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Thursday, May 7, 2009

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Executive Director's Column

There can be no escaping the fact that, from the perspective of a not-for-profit arts organization, the recession has made survival and the maintenance of artistic and administrative operations immediate priorities. Many individuals who produce, distribute or present art also find themselves in survival mode. The list of large arts organizations that have issued major layoffs and mid-sized arts organizations that have ceased operations is growing. As we know, with the exception of federal job-stimulus funds, all private and public revenue streams that support arts activity are seriously diminished - and may be more diminished still before prosperity returns.

It is particularly challenging in these circumstances to step back and consider that the recession may actually be distracting those who are concerned with the quality and availability of the arts from making vitally important strategic decisions. However, if public policies, choices made by funders, and management practice are going to be effective toward those ends in the long term, we must move forward with those decisions.

For a variety of reasons, the coping strategies available to other not-for-profits and other professionals may not work for the arts. To a great extent, not-for-profit arts organizations share the fortunes and the trials of all public-benefit corporations (which is how America really should refer to "not-for-profits") who rely on a combination of revenues from sales, donations and funding. In addition, arts organizations and individual artists share the circumstances of all workers whose product viability depends on labor-intensive excellence.

However, the digital revolution and demographic shifts have affected how people perceive, value and participate in the arts in some critical ways. As former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts Bill Ivey has noted, "the potential audience for nonprofits--the participation backdrop--has been transformed and will continue to change for the rest of this century."1. When instant information about all leisure-time choices became available and generational social patterns changed, cultural marketers had to depend less on season subscriptions and more on membership packages and special events. Web sites and the on-line mechanisms for marketing, selecting seats, purchasing tickets and accessories, combining events and making donations are now industry standard.

Other changes are more problematic. Consumers have come to expect a high level of customized response to their individual interests, which they get when they purchase books, music and movies. The emotional level of engagement in on-line and portable social networking is high. The younger they are, the more they expect to be interactive learners, co-creators of their environments, and the protagonist adventurers in their own stories. The mouse, the remote and other increasingly efficient mechanisms to access and select sensory experience are offering consumers the experiences they want where and when they want them. They operate, in the term coined by Ivey and Associate Director of Vanderbilt University's Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy Steven Tepper, as "the curatorial me." 2

Given the trends and current circumstances, what role should public cultural leaders play? Because real capacity building for a not-for-profit must address the increasing expense of offering an experience whose viability depends on labor-intensive excellence, policymakers and funders should assist not-for-profit leaders and individual artists in getting the perspective, information, networking and expert advice they need to accomplish those tasks. It's probably a good time to review leadership activities such as visioning sessions, listening tours, convenings, information gathering, research, consultation and technical assistance services, as well as grant categories, with an eye toward helping not-for-profits and artists to adapt their offerings to compete and collaborate effectively with other leisure-time products and choices. It's a good time for public arts leaders to help find common interests and areas of mutual support among those constituents who provide public benefits by advancing participation in the arts, whether through not-for-profit, for-profit or amateur means. Also, it's probably a good time to reach out to other agencies and constituencies who have a stake in improving the economy, promoting tourism, establishing trade relationships, strengthening communities and connecting education with work force development.

In a variety of states and cities (as laboratories for a national conversation), it would be exciting to see an agreement among public and private funders of the arts, arts organizations and artists to explore together the kinds of adaptation arts organizations and artists could make to provide artifacts and experiences that could be competitive and sustainable in the marketplace. Improving the meaning and impact of the artistic experience, developing enhanced relationships between artists and arts participants, and testing the potential of different business models could be among the areas of exploration. Similarly, the need for all forces to identify their roles in advocating for learning in and through the arts to be part of a basic education in the United States is a given: in spite of a growing body of research documenting the cognitive, academic, social and teaching-environment benefits of learning in and through the arts, public school systems have reduced their investment in arts education. In general, private sector cultural funders are organized to support experimentation, research and short-term innovation; public sector funders are organized to manage the broad and long-term distribution of information, technical assistance and other resources; and both need not-for-profits to implement their programs.

I recently started to Google the words "a crisis. . . ." Up popped "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste" and the result that 78,300 items with that phrase are available. Perhaps this recession will catalyze a better understanding of strategies to support meaningful arts activity in the United States in the dynamic context of digital technology and demographic change.

1 Steven J. Tepper and Bill Ivey, eds., Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America's Cultural Life. New York: Routledge, 2007. back to article

2 Bill Ivey and Steven J. Tepper, "Cultural Renaissance or Cultural Divide?" Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, vol. 17 (summer 2006). back to article