There’s an old Dunkin’ Donuts commercial that ran back in the 1980s. It first showed a baker’s alarm clock going off in the wee hours of the morning and then the baker shuffling into the shower, and then into the bakery, all the time muttering “Time to make the donuts…The donuts!” When the alarms go off at the homes of artistic and managing directors of nonprofit arts institutions across the United States, I imagine them waking up and sighing “Time to meet more donors…The donors…The donors!”
There’s a lot of talk these days about transformation of the arts sector. But before we consider what we might look like in the future it might be worth reflecting on the fact that the arts sector has undergone enormous transformation already. Many institutions have evolved from rough-and-tumble clans filled with artists running around in blue jeans to…well, to professionalized bureaucracies filled with fundraisers striding around in suits. We were prodded into this transformation by corporate types who perceived our way of doing business as chaotic and, therefore, ineffective.
But what if the corporate types were wrong decades back when they told us that becoming more like them would make us more stable and, therefore, better able to fulfill our missions?
In his article, America Needs a New System for Supporting the Arts, former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Bill Ivey maintains that the health of the arts and culture system can be evaluated by looking at two processes: nurturing (do organizations have the resources and creative flexibility required to invest in the work of artists) and gate-keeping (are the gates sufficiently open to allow a diverse variety of art and artists to readily connect with audiences). What if becoming ‘more corporate’ has made arts organizations risk-averse, inflexible, less accessible, and rather stodgy places to work? What if it has grinded down the edges that once gave arts enterprises character and made them distinguishable from one another? And what if some arts organizations have transformed into entities more suited to raising money for their core purposes than to fulfilling them?
The arts sector that emulated the corporate types decades ago has, I trust, taken note of the fact that many corporations have been doing backflips the past decade plus trying to make their organizations flatter and more flexible, creative, human, responsive, autonomous, vibrant, enjoyable, open, and satisfying places to work. (Yes, it’s rather ironic.)
Maybe the new way of working needs to look more like the old way?