I was on sabbatical this semester. It was wonderful. A sabbatical is supposed to be for recharging batteries as well as doing projects and research that are hard to fit in while you’re working full time – and that’s exactly what this sabbatical did for me. Since you read this blog you know that one of my primary interests is innovation in the arts, and how organizations and artists are responding to changes in society, the economy, and technology. My idea – which turned out to be even more inspired than I originally thought – was to travel the country talking to artists and arts organizations, earning my keep by giving guest lectures for the colleagues who helped me set up the interviews.
During the past few months I’ve met with dozens of people representing multi-million dollar, traditional organizations like museums and symphony orchestras, to small, scrappy DIY venues, to individuals doing good work with a laptop and a dream. I’ve visited classrooms where students are engaged in doing projects that have them working in their communities, and I’ve talked with people who are working for government and independent arts councils and are on the front lines of what their communities and organizations need.
In keeping with one of today’s trends – what one of my interviewees called the “art is me” movement, I also engaged in some personal creative time. I enrolled in a MOOC developed by the Milwaukee Art Museum in partnership with Google, which had participants engaging in art in a very different way than most museum enrichment programs I’ve seen. I did some online learning via classes and videos in knitting and felting. I took a drawing class. And, I spent a glorious 5 days on an island in Pugent Sound on a knitting retreat (I also had hoped to learn Photoshop and teach myself to sew, but I guess there’s only so much one person can do in a semester).
I plan to profile many of the organizations, people and trends I discovered in my next several blog posts. But in advance of that, here are a few broad threads that wove their way through many of my conversations. We’ll be revisiting these too, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Are you hearing these too?
We need to take risks, but we are not in a climate which allows risk. Immediate money concerns, holding on to current audiences while trying to attract new audiences, being bound to limitations of space, balancing demands of audiences and funders — all of these encourage a conservative focus on programming instead of encouraging us to risk creating art that is new and exciting. Yet new and exciting programming is what we need to remain relevant.
We need to redefine access. Access traditionally has meant making our work available and approachable for a variety of socioeconomic demographics, ages and backgrounds. This, believe it or not, is limiting our thinking by stereotyping both traditional arts audiences and people who don’t participate in the arts. We continue to want to provide “access” by asking people to join us where we are, instead of engaging people where they are. We need instead to listen, and to think of access beyond the boundaries of demographic measurements.
We need to rethink collaborations. Collaborations don’t have to mean two arts organizations getting together to produce programming. I talked to organizations who are banding together for energy savings, and sharing space in creative ways. I toured facilities who are offering artists different kinds of partnerships which allows them to save on infrastructure and maximize exposure. I talked to organizations who have been approached by corporations wanting to fund specific projects and who have found ways to make these collaborations a win-win. There is so much more there than we are currently utilizing.
We need to relax the structures in which we work. There are some who say the not-for-profit model is “broken.” Certainly there are some serious issues with not-for-profit that we need to address as an industry. One of these is taking a hard look at how we assemble and use boards of directors, and the relationship between governance and management in the contemporary arts not-for-profit. Another is the competing interests of earned and contributed income – which provide a variety of funding sources but also keep us tied to the needs of each constituent group. Most people I talked to don’t believe the not-for-profit system needs to be scrapped (it’s there for a reason), but it is definitely time to take a good look at what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and whether changes in the traditional structure would help us make art better.
That’s enough to think about for today. Again, I’m anxious to hear your thoughts. Do these trends ring true for you?