Why Does Your Nonprofit Arts Group Insist on Producing Art?

Charity is not the same thing as nonprofit -- and other truisms that some don't want to recognize.

(Top) Beneficiaries of the Paris Opera; (Bottom) Beneficiaries of an LA soup line for homeless veterans.

This is my first post for The Clyde Fitch Report.  To briefly introduce myself, for about 30 years I worked in the field of nonprofit performing arts management, mostly in theater.  I have extensive experience as a managing and executive director, but have also acted, directed, and produced live and filmed works, and I’ve even written a few plays.  I retired my nonprofit management blog, 137 Words, about 2 years ago, but, well, Michael Corleone said it best in The Godfather III.

As further introduction as to where this series of posts might be going over the coming months, here are 15 fraught, flinch-worthy phrases from the nonprofit arts world:

  1. Art for art’s sake (we’ll tackle that today)
  2. Because we’ve always done it that way
  3. Hit? Art; Bomb? Marketing
  4. Leading the audience
  5. “Fiscal responsibility” (especially in the mission statement)
  6. Economic Impact
  7. Diversity
  8. Long hours = hard work
  9. Butts in seats
  10. Inspiring change vis a vis enacting change
  11. For the community
  12. Excellence in production/design/art
  13. Capital campaigns
  14. Unanimity as consensus
  15. Leaving a legacy

And finally, as both preamble to the series and preamble to this particular post, let’s get one important thought out in the open.

“Charity” is not the same thing as “nonprofit.”

“Charity” is a downward-flowing, vertical transaction from the perspective of the donor. It doesn’t require governmental status; giving a panhandler $10, for example, is an act of charity. It’s the proffered good is of a substance, generally valuable in some way, that is intended to make the receiver better off, for which the donor receives internal satisfaction.

Nonprofit Arts

“Nonprofit” is a governmental description of regulated companies that offer invaluable public services in the name of charity. While there is verticality to the transaction, the donor gives a nonprofit the ability (usually through financial means) to provide valuable services to deserving individuals.

Nonprofit Arts

Charity, then, is something personal and meant to be temporary. It’s arrogant, in a way.  While I believe his was a crime family of malevolent barbarians, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. represented (and still represents) the views of many people when he said, in 1932:

Charity is injurious unless it helps the recipient to become independent of it.

Rockefeller’s son, David, described philanthropy as being “…involved with basic innovations that transform society, not simply maintaining the status quo.” This is how I feel about the potential for nonprofit arts organizations, but not necessarily the fulfillment of that potential.

Fraught Phrase #1: The “Arts for Art’s Sake” Myth

Supported by decades of senior-level work in the nonprofit arts industry, I believe nonprofit arts groups that believe their missions are best achieved by the presentation or production of good/great/excellent/melodious/tuneful/fine/pretty/entertaining/elaborate/spectacular art — which describes the vast majority, if not 99% of them — have it backwards and are reaping the results of that inward-facing, masturbatory approach. I believe Toni Morrison was right when she said in 2008 in Poets and Writers:

All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS. What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’

Donors Donating to Donors

Currently, most nonprofit arts organizations work with the following model. They do so because their goal is to promote what they do and how they do it. Appreciating donors is paramount in any nonprofit venture, but this is a little different and somewhat off-putting:

Nonprofit Arts

When a donor gives to an opera company so that, among other things, the donor can purchase tickets to the opera, then there is a long-standing pretentiousness problem. Elitism like this causes the National Endowment for the Arts to be an easy target of derision. Only part of this is because good art is inherently political. Largely, it is because the art is perceived to be for the artists first, the donors second, and society not at all. And without measurable impact — and we’ll talk about what that means in upcoming articles — the arts appear to be a luxury.

Imagine a food bank feeding its donors as a regular practice — not as a promotional gimmick, but every day.

Nom nom charity nom.

Yeah, not so much.

Why We Wantonly Wish We Wielded Wise “Whys”

When arts organizations focus first on what Simon Sinek so famously labeled “Start with Why” of their organizations, a series of broader issues will inevitably fade.

Broader Issue #1: The Misconception of “Artistic Vision” as Guiding Principle

To use a monotheistic religious analogy, the mission is god (the “Why”); the mission statement is the word of god (the “How”). The power of the art isn’t guided or measured by the false god of a single person’s artistic vision (the “What”). It is measured by the impact among the people.

Oy, I’m getting all Testamenty here. Can I get an amen?

Broader Issue #2: The Arduous Task of Succession Planning and Employing Bad Actors

“Employing bad actors” is not an issue surrounding the artistic merits of Nicolas Cage.  As described in Sean Douglass’ recent CFR article on why he’s boycotting Chicago’s Writer’s Theatre in the über-swank northern suburb of Glencoe, IL, the acts of a leader who has committed relatively despicable acts with impunity might cause someone to boycott the company. In a mission-driven organization that does not depend on any one person’s artistic vision, those acts will still occur (regardless of fault or blame, as Betsyann Faiella recently explored on CFR), but if the organization has a measurably positive impact on the community, any bad actor is easily replaceable, including the artistic leader.

Think of it this way: why do so many people buy Coca-Cola? Coke is so popular that it not only has a nickname, but an entire region of the country calls any soft drink by that moniker. Why? Let me give you a hint: it has nothing to do with James Quincey.

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Broader Issue #3: Wrong-Headed Board Recruitment, Executive Tension and Burnout

In most nonprofit arts organizations, there is a strange dance between the executives and board members. It is baked into the system: board members both manage and report to the executive director. According to Boardsource, board members are responsible for managing the activities of the executive director, providing guidance, funding and imprimatur for the company, and acting as a quasi-court of appeal. But this list of responsibilities misses the most important point that guides their service: zealotry for the impact. They may not even know why the company exists, other than to entertain and provide a means of intellectual escape.

If a potential (or current) board member is incapable of this zealotry — defined here loosely as the fanatical, uncompromising pursuit of sharing the joy of the mission with other influential people — then the rest is so much applesauce. If membership feels like an obligation or a club, not a joy, how successful can a trustee be? Perhaps the mission is based in vainglory, not on impact.

Which brings us back to the question posed in the title of this piece: Why does your nonprofit arts organization insist on producing art? Better still: does it produce somebody’s choice of art first and back-fill its mission to justify those choices? Is yours a typical arts company that rewrites its mission with every change in artistic leadership? Or was your mission created to describe a societal problem and use art as a tool to create measurable impact addressing this problem?

If you are having difficulties answering, or worse, are bridling at these questions, you might have an organizational problem.

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Are there organizations that understand this distinction?  Cornerstone Theatre Company immediately comes to mind. Based in Los Angeles, this is a company whose work is about lifting the lives of others through participation in the artistic projects, not merely presenting the projects. Their “Why?” is based on impact, not presentation:  “We act upon the conviction that artistic expression is civic engagement and that access to a creative forum is essential to the wellness and health of every individual and community.”  And because of that, their impact is quantifiable:  “For over 30 years, Cornerstone Theater Company has commissioned more than 100 award-winning playwrights, produced over 150 new plays for the American Theater, trained thousands of students in our innovative methodology, and impacting tens of thousands of community members across the country, many experiencing theater for the first time.”

Photo: Cornerstone Theatre Company.

My own “Why,” like so many, was an epiphany. Nonprofit organizations must be service-oriented to better the lives of those who cannot better it on their own. Using that as a jumping-off point, I believe that every single person has the right to succeed. Yet a whole slew of people cannot act on that right without being blocked.

Therefore, if I should choose to run another nonprofit arts organization before my mortal coil shuffle happens, our group would happen to produce plays. But, everything we would do would be for the purpose of connecting and improving the effectiveness of those with expertise and working service portals — those with access to a proverbial “underground railroad.”

The measurable impact would not be how many people attended (that’s not a metric for nonprofit success or else the Seattle Mariners would be a nonprofit), nor the excellence of the work (which is a subjective metric anyway).  The impact would be measured by the results of the partner nonprofits.  How many people became more financially stable?  Do they have access to healthcare?  How many found safe and secure housing?  And how is the community made better by those specific achievements?

In this way, it really wouldn’t matter who ran the company as long as the goals of raising people from the lowest levels of societal insecurity were being attained.  The production of plays, in and of itself — an “art for art’s sake” argument — is not a valuable goal. Making the world better in concrete ways, on the other hand, is.