Claudia Bach

The nonprofit arts organization. An ungainly set of modifiers. But in the pre-professionalized mid-1970s, when I had to create my own bachelors degree in arts administration, I felt like I was part of an exciting evolutionary force, helping to grow the structural integrity and value of the arts within the conceptual and legal arts nonprofit corporate framework.

At that time it appeared to be a boundless horizon: a corporate structure where artists could gather force to develop and publicly share their work, communities could access entertainment and elucidation, and where we could rest assured that cultural legacies would inspire us and be preserved for future generations. I don’t think I, or my fellow travelers, questioned this as a common good. It was the chosen path and our work was to use it to good advantage in service of the arts. 

I’m happy to say that I still draw on that wellspring of hopeful zeal about the value of the arts, but it is increasingly decoupled from ringing enthusiasm for the arts nonprofit structure. This model we have so carefully cultivated seems to be showing wear that suggests some foundational defects. I say this even as I am committed to assisting a broad array of arts groups to follow this path, helping to build capacity and to learn from best practices. At the same time I see a new generation, as well as arts veterans, bringing warranted skepticism to a framework that, if not broken, is drooping with a kind of overworked exhaustion.

Regardless of limitations, this structure that has permitted an extraordinary array of art to be created and experienced. For that it is to be honored. But honoring the past is only part of building the future. The landscape today is a far cry from the one in which arts 501(c)(3)s began their structural ascendancy in the mid 20th century.

It would appear we have three fronts on which to take simultaneous action:

•    The first is to stretch the existing nonprofit model in ways suited to address the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. New versions of the nonprofit corporation, such as the Low-Profit Limited Liability company (L3c) and B Corporations, need to be rigorously tested. Management approaches within arts 501(c)(3)s can also be reconsidered or reconfigured to tackle our shifting environment with renewed vitality.

•    The second is to explore a more robust version of fiscal sponsorship. We need to relax our adherence to a model where every arts entity seeks to be a nonprofit organization. And, along with that, step back from the corporate concept of life in perpetuity. A lighter more agile infrastructure may fit many, though clearly not all, arts entities. Organizational infrastructure may burden beyond its value for many endeavors.

•    Third is to continue to look for new approaches. In my work with graduate students in arts administration I find myself saying “please learn all you can about how the existing framework operates, not only so you can contribute wisely in the workplace, but so that you can actively envision and craft new frameworks that support the creation and experience of the arts.”

We are a sector with such abundant creative force. Can’t we do a bit better to continue to evolve ideas on this organizational front just as we nurture the creation of new artistic work?

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5 Responses to “Over or Under Modified?”

  1. Rebecca Novick says:

    Yes, amen! Let’s spend a little of the creativity on creative structures. And especially in the direction of major impact from small adjustments. Like what if more funders accepted proposals from fiscally sponsored projects….

  2. Janet Brown says:

    Many funders already accept fiscal sponsorship applications or they are investigating the legalities of doing so. This is definitely on the radar for private funders.

    More importantly, I believe, is that we have not invested in the infrastructure of training, management and advocacy that provide the basis for operations within the system we already have. Organizations can begin with artistic glory only to fall into the trap of poor management and leadership and boards of directors who don’t understand their responsibilities and fiscal obligations. These issues are as critical, if not more so, than looking for new business models.

  3. Claudia Bach says:

    We still have some distance to travel in legitimizing fiscal sponsorship. Hooray for the expanding circle of private and public funders who are comfortable with this. But we still need to build good access to such an option for fledgling arts groups, and even for existing groups for whom a reconfiguration might make sense.

    In many years of working on “capacity building” training with small and mid-size groups I’ve seen how valuable such training can be. This does not change the reality that there are many arts organizations that are not likely to ever achieve the level of infrastructure required for maintaining a healthy 501c3.

  4. Lee Streby says:

    Incredible article. I also advise 501c3 arts groups that are simply beaten up by the 501c3 “dysfunctional family” status quo. Too many non-profit arts boards have short-sighted vision, little energy, and no real ownership. The arts industry has populated their boards with too many warm bodies: volunteers with very limited understanding of the artform they represent, limited involvement, limited support, and no responsibility. How many board members miss meetings regularly in the arts world? Especially when something like a major deficit is on the agenda? How many board members look at the ceiling or fiddle with their Blackberries when fundraising shortfalls are discussed? How many employed artists in 501c3 arts world truly understand what is happening on the staff and board level – and vice versa? The 501c3 arts model is tired, if not completely exhausted in many places, and only exacerbated by the economy. It’s time for artists and passionate arts administrators to exert their creative power, stop apologizing for what it costs to make great art, take back ownership of their services, build demand, and carve new paths to success, whatever it takes.

  5. Janice Lang says:

    The L3C (Low-profit Limited Liability Company) is a hot topic in the nonprofit sector that up until now has only received minimal attention at all the nonprofit conferences and meetings. It may change the way socially beneficial services are delivered. It may represent a whole new paradigm in private public partnerships. And it may finally bring substantial amounts of market rate investment dollars into the social sector. Americans for Community Development and The Levy Entrepreneurship Center of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University have partnered along with Supporting Sponsor Council On Foundations to present the first conference devoted exclusively to the L3C. Do you work in the charitable sector, an economic development agency, a foundation, a government agency, social finance, healthcare? Are you interested in how we can do more with less from government, while rebuilding our infrastructure? Is social enterprise your thing? If any answer is yes, you need to be in Evanston, Illinois June 6th and 7th, 2011.

    Visit http://www.americansforcommunitydevelopment.org/conferences.php to learn more about the conference or to register.

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