Sunday, January 29, 2012

ARTS POLICY: Organic, Non-Patchwork Theater

Kristen Engebretsen (ARTSblog) vents some frustration about the patchwork of arts education funding:
I recently read an article about a school that won a $25,000 contest by HGTV to redesign their arts room, and it actually left me upset. Why, you ask? 
The short answer? I’m tired of the band-aid approach. The stop gap measures. 
It’s the same reason I had to stop watching Oprah’s Favorite Things and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. For every deserving person that is honored on these shows, I know someone who is just as needy and just as deserving.
What would she do with the money?
  • Buy instruments for a school that doesn’t have ANY.
  • Pay part of an itinerant teacher’s salary to visit MANY schools throughout the year.
  • Support a community program that serves thousands of students a year.
  • Award it to a nonprofit that could leverage it by raising matching funds.
  • Start an endowment in a school district for arts education, helping ensure that ALL of the students in that district received arts instruction EVERY year.
Meanwhile, Scott Walters is thinking about where our money comes from and goes as well, looking at the distinctions made between the institutional and organic church:
Just in case the analogy isn't clear, speaking in terms of the theatre, the "institutional theatre" would be represented by the regional theatre system, organizations that are highly structured, building-centered, run by professionals who oversee a staff, a building, and give salaries and administer daily activities. The original regional theatres came into existence thanks to the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, and they were structured to look like Ford or Standard Oil -- institutional. 
And for organic:
An "organic theatre" might follow a similar pathway. Instead of "professional artists" who create a "performance" that the "audience" comes to see in a theatre building, an "organic theatre" would be a small community of people who sometimes perform, sometimes listen -- a sort of ensemble who share their talents with each other in informal spaces. Passive consumption would be unacceptable -- each member would contribute in some way and in a variety of ways -- specialism would not fit. An "organic theatre" wouldn't create a "product" to be sold, but rather members would come together to share gifts, alternately giviing an[sic] receiving. There would be no need to spend money on marketing, because the ensemble is both audience and performer -- you would just let the members know about an upcoming event. If there was a desire, performances could be offered outside the group.
The question that both of these thoughts raise is, how do institutional funders fit into a more organic model of theater? I think often we approach this by saying that the funders should change what organizations they're funding -- aim towards supporting a larger number of smaller organizations. Instead of one big grant to the Met, maybe 250 small grants to different schools. 

But I think there's still a problem with that shift; it's the patchwork problem identified by Engebretsen, or by the many critics of funding-by-vote (here's one at random) -- the money doesn't distribute itself easily. 

In a way, it's the same criticism that capitalists level against communism -- a central planner (particularly in a larger nation) can't efficiently distribute resources unless it was omniscient and perfectly agile.

The way that western socialism addressed that was by steering state support from direct subsidies (providing food, clothes, etc.) toward infrastructure investment. The national highway system, reducing barriers for small businesses, providing tax breaks for charitable donations -- government intervention applied most equally when it was given in such a way that people could equally access it. 

(The Solyndra loan guarantee, for instance, was bad partly because it didn't yield results and partly because of the corrupt way it applied unequally to Solyndra)

The National Endowment of the Arts and other institutional funders haven't taken that approach. They pick winners and losers, subsidize individual organizations. Other cultural organizations have found models for lifting all boats. $100 for Fractured Atlas or IndieGoGo make it easier for arts organizations across the country in a way that $100 for the Kennedy Center or the Public Theater doesn't.

Obviously there's still a need to support institutions directly, but for the time being -- when we have small amounts of money -- institutions need to take a more infrastructure-style approach to investment. Otherwise, it's just patchwork and band-aids.