Diane Ragsdale and the “Cultural Leadership” Imperative


Perception is everything, and I’m quite certain when blogger and arts analyst Diane Ragsdale gets to moderate the now-legendary and, yes, inspiring Q&A with Rocco Landesman, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, at the new-play conference at Arena Stage, she is demonstrating the exertion of far more influence on the field than, say, some insignificant, cranky old blogger like moi. That is not to say that Ragsdale isn’t an excellent blogger and arts analyst; she is. She’s superb, actually. And as perception is everything, and for reasons I’ll outline more fully on the CFR in coming weeks, I’m content not to cavil about a spotlight I surely hadn’t a widow’s prayer of enjoying anyway.

(Am I being slightly cryptic? No. I’m being absolutely cryptic. There are some evolving events in my professional life — positive ones — that I’m not at liberty to share, so I’m being cryptic until such time that I can be more specific.)

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Exertion of Ragsdale’s influence aside, a recent Jumper blog post by her left me uneasy. The headline:

Perhaps we need to rethink which nonprofit arts groups are considered leaders in their fields?

It’s just the sort of headline that immediately grabs my attention. I was jazzed by the idea: What makes a nonprofit arts group a leader? Is it size of budget or despite it? Is it vision, is it mission, is it the resources with which they’re pursued and realized? Is it in-house or contracted PR and marketing gurus, membership whizzes, brassy software hawkers, or is it the singular ability of a brand — that is, a nonprofit arts group’s brand — to stir dialogue subtly but seemingly at will; to put butts into seats with enviable ease? Since perception is everything, is it trading on the perception of endurance? Or of the indomitable will to survive? Is it an artistic or executive director pimping themselves in the Huffington Post? (Hell, I have, why not them?) Or is it, indeed, all these things, plus the ineffable alchemy of luck? My vote goes to the latter, for one person’s acknowledged, inevitable leader is another person’s resulting, inevitable follower. And so on.

Then I reread the word “which” in Ragsdale’s title: “which nonprofit arts groups are considered leaders in their fields.” And I thought, Well, isn’t that a slippery slope? Precisely who decides that? Indeed, who and what is a “leader” — and why? Like art itself, isn’t leadership really in the eye of the beholder? Aren’t we in a flatter world in which leadership isn’t demanded by a leader but ascribed? Is leadership about perception — as fungible, and as elastic, and as open to interpretation as anything else?

Turns out the meat of Ragsdale’s post isn’t about nonprofit leadership anyway, grabby headline notwithstanding. While well-written as always (I’m not just saying that to kiss her ass), it was instead a tour of tropes and truths. Smarter folks than I get to haul out graphs, charts and spreadsheets while I’m just a cranky old blogger, past my sell-by date, sitting at a laptop, scribbling cryptic. Still, tropes must be parried, truths must be queried. So that’s what I am going to do.

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Ragsdale opens the post by talking about the growing crisis in state appropriations for the arts — a subject, of course, that is near and dear to my heart. She characterizes ongoing efforts in Kansas, Texas and South Carolina, among other states, to eliminate arts agencies in toto as “attacks.” For some arts advocates, she writes, it is “yet another sign that the country is filled with philistines.” As still other people see it, it is “the reasonable end of decades of disregard by arts organizations of their communities-at-large.”

I’m not sure all that many nonprofit arts groups have disregarded their communities-at-large for decades. Industrial manufacturers who poison the earth, water and sky and who fight against EPA regulations and cause birth defects in babies — or who pollute the Gulf of Mexico with oil — have disregarded their communities. Nonprofit arts groups have disregarded common-sense alternatives to how they do business. And the recession is forcing them to face up to it.

This is to say that the governors of Kansas, Texas and South Carolina — none of whom are my favorites — haven’t been attacking their state arts agencies in the same sense that the radical-right, for example, attacked the NEA in the early 1990s, or that former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani attacked the Brooklyn Museum for its “Sensation” exhibit back in 1999 (“You don’t have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else’s religion”). This current situation — and I’ve written about this before — is not about attacking artists or demonizing them, unless you’ve been hearing civic speeches that I’ve managed to miss. Unions are being attacked, artists are not being attacked. No, this is about straightforward ideology: What place, if any, does government have in funding the arts? If you believe there is a place for government in funding the arts, that leads to a certain set of actions, principles and protocols. If you believe there is no place for government in funding the arts, that leads to a different set of actions, principles and protocols. I do not believe that the latter philosophy constitutes an attack. And I think that if the field doesn’t know the difference, we need to read a little history, post-haste, or we’re condemned to repeat it.

As a way to analyze the growing, state-by-state drive to reduce state arts appropriations, Ragsdale writes that the “arts (which in the minds of most people equates with ‘the fine arts’) are clearly not everyone’s cup of tea (and no amount of rhetoric will probably change this).” It’s a curious statement from someone working on a Ph.D. in cultural economics. I’d proffer the idea that if, when we use the word “arts,” we mean “fine arts” in the “minds of most people,” there’s a large debate waiting to take place about the public perception of the arts — perception being everything, of course. If this is true, in fact, why aren’t we examining the root causes of how “fine arts” is tantamount to a rarefied, second-tier social experience? And who, anyway, are “most people”? “Most people” living on Avenue A in the East Village aren’t the same as “most people” living in Coeur d’Alene. Yet there are registered Republicans and probably a notable Tea Party type or two living near Tompkins Square Park (do they go out in the daytime?) and there are dyed-in-the-blue liberals in Coeur d’Alene. Oh, and if any of these generalizations severely trouble you, they should: leading ourselves into the reductive multiplies our problems more quickly than it solves them. As far as the inability of rhetoric to change how the arts are perceived by “most people,” isn’t that also a curious statement? Immense swaths of our arts-advocacy superstructure are predicated on the idea that if we could only articulate the inherent value of the arts better, if we could only make people understand how great and how important and how vital the arts are, we could stave off cuts to public funding, we could increase private philanthropy, we could get those dedicated revenue sources passed at the polls. It amazes me that when Ragsdale asserts that “no amount of rhetoric will probably change” the situation, she is effectively telling the arts-advocacy establishment that it’s blather, it’s tactics, it’s rhetoric, is about as lethal a rubber band in flight. If those who aren’t pro-arts are immovable, are permanently deaf, isn’t it a scam to give money to arts advocacy groups? I’m not ready to make that suggestion. I hope Ragsdale isn’t ready to make that suggestion, either.

And while we’re at it, how do we square the idea of the arts as “clearly not everyone’s cup of tea” with recent statistics from the National Endowment for the Arts asserting that 75 percent of adults interact in some way with the arts? Does 25 percent of the population determine the lifestyle of 75 percent of the — oh, well, never mind. That one’s obvious. As I say, the issue here is about ideology, not about attacking the arts? Plus there are plenty of others on the right who are capable of attacking artists.

Ragsdale is correct, however, to put out the following message in her post:

…it would be shortsighted to dismiss current attacks as being driven primarily by barbarians. Many politicians evidently perceive that they can safely target the arts for cuts on the basis of their being exclusive, elitist, extravagant, or wealthy (and suggest that taxes and subsidies would be better directed elsewhere) because the arts often serve and are defended by a relatively small percentage of their constituencies.

This lends credence to my ongoing feeling that the sector does a substandard job promoting its own interests, that it is content with pushing lame, 50,000-email “Save the Arts” campaigns as standard-bearers for “action.” I’ve had quite a few responses (and tweets and retweet) to my post on this subject, but the general reaction seems the same: “Well, it’s a start, isn’t it?” Or, “It’s better than nothing.” Sure, it’s a start. As for “better than nothing” — no, I’m not so sure. The point is that if artists and arts advocates aren’t genuinely willing to push for better, stronger, wider, deeper ways to promote our interests, then the “relatively small percentage” Ragsdale refers to is an albatross that we created, isn’t it? Aren’t we responsible for the “relative small percentage” of the arts constituencies that defend the work?

Then Ragsdale turns the tables on her own thinking. Rather than sharply look at whether the arts-policy establishment is having maximum impact, she says that these “attacks” (which aren’t attacks) can be “plausibly lobbed at more than a few so-called ‘flagship’ nonprofit arts groups.”

Let the curare take effect:

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Candidly, I find it increasingly difficult to defend why a nonprofit theater company (even, and especially, outside of NYC) needs to charge $100+ for its tickets, or why a nonprofit opera company needs to charge nearly twice as much, if not more. I’ll save for another day my thoughts on the downsides of coupling the price of admission and the value of the arts experience in the minds of consumers, but for now suffice it to say I agree with those who have expressed the opinion that lowering ticket prices (or otherwise reducing financial barriers) is the number one change that many flagship, fine arts groups need to make-both to demonstrate that they are earnest about being ‘inclusive’ and to increase attendance.

Ah, the pricing trope. Everyone’s got a solution and everyone’s got an agenda and no one, save commercial producers, seem to be making much headway, although there’s plenty of noise out there on this. Some people say we should have no more discount ticket pricing, other people couldn’t crow about it loud enough. Ragsdale can weigh in on this in any way she wishes to, but in terms of the example that she provides in the quote above, I do wish we could be less flippant. If this was a case of investigative journalism and not opinion, in other words, Ragsdale’s obligation would be to address with charts, graphs and spreadsheets the answer to the “why” question she poses.

Well, first is to ascertain how many nonprofit theaters in New York City are actually charging “$100+ for its tickets.” If we use the yardstick of, say, budget size, the logical place to investigate first is Roundabout Theatre Company. Tickets for Roundabout’s revival of Anything Goes on Broadway have a $137 top; tickets for its other Broadway show right now, the revival of The Importance of Being Earnest, have a $122 top; tickets for Roundabout’s revival, Off-Broadway, of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore have a top of $81. On to other nonprofit theater companies: Manhattan Theatre Club, whose latest Off-Broadway production of The Whipping Man, have all tickets at $80; MTC’s Broadway run of Good People, starring Frances McDormand and Estelle Parsons, have tickets maxing out at $121. Let’s look next at Playwrights Horizons. It’s latest production — of a play by Bathsheba Doran called Kin — have ticket prices at $70. Let’s look next at the Public Theater. It’s production of Rinne Groff’s Compulsion has tickets at $75 to $85 — $40 if you’re a member. I’m looking for more big-budget nonprofit theater companies charging “$100+ for tickets.” Where are they? Remember, we can’t include commercial Broadway in this discussion. That isn’t subsidized publicly or privately.

And that’s why the Ragsdale paragraph I pasted in above represents a certain amount of rhetorical quicksand. It’s back to the pricing trope: ticket prices are too high (when weren’t they?); ticket prices are the biggest impediment to people going to the theater (when wasn’t it?); if only “most people” valued the artistic experience more, if only marketing gurus wielded prestidigitation metrics to tie pricing to perceived value, the “demand” side of the “supply/demand” equation would be addressed and all would live happily ever after. But I say not so, not so, not so. Look at — sorry, world — that musical mayhem we call Spider-Man. People pay — and pay big — for what they really want, for what’s hot and cool and weird and new and freaky. They want to see stars and they want to have an experience. And they’re willing to pay bucks if they think they’re going to get it. Bubblegum Theatre Company’s reconsideration of Strindberg’s To Damascus trilogy, not so much, unless maybe F. Murray Abraham is in it. Wait, wait, wait. Now I’m being reductive. Not fair, right?

Next, Ragsdale pivots to the education question — and here I’m with her. What the cultural sector is entering is a period in which the fruits of having not educated or badly educated our children about arts and culture is home to roost — or, as be the case, not roost. I’m all for arts education and I’m the product of arts education in public schools. My brain is ablaze with all the studies and charts, graphs and spreadsheets segmenting data on the impact of arts education; I fully acknowledge that it’s all essential to make the case. But you know what? I really wish our arts-advocacy superstructure and leaders were more active in terms of taking Hollywood stars and putting them on stage and screen and in front of local, state and federal officials every month, not once a year, and having them declare “I am [fill in the name] because I received an arts education.” And why stop there? Why not go beyond famous people from stage, film, TV and visual arts and music and dance and additional trot out — oh, just imagine — the Williams sisters doing a PSA for the arts and a major cultural figure doing a PSA on behalf of sports? Go further: Stephen Hawking hawks arts education and Robert Redford regales us with talk of science education. Be counter-intuitive and innovative and canny — it’s what the sector needs, writ large, confident, even a little swaggering. After all, perception is everything, and I’d stake my life that a real campaign could alter perceptions. (Unless you believe no amount of rhetoric can change someone’s mind, of course.)

But back to Ragsdale’s post. On arts education, she accuses “many arts organizations” of paying

…lipservice to their educational missions, despite the fact that many people do not have meaningful exposure to the arts growing up and there is research that suggests that such exposure is linked to adult participation. …hands-on participation activities are not (today) a core competency of many arts groups (although one might posit that over the next 10 years they will need to become so).

And she suggests that “30 percent of all nonprofit arts organizations were (voluntarily) re-engineered as arts education hybrids, specifically designed to provide sustained adult and youth arts participation activities as their primary, if not exclusive, purpose.” I love the idea, but here, too, I’m afraid, I have fears. As Ragsdale chooses to use nonprofit theater companies as a case study, I’d ask whether it is her assertion that New York City theater groups charging “$100+ for tickets” are doing a poor job when it comes to integrating arts education into their programming and what the factual, statistical basis is for this allegation. In a way, it seems to me that Ragsdale is really articulating Landesman’s argument that we have excess capacity — too many nonprofit arts companies — with significantly more tact. For we do have too many companies — for them to survive, they’re going to have to reinvent how they do business, for whom they create their work, how their business models are propagated, and who is going to pay for it and how. Without putting it all in Landesman-like terms, Ragsdale, by talking about unidentified companies failing to fulfill their arts-education missions adequately, is making the address-the-demand argument and the address-the-supply argument in one fell swoop.

Now Ragsdale begins winding down her post. Perception being everything, she rightly notes that at a time of financial upheaval, nonprofit arts groups needing emergency bailouts — or hold ceremonies to unveil new digs or seek ways out of their economic obligations or go under — project the worst possible images. It is true that arts too often represent a kind of cognitive dissonance with the everyday lives of “most people.” She’s correct that such news stories

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corroborate the perception that arts organizations do not merit subsidies because they are already wealthy or spend more than is necessary, wise, or justifiable.

She further says that while the “large majority of organizations are not exclusive, elitist, extravagant, and wealthy,” those that are, “particularly when they are heralded as ‘leaders,’ give the nonprofit arts sector a bad rap.” Trouble is, perception is everything — although is a nonprofit arts organization with a $100,000 annual budget that much more “exclusive, elitist, extravagant and wealthy” than a nonprofit arts organization with a $1,000,000 annual budget or a $10,000,000 annual budget or a $100,000,000 annual budget when you yourself are unemployed or defaulting on your mortgage?

What Ragsdale wants — since she believes that certain nonprofit arts groups are quite deliberately “exclusive, elitist, extravagant and wealthy” — is to restructure such organizations as “private, for-profit, membership-based clubs” where they can “target and price their performances exclusively to the upper middle class,” and not be “interested in fulfilling their educational and charitable missions” and can “lack the will or discipline to exercise fiscal moderation” in peace. I am as able to play the class card as the next lefty, but what disturbs me is how easily we can play the card without fully showing our hand — being specific about which organizations we mean and what “exclusive, elitist, extravagant and wealthy” means. This is not unlike when people talk about taxing “rich” people. If I make $50K a year, those who earn $250K are pretty rich by comparison. But they’re not David Koch rich. Say what you will about President Obama, but at least he put his cards on the table when he decided that $250,000 annual earnings is where the line is drawn. If we’re going to employ the language of class to demand change from the nonprofit arts world, we had better be prepared to do the right thing and name names. Otherwise, it’s just more rhetoric, no amount of which will change anyone’s mind.

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And finally, this brings us back to leadership. I don’t think leadership is necessarily defined by budget. I think that true leadership is defined by the willingness to be outspoken, even at personal and professional risk, and to be specific. I do believe Ragsdale can do it. It’s her influence to exert.

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Perhaps we need to rethink which nonprofit arts groups are considered leaders in their fields?