By Isaac Butler
Up on Howlround today, you'll find this lengthy piece about innovation in arts business practices in anticipation of the "National Innovation Summit for Arts & Culture."
I want to talk a little bit less about what it says, and a little bit more about what it's missing, and thus what its assumptions are.
The fundamental assumption of the piece is that innovation qua innovation is both necessary and good. And while it's true that there are a great deal of challenges facing the arts sector, I question a conversation about innovation that is divorced from a conversation about values, because inevitably without those two conversations intertwined, the only innvoation that will be seriously considered is how to make more money.
I don't want to be a jerk. It's a well-meaning piece and people who work in arts admin are good people who are working hard at a considerable pay cut to try to facilitate other people's creations. That said, not all innovation is good and business practices are fundmentally a reflection of an orgnaization's values, not just their capacity to come up with new ideas.
Within the piece itself there's some mention of creating more "public value," which sounds nice. But what is public value? And how is it measured?
Let's take two examples of innovation in response to declining audience base and ticket revenue for theatre. One possible solution is dynamic pricing, another is Mixed Blood's "radical hospitality" These are, in terms of their values, diametrically opposed solutions to a problem. And these different values lead to different designs. Radical hospitality (in which all seats are free at the door or can be bought in advance for $20) is about broadening the audience base and serving the widest possible constituency with the possible consequence of losing ticket revenue. Dynamic pricing is about maximizing ticket revenue and incentivizing memberships/subscriptions with the possible consequence of narrowing the audience base.
I would argue that one of these innovations (radical hospitality) is a positive development and the other is most decidedly not. I would argue that dynamic pricing lowers the public value of the institutions that practice it. You could argue that it instead improves it. I don't want to refight that argument right now. What I'm saying is that, by leaving terms vague and assumptions unexamined, we set ourselves up for real trouble.
Obviously, on a business level, theater (and many other kinds of arts organizaitons) are in serious trouble. And I applaud efforts to create new and better business practices. But there's a part of me that recoils, that remembers that building giant buildings that bankrupt your organization was considered an innovative business solution at some point. Or that double edged swords like enhancement-- which makes musical theater in america possible by using nonprofits as quasi-legal tax shelters-- are innovations as well. This part of me worries that, when we leave the hard discussions about values and mission statements and what an arts organization is actually for, that we will only go further down the path that's gotten us here in the first place, a world with a stable adminsitrative class, arts as a bauble for the rich, and artists getting paid peanuts.
The article is the first in a four-part series. My hope is that future installments will talk about values, about why arts organizations exist in the first place, and what in particular nonprofits-- which are meant to in some way serve the public good in exchange for their tax status-- stand for beyond money.