There’s a bit of a kerfuffle in the arts blogosphere (yes, Virginia, there is an arts blogosphere). It started with a post by Eugene Carr, owner of Patron Technology, a firm that provides e-marketing solutions to arts organizations. The source of the problem? Eugene’s comment that “… more and more, Artistic Directors need to realize they must balance audience needs with the financial needs and mission of the organization, and in these economic times, the mission may have to bend a bit.”
Bend the mission? Diane Ragsdale, writing for Americans for the Arts’ ArtsBlog, would have none of it. She writes:
“Is it just me or is anyone else worried about what might be implied by that little prepositional phrase at any cost? And how far can we bend the mission before it breaks? At what point might we need to worry that the commercial/nonprofit line has blurred to such a degree that there is no longer a distinctive role for nonprofit arts institutions? At what point might someone suggest that nonprofit arts organizations have become for-profits-in-disguise?”
To me, there is a fundamental problem with this discussion, and that is that it assumes that mission can never equal money. It assumes that in order to make money, not-for-profit arts organizations have to lower their standards and program material that is outside of their mission just to get audiences to come.
What does this say about our missions? I think it’s pretty damning. At its best, this attitude says that serious arts organizations aren’t connected to their communities, which makes it hard to make the case that we should get donations and public funds intended to help us “serve” our communities. At its worst, it betrays the very elitist attitude that we’ve been accused of. It says, “we want to perform what WE want to perform, and all we need you for is to pad our pockets so that we can continue to perform what WE want to perform, regardless of whether it pleases anyone other than our musicians.”
Look at any arts organization mission statement and I promise you that it won’t say “our mission is to only play traditional classical music in traditional concert halls.” Here’s an example of what is, in my experience a pretty typical statement:
The Nashville Symphony is dedicated to achieving the highest standard for excellence in musical performance and educational programs, while engaging the community, enriching audiences and shaping cultural life.
To me, “the highest standard for excellence in musical performance” does not define the type of music, it defines the artistic standards under which any music will be performed. And, one could definitely argue, “bending the mission” would take place if they didn’t perform music that engaged the community and enriched all audiences.
I truly believe that at the end, it’s not really about what we program. I think that we think far too much about what we are programming and far too little about the experience of engaging in the art. Think about how many of us market:
Intriguing? The latter is part of the marketing campaign for Lillian Alling, a world premiere opera produced by Vancouver Opera last season. Community members who found these QR codes and accessed them via smartphones got exclusive videos from the composer and conductor. The marketing campaign included live blogging, a manga comic book version, and a lively interactive social media campaign. Result for a world premiere opera about a Russian immigrant? Sold out.
Audiences can engage with our mission. Audiences can engage with the most challenging work we can offer to them. Audiences understand high standards, and seek them out. It’s our fault if we don’t reach them, not theirs.