Earlier this month, I heard Diane Ragsdale speak at a Twin Cities metro-wide Arts Learning Xchange symposium for arts administrators, artists and arts advocates in Minneapolis’ scenic Nicollet Island Pavilion by the river. A writer and scholar with a background in both arts administration and funding, Ragsdale is best known for her public speaking and writing for Jumper, her provocative, big-picture-arts-issues blog for the indispensable ArtsJournal.com.

Diane Ragsdale, veteran arts administrator, scholar and the writer for the blog, JUMPER, on ArtsJournal.com. Photo courtesy of ArtsJournal.com

She raised scads of important, provocative questions over the course of her information-dense, two-hour presentation. I’ll not go into all aspects of her talk here, but I urge you to browse through the articles on her blog. It behooves all of us working in this field to seriously consider the issues she’s exploring.

Two weeks out from the talk, I find myself still wrestling with some deceptively simple questions Ragsdale raised that morning. I can’t shake the feeling that she’s really on to something. She’s put her finger on a crucial and perhaps not so benign paradigm shift: a fundamental change in how we frame the central tenets of what organized arts programming does and should do. I’ve seen philanthropically and publicly funded local arts organizations shift gears in recent years, away from notions of intrinsic, but stubbornly hard to measure notions of worth, and toward more instrumental, even market-based, “return on investment” sorts of justifications for civic cultural support. This sea change in our collective thinking about the role of arts in society speaks to our evolving conversations about where value resides, to whom we designate as principals seated at the table when we negotiate the give-and-take in relationships connecting communities and artists.

Ragsdale begins with a bird’s eye-view: What’s the role of the arts organization in the 21st century? Can we sustain what we’ve created in recent years? After building more elaborate administration systems and edifices for our organizations in the boom times, how do we manage all this extended infrastructure and keep our programming and daily operations humming along as usual? And how can we do so with much leaner, and ever-more-precarious streams of revenue?

Then there’s the more pressing question, I think: Should we?

Are we growing, or in a number of cases saving, some arts organizations at the direct expense of others? To use the language of environmentalism and “sustainability”: How do we decide which organizations are worthy of sustained (and sometimes Herculean) support, and which have simply reached the natural end of their life cycles? When does well-meaning intervention to preserve an ailing, but resource-hungry arts organization become counterproductive to the health of the whole cultural ecosystem? What is the cost of such “too big to fail” thinking, and who is paying it?

She quotes Susan Sontag: “Existence is more than functioning, more than breathing. It’s mattering.” This is the question Ragsdale raises that haunts me most: Are we so focused on tweaks of emphasis in programming and mission and donor development, for tomorrow’s survival’s sake, that we’ve neglected to take the artistic risks necessary to ensure our efforts matter today? I’m interested in your thoughts on these issues. Please, weigh in below in the comments section if you’re so moved.

Read more from Diane Ragsdale on her blog, Jumper. Find out about upcoming symposia like the one I attended by visiting www.artsmidwest.org/programs/ArtsLearningXchange.

One Response to “What does “sustainability” mean in context of the arts, and who pays the price of preservation?”

  1. Thanks so much for the thoughts and the links. You have made my day so much better.

    Survival for artists is a different question than survival for the arts. I myself support the second only as it provides for the first. The idea of an organization or an institution supporting artists is only useful insofar as they provide money and/or services to artists. This subtle distinction is too often elided in much thinking about these issues and consequently the support equation is frequently unbalanced — and not in the artist’s favor.

    Skewed Visions has been repeatedly shedding its skin for years in its drive to maintain the fragile integrity of its artists over the encroaching scabification of the road to institutionalization. The difficulty we face (not alone) begins with the American cultural/historical distrust/infantilization of art, continues with the contemporary default mode of analysis that forces so much of life into an economic model, and ends with the craven disregard of the need for thought and experimentation (i.e., failure).

    Today, many young artists are abandoning even the pretense of obeisance to the non-profit formula and are working laterally and collectively to make work. The challenge with this approach is, of course, that without food the body will starve. Good work can be made on goodwill alone for only so long before the match hisses out.

    For real artistic risks that matter to take place, it is necessary for there to be an arts equivalent to the research of a scientist or an historian, the practice and training of an athlete, and resources like a fraction of those handed over by venture capitalists to potential failures (not to mention to various military and athletic adventures).

    You (and Diane Ragsdale) rightly question the increasing reliance on fungibility to rationalize what little funding of artists continues in the current climate. What does the audience, the “community,” “society,” or the funder themselves get out of the art? What is the payoff for their investment? Why should they want what the artist offers? What do I take away?

    From where i sit, this old metric is rather fundamentally misguided. Might not the artist offer something that is not wanted at all? Might not the artist’s work question — or even contradict or assault — reigning ideologies, systems and behaviors (not to mention audiences, communities, societies and funders)? And the counter argument that this assault is actually a benefit to a different audience, community, or society is nothing but an attempt to wring the blood of benefit out of the stone of a demand. (To torture a metaphor.)

    Whether there is a finite supply of money so the support of some organizations is done at the expense of others is a question I am not equipped to answer. But given the quite significant sums of money that still change hands (as discretely as possible, of course) — even in these hard days of our Great Recession — leads me to think that if we wanted to we could find the money to support whomever we chose.

    How do you survive as an artist in this world that has no place for the ephemeral failures of uselessness produced by artists and only rewards the profitable, the sycophant or the liar?

    Probably the same way artists have for centuries: you don’t. There is no sustainability for an artist, there is only repeated escapes, evasions, and shedding of skins. When this secret truth is realized — and the culture decides it values artists over, well… no artists — maybe we’ll be onto something that matters.

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