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?