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March 2009

Chapter 1: Does The Lightbulb Want To Be Changed?

Maryo 11-05 b A couple of days ago, the New York Times said that unemployment has now passed 8%, and that many of the now-vacant jobs won't be back, as the nature of jobs will have changed by the time this recession is over.

I wonder what this means for the existing non-profit arts and culture groups. Certainly I've seen the same predictions that everyone has, predictions ranging from 10% to 30% of today's non-profits closing their doors. I've been talking to people who are saying, “the nonprofit groups in trouble are those who think that if they just try harder and work more efficiently, everything will be OK.” (Puts me in mind of Boxer, the strong and loyal draft horse in Orwell's “Animal Farm.”) Then they mention “the new paradigm.”

I wonder about the elements of that new paradigm. I know what I hope it will include...

... things like eliminating the often-false distinctions between today's non-profits, for-profits, and “unincorporated” groups ... seems to me there's gotta be a way to focus on what groups are trying to do, rather than on how they are organized.

... things like eliminating the moribund distinctions among “high/fine” arts, “community” arts, “pop” arts, “folk” arts ... some of the most exciting work is being made at the intersections, or when one form simply helps itself to the morés of another form.

...things like maybe – dare I breathe it? - getting rid of a number of arts facilities, with their insatiable appetite for maintenance and overhead money, that may, who knows, actually be holding back arts participation, rather than furthering it. (I'm remembering that in Wisconsin during the Depression and the '30's, community arts activity exploded: there was a surge of locally-written “home talent” plays presented at county fairs, a surge of county-level music festivals, an artist-in-residence in the College of Agriculture, participatory art and music on the educational radio station - “Let's Draw!” and “Let's Sing!”. Just doing it, not buying it. So... success would be the number of people participating, and the meaning in their lives, not the number of organizations surviving, right?

Still, these hopes are pretty vague. And I phrased them in terms of what things won't be, rather than what they will be, didn't I? I'll recognize changes when I see 'em, but what does “a new paradigm” mean in planning terms?

I do see instances where these murky “hopes” of mine are already the reality. There are a lot of exciting artists' collectives and youth activities and small, entrepreneurial for-profits whose participants may have never experienced the “old way of doing business” so they aren't held back by the past. Most of us staff and board of arts organizations know that we need to embrace the chaos and take a new look at ourselves, but - what does that mean in terms of the day-to-day? So we tend to do what we know, and “work harder, work more efficiently.” I see foundations deciding that they won't fund arts and culture in favor of funding in life-and-death arenas, and I think, these foundations are even more behind-the-times than some of their constituents.

I'm remembering Ruby Lerner talking about diversity at a conference, years ago, and she said something like, “For a lot of groups, getting diversity on the board means attracting people who may dress differently or who may look different from us, but who think the same way that we do, so that the basic nature of the organization can remain the same. “

Put another way, “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to be changed.”

“To be changed” is passive, of course, and we must be active. We say we embrace change. That's a fine first step. 

But what in the name of heaven does that mean?  And what do we do next?