Time for Arts Nonprofits to Prove They Inspire Change

If there's no positive impact you can measure, why hang your hat on the idea?

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Interception -- toward what end?

This is what was heard in Seattle during the radio broadcast of Super Bowl XLIX:

Second down and goal from the 1. Shift Baldwin over to the left side. Lynch in the backfield. Russell looks, throws inside — OH MY GOD! It’s picked off — at the goal line! It’s picked off by Don [sic] Butler! Intended for Lockette at the goal line! Oh, my word, with 20 seconds left! Oh, my word.

Contrast that with something no color commentator ever said:

But Steve, what an inspirational play for the Seahawks’ fans! Coach Pete Carroll and the play-caller, Darrell Bevell, created the environment where they could have won the Super Bowl! What a success! Seahawks fans are going bananas!

It was an interception, after all. It wasn’t a successful play, regardless of any inspirational intent. No one in the stadium went bananas — except the New England Patriots, their fans and some folks in Vegas.

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Inspiring change without gauging its impact is no different from throwing a pass in the end zone with no regard to whether it was caught, let alone intercepted. On some level, you’ve got to ask your arts organization a really hard question: If there’s no positive impact you can measure, why hang your hat on the idea? After all, inspiring change is not about the “inspiring” — it’s about the “change,” no? When arts nonprofits focus on inspiration — that is, inspiration instead of change — they’re complicit in creating an escape hatch, a counterfeit way to gauge their existence.

That escape hatch, I believe, goes to the heart of why the arts are generally considered to be elitist. For as long as we continue to promote the arts as an inherent good and as a nurturer for the soul without tangible, measurable explanation, we will always struggle to ensure resources for ourselves. That’s the one idea that troubled me in Shawn Lent’s  recent CFR article on her lunch with the current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Mary Anne Carter:

….Carter was open about her passion for the arts in the personal stories of her family members. “The arts are not a luxury in my family,” she said. “They’re a necessity.”

As she sees it, most everyone can agree on the importance of the arts; that, even in a profoundly polarized country, arts and culture stand as bipartisan.

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The best social justice organizations know that impact is not the thing; “impact squared,” meaning the impact of the impact of the organization, is. For instance, when the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the KKK, it wasn’t to close down the KKK, but to provide justice to those victimized by the group. The impact — bankrupting the Klan — wasn’t the ultimate goal. A better social justice environment for Jews and African-Americans, for example — the impact of the impact — determines and validates their worth.

Which brings us to #10 on my list of 15 fraught, flinch-worthy phrases from the nonprofit arts world: “Inspiring Change Vis-à-Vis Enacting Change.” Which applies, come to think of it, not only to the arts, but to our political leadership as well.

Inspirational leadership in our politics isn’t as rare as one might believe. Successful candidates inspire confidence that the world of the voters, however big or small, will be better off for having chosen them. The inverse can also be the case: candidates inspire confidence in voters that choosing their opponent will leave their world worse off. Seeking any political office is an exercise in ego more than pragmatism, in messianic conceit more than policy-making. Irrespective of the office sought, there is a constructive arrogance that causes a person to become a candidate, rather than a volunteer.

Transformational leadership borne from inspiration and action is something else entirely. Transformation requires change to occur. President Roosevelt’s New Deal caused employment to increase in a way that previous administrations had never achieved. Even the policy children of the New Deal — the Interstate Highway System of the Eisenhower administration, for example — showed how FDR’s transformational power continued for years after his death, even for members of another political party.

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Barack Obama famously referred to Presidents Kennedy and Reagan as transformative leaders as in an interview with The Reno Gazette review board in 2008:

I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path…I think Kennedy, 20 years earlier, also moved the country in a fundamentally different direction.

Jesse Ventura.

With any luck, we won’t remember Donald Trump as a transformational leader. With any luck, we’ll consider him a blip of nightmarish insanity. Non-racists stayed home from the polls, we’ll choose to remember. Everyone was drunk, we’ll say. After all, Minnesotans currently view one of their former governors, ex-wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura, in that manner. Trump nearly killed the union and democracy in general, but, you know, it’s not our fault.

However, if Trump’s policies change the way we look at the world and each other, there’s no choice but to call him a transformational leader. He has already put two questionable conservatives on the Supreme Court. And if Civil War II breaks out — even if no shot is fired, even if it doesn’t happen for five years — we’d have to allow that his reign was transformational. Negative results can also be transformative. Hitler’s leadership was transformational; so was Gandhi’s.

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Nonprofit arts institutions constantly talk about the mission of their companies to inspire. Inspiration is easy but meaningless unless one can point to the change it accomplishes. Indeed, counters potter-teacher-philosopher Carter Gillies, “the fact that some artistic work is shown to have beneficial outcomes is not evidence that all of it is equally beneficial. Some art may have no benefits, or even be harmful.” This argues both for and against funding for the arts, and it led me to reach out to Ben Johnson, Director of Performing Arts for the LA Department of Cultural Affairs. Here’s a transcript of our talk, lightly edited for style and clarity:

Alan Harrison: My sense is that most arts and culture organizations talk about the inspirational power of their work, even in their mission. I agree that the arts can inspire, but has the emphasis become the inspiration to change more than enacting it?

Ben Johnson. Photo: LA Department of Cultural Affairs.

Ben Johnson: Often I have found over my career that talking about mission and higher-level ideas about cultural activation, production, community engagement, etc., is just talk. There are many thought leaders and cultural entrepreneurs that speak to these ideas, but unless organizations put forth concrete staff and financial resources to demonstrably affect change, then everything is gobbledygook art-speak. Yes, the arts can inspire, and talking about the arts can inspire, and often it can change lives, but arts in and of itself is essentially about connecting with each other, and it takes real labor to connect on a human, person-to-person level. Everyone is inherently creative; the ability to give individuals voice and to be creative and connected is the true power of the arts.

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AH: How does an arts organization then measure positive change within its community — and, more important, how do you measure its role in that change?

BJ: Positive change is often tracked by the number of events and other data collected, but I have found that the true way to measure positive change is by hearing personal narratives over a sustained period of time. Community building is the key to positive change, and the arts are an incredible way to demonstrate it, together with community pride and moments of shared togetherness.

Gentrification is also a real issue within longstanding communities. Ideally, artists and arts support help communities to grow from within, help to stabilize the community ecosystem, and have it authored by community stakeholders. LA is ground zero in the concept of “art-washing” and community activists fight to keep their community whole, as opposed to gentrified. It’s thought that if galleries, coffee shops and venues start opening up in neighborhoods by investors not from the neighborhood, it will lead to complete gentrification. This is happening in real time now in LA.

AH: Some regions cities and states care a lot about effecting positive change. LA may be unique in that while there is a section called “Downtown,” it is but one of several dozen downtowns in the area; Westwood, Hollywood, Studio City, Watts, Boyle Heights, etc., each has its own identity, feel and issues. How do cities use the arts to make these downtowns work better? Alternatively, how could they?  Is there a cookie-cutter scheme based on the oft-misquoted line from Field of Dreams and W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe: “If you build it, they will come”?

BJ: Yes, LA is a vast, multi-centered city — 15 council districts, geographies and cultural communities making up a glorious mosaic of creativity. But we are also unique because of the diversity of the city and then the entertainment business; intersecting environments  make LA a unique ecosystem different from any other city of the US. We also have a real lack, historically, of cultural philanthropy that has put the onus of cultural production on the artist and communities, unlike San Francisco and NYC. The key to me is to allow as many different “authors” to develop ideas and creative support systems as possible. Cookie-cutter schemes and programming often don’t work in our city, and there is the mistaken belief that just because something works in another city, it will work in LA (which is never the case). Because of the geography and scale of the city, each project needs to be seen as opportunity to connect very locally.

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AH: Someone smart once told me that hope is not a strategy. So if the greater goal is to have a positive and quantifiable impact rather than merely inspire it (because it can be easily asserted that all art has the ability to inspire), how does that manifest? Can you share a story about any particular organization whose mission achieved real impact?

BJ: When I was Director of Education and Audience Development and a curator at the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, there was a complete divide between the communities of Ann Arbor and the communities within Detroit. Mine was considered a prestigious organization, but it had no relationship or history with the equally prestigious, yet completely underrepresented, African-American and Arab-American communities of southeastern Michigan. As of part of an new audience development initiative, I launched into planning a new Arab World Music Festival to help engage with and serve the Lebanese, Yemeni, Palestinian and Iraqi communities in the region. This work was hard, creative and challenging, but ultimately the most rewarding work in my career. The festival was launched with hundreds of regional and university partners, which included adding Arab-American board members to the staff; conducting massive educational forums with staff, educators and Arab culture; and working on a national and international level to engage with presenters, artists and agents to tour work nationally from the Arab world and Arab artists. This work became even more focused and urgent after 9/11, as the entire Arab community in southeastern Michigan was immediately pilloried and labeled terrorists. There were threats to our funding and our organization to stop this work. We didn’t stop, and the Arab Community organized within itself to support this massive initiative, which allowed them to have a positive face within their community and to embrace the broader region in ways that became more meaningful and inclusive.

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And there you have it, say I. Because, to Ben’s point: there is a huge Arab and Arab-American community in the metropolitan Detroit area, especially in the working-class suburb of Dearborn, where it’s about 30% of the population. Perhaps the musical festival grew the level of understanding and shrank the level of mistrust in the area. With any luck, that impact became transformational in that people are more engaged with each other now because of their diversity in thought, rather than despite it. Ben’s organization intended a societal impact, not settling for inspiration. They didn’t seek to inspire relationships, but to forge them. That’s why the University Musical Society is a leader in its field.

Inspiration is the lowest level of artistic impact; it is inherent in the activity and requires no work at all. Arts nonprofits, in my view, are charged with, and not exempt from, causing positive societal change. Surely we can all find more ways to use our artistic powers to do so, and not to be satisfied with aiming for the end zone and hoping for the best.