Breaking an Outdated Mold
by Craige Hoover
I have been waxing for a few years about the problems with the outdated, fundamentally flawed arts business model, and here this Bay Area journalist comes along and puts together a well-researched, insightful article and it gets published exactly where it should be published, on the Grantsmakers in the Arts website. I must admit to a little jealousy.
Here’s the problem well articulated:
“In the past fifteen years, the number of nonprofit theater companies in the United States has doubled while audiences and funding have shrunk. Neither the field nor the next generation of artists is served by this unexamined multiplication of companies based on the same old model. The NEA’s statistics on nonprofit growth, set against its sobering reports on declining arts participation, illuminate a crucial nexus for the field, a location of both profound failure and potential transformation. The proliferation of small theater companies sits at the intersection between the necessity to imagine different structures for making theater and our field’s failure to provide career paths for the next generation of artists. Since the Ford Foundation’s investments kicked off the regional theater movement fifty years ago, there has been tremendous collective buy-in to what has become a fossilized model of a particular type of nonprofit theater. Within this structure, there is now a critical lack of opportunity for emerging artists and leaders, leaving the next generation of artists no alternative but to start companies of their own, companies that often replicate the problems of established theaters on a smaller scale.”
She goes on to further explicate her position and then provide some truly inspired examples of artists and arts managers that have implemented new models that begin to at least crack the mold that has befallen our arts business.
The fact that the article is published in the Grantsmakers in the Arts is especially encouraging because it hits right at what mifght just be the crux what has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since the NEA stopped funding individual artists in the early 80′s, other funding organizations have followed suit and have only funded companies that fit into a box that has been determined to be the safest from a political point of view. And because of this focus, arts funding and arts participation has dropped steadily ever since.
Scott Walters, who I am thrilled to see has joined the list of Huffington Post contributors, recently penned an article comparing the Occupy Wall Street movement to the arts world, and has illuminated some startling statistics to support his argument. Essentially, a ridiculously large percentage of funding goes to a tiny fraction of arts organizations, primarily because they have been given the funding to set up large administrative systems that tick all the boxes that funders look for. Hence the vicious cycle.
Funding smaller, more innovative arts models is the only way we will break the cycle and see a resurgence of accessible arts throughout this country. Here’s an article from a Memphis newspaper that talks about this very idea. It’s written by Andre K. Fowlkes, who has started a very cool venture called Launch Your City. It is akin to a venture capital company that funds innovative small businesses. He posits that the VC model should be used by major funders at the community level. Brilliant. If the Ford Foundation doesn’t have the wherewithal to fund innovative concepts itself, then perhaps it should fund a middle-man who responsibly selects new models that have the opportunity to affect some real change.
I urge you to read the articles I’ve linked above, and hopefully, you will be inspired to get involved and help make a difference.