts hurt people.

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This part of McLennan’s post, meanwhile, is more fully formed, accurate and provocative:

Arts funders have tended to want more and more assurances that the things they fund are successes. One manifestation of this trend is the way so much arts funding has become project-based. Funders prefer to have projects they can point to for tangible, measurable results.So it’s much easier to raise money for a new building than it is for operational support to keep the doors open. And it’s much easier to fund programs in multiculturalism or arts education than it is a new play or symphony.

As a result, we have a system set up to reward expansion of buildings and the building of infrastructure [a real estate bubble?] which then must be sustained in ways that make failure not an option. That is: guess wrong and you might put your organization in danger, so don’t guess wrong. And so we have arts organizations who are thought to be “too big to fail” even as they 1. get safer and safer in the artistic choices they make. and/or 2. get into bigger and bigger trouble because they can’t afford the little failures along the way that they could learn from.

The situation in the arts then, would seem to be exactly opposite of what we understand to be best practice in science. Funding for science is at a whole different level than funding for the arts, and yet, it seems to me that being good at funding the right kinds of failures in the arts might lead to a much healthier arts community.

But at this point, I would like to add something. Let’s not get suckered into believing that there’s never been a single application of the “too big to fail” doctrine in the arts. Doesn’t anyone remember what happened on Broadway in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 — how the City of New York, under the new leadership of Michael Bloomberg, stepped in with various modes of fiscal support for the Great White Way; how it left Off- and Off-Off-Broadway, which is to say the entire nonprofit sector, to fend for itself? The program was called Spend Your Regards to Broadway and it involved the city buying $2.5 million Broadway tickets. And all because Broadway, in terms of Gotham’s economic and tourist-driven backbone, was deemed too big to fail.

So for the arts, this philosophy is nothing new. Now let’s debate it.