John McCann: Arts-Service Groups Should Think About the Arts, Not Themselves

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7and7Half-empty, half-full: a provocative, challenging, admirable essay by John McCann, president of Partners in Performance (it has the amorphous title “Strength Through Coordination and Collaboration“) is making the rounds of the blogosphere and the theatrosphere, and deserves debate and study. McCann’s thesis can be ascertained by reading his opening sentence:

Why do we have so many free-standing, poorly funded national 501c3 service organizations in the arts field?

He goes on to make the case that the nonprofit arts model is reaching, or may have reached, a Rubicon of sorts in its maturity. To preserve the model, to ensure that the arts occupies a signficant seat at the political table, to permit all the arts disciplines to thrive aesthetically, not just financially, in the long term, our arts leaders and arts advocates, he says, must rise to a moment of great responsibility. For the good of the whole, they must set aside their jockeying for position, their fiefdoms, their competing (and complementary) reports and credits, and merge:

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Let’s consolidate the numerous national discipline-specific arts service organizations into one robust, influential, and vital American Institute for the Arts. Each discipline would have its own division where areas of specific need could be addressed, yet the new Institute would provide substantial economies of scale (no need for many CEO’s, development officers, etc. etc.), and a cohesive, coordinated approach toward three significant outcomes:

Establish a set of unifying priorities for the arts industry. ….The arts could and should stand alongside education, energy, health and other national priorities. However the idea of a cabinet level designation for arts and culture is a pipedream without a compelling and unifying message that articulates the ways in which the endeavors of America’s artists and arts organizations can have optimal impact.

Turn information into knowledge…. While there are discipline-specific realities and needs that should be identified and addressed; national priorities should drive an interdisciplinary approach to data gathering, and determining how such data can be helpful across all arts sectors.

Penetrate the public consciousness about the public value created by the arts. This should not be the purview of a single foundation or think tank — or for each discipline to attempt one by one. This is the critical collective responsibility of our field…

Yet with his essay, McCann, perhaps unwittingly, has opened a chasm between the reorganizational logic that informs the idea and the realpolitik of the arts-service organizations that would implement the idea.

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In his last paragraph, McCann blatently characterizes the current situation as one of “inefficiency and ineffectiveness.” These are strong words when you consider, for example, Americans for the Arts and the growing influence it wields in Congress not just this year, but throughout the last decade. Or consider the large, aging, enduring institutions that are a majority of Theatre Communication Group’s membership. Even though they may be large, aging and enduring, they also represent tremendous fiscal buying power, a decades-long investment in an organization specifically focused on the American theater. McCann can argue that there are too many arts-service organizations, and it may very well be true. But the argument itself will not be persuasive enough for those organizations to surrender their sovereignty.

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The essay, published on Sept. 24, has generated about a dozen comments. This is must-read material for filling in some of the blanks. For example, one commenter wrote:

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…what if it worked the other way?

What if rather than developing the unifying priorities John talks about with a limited number of people from each discipline and then delivering them to the industry, this organization simply served as a tool to help the industry find the priorities it already shares but can’t see because no one has all the information and even if they did, no one is looking at the complete picture?

What if rather than stumbling along on their own, tiny organizations needing to raise funds could “share” a development director with other organizations in similar situations?

What if rather than re-inventing the wheel, organizations looking to update their marketing plan could easily see what other organizations have done, how much it cost-and how effective it was?

Perhaps the most salient of these questions could be rephrased as follows: If a reorganizing endeavor required buy-in by the already-established arts-service organizations in the field, how would the new organization allay fears of losing financial or spiritual resources? Another of the aforementioned question could be rephrased this way: If arts-service organizations bonded into one overarching organization, would the savings in terms of administrative costs and a dramatic in competition for development dollars lead to greater overall budgets? This is precisely what the writer of this comment was thinking when she began her response to the essay with this:

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My first reaction to this post was “Great-now there will be even fewer arts administration jobs. . .” but putting selfishness aside, the efficiency and coordination such an organization could bring would be amazing-but ultimately these gains would not be enough should the unique voices of each discipline be lost….

It is skepticism, running like rivers through the comments on the essay, that crystallizes how resistent the industry is to radical change, however well-intentioned. Consider this comment:

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…I recall that some years ago, a major city consolidated both dance and music into one service organization which didn’t last very long. The two disciplines were constantly at odds over who was getting more attention from the combined office. Having worked with and for service organizations for 36 years, I find there is much value in a single discipline service organization. In a way, it becomes home and family for its field in a minimally bureaucratic atmosphere.

While I agree that a consolidated service org would be much more efficient and do better fund raising for itself, I fear that something would be lost – the specialness of each art form’s culture. When you speak of “divisions” within a greater whole, that is exactly what I see – divisions. Having worked in both theater and dance, I can tell you that while there are certainly great similarities between organizational structures and goals, there are also huge differences. And these differences are a reflection of the specific field’s attitudes, ways of working, responsibilities to the community and history.

Let us remember, too, that the reason why the number of arts-service organizations has proliferated is because the number of arts organizations has proliferated. However cash-poor or -rich arts-service organizations are (perspective being everything, of course), they would fundamentally not exist were it not for demand, were it not for perceptions of value and support. The impulse toward verticality may appear to be logical on the surface, but in a world that works through networks — horizontally, that is — are top-down hierarchies really a recipe for more problems for the arts, not less?