Wednesday, October 3, 2012


A friend recently gave me a book by Nello McDaniel and George Thorn, Towards a New Arts Order. The authors place the era into our moment in time,
Expanding our perspective, we see that the current state of the economy is not an aberration – virtually every aspect of the country’s social, political and cultural makeup is undergoing a major transformation. For better or for worse, the arts are inextricably linked to the shifting plates of the economy, culture, society, and politics. The burden of debt and the dysfunction that the arts are experiencing is mirrored in every other sector of society.
Sounds about right; however, they wrote this in 1993. The country was in recession, the savings and loan crisis had claimed many large institutions and the federal government had stepped in, the exploding deficit was on everyone’s mind and a young Democrat had defeated a sitting Republican President on the mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Fast forward a generation to 2012 and it appears we have not learned much. Our country is slowly coming out of the worst recession in many generations in which the arts and culture sector has certainly borne its burden during the down economy. Many in Higher Education once thought we were immune from the tempests in the marketplace; however, this crisis has proved them wrong. So an arts organization on a college campus finds itself doubly challenged. During the best of times arts organizations are understaffed, underfunded, and over committed. If we can just sell a 100 more tickets, or add another community service because the grant funders will take notice, or suddenly tap the under 35 audience - we’ll be okay. Arts organizations have always understood bottom-lines and dead-lines. The show opens Saturday at 8pm and if we don’t have 500 in the house we don’t make the nut.

I bristle when people say we should operate our arts organization more like a business. So I was happy when Jim Collins, Good to Great (2005) affirmed my belief.
We must reject the idea – well intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business’. Most businesses – like most anything else in life - fall somewhere between mediocre and good. Few are great.
Bless you, Jim Collins. Why would we want to be mediocre? Not that we presently reside on Great Lane. The arts have always focused on the patron experience, which to me is more than saying we are customer friendly. A customer is a transaction - a patron can be a life-long relationship.

So we are about creating cultural experiences and cultivating patron relationships with the arts that will last a lifetime. Then if the MAC is in a time that Mello and Thorne would call re-conceptualization – a time when we must redesign, reconstruct, and reposition our organizations – we must ask ourselves these questions.

     Why should we exist?
     What are our values?
     What are our priorities and what are someone else’s priorities?
     How do we best serve our community, our art form, students, and artists?

Once we ask and answer these questions and begin the process of re-conceptualizing our organization we must face the question whether we have the resources, human and financial, to do the work. To be continued…


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