By Isaac Butler
I apologize in advance for how angry this blog post is. I normally try to be somewhat restrained (while still spunky!) with my rhetoric but sometimes you just gotta unload.
Richard Dare, CEO and Managing Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic is kicking off a series of posts about the need to replace the nonprofit tax code and the system of "begging" that it has created with something else. He hasn't outlined what the something else is yet, but his initial post is worth reading, if you can stomache it. Personally, I had to try a couple of times to get through it because the pathological twinning of self-aggrandizement and self-pity inimical to the ruling class was on such vivid display right at the beginning of the piece:
On my first day in the nonprofit world, I was introduced as "the new suit." Short shrift indeed for the years I'd spent undergoing rigorous formal musical training. My decades of hard-won success in the for-profit sector, it seemed, had marked me with a sort taint in certain corners of the art world -- had made me seem somehow less artistically chaste than I had been considered in my younger days. After all, I must have sold out by choosing to create companies rather than compositions over the intervening span of years. And now here I was suggesting we, as artists, ought to figure out a better way to pay for what we do. What nerve. What gall.
For Richard and the other Arts CEOs out thers who voice attitudes like this, I'd just like to say this:
You have created, maintained and empowered a system in which you make a considerable salary and benefits. That system is predicated on artists not making a considerable salary and benefits. This is true even if the artists you personally hire are well compensated. (A) they are likely not as well compensated as you are and (B) their wages are depressed because jobs in their field are so scarce and thanks to the conservatory system, you keep cranking out more labor than the field needs. You profit off of all of this, off of a deeply exploitative system, regardless of whether it's intentional.
One of the reasons why artists will participate in such a system is that they are raised to believe that what they do is noble. Or, maybe, cool. Or, maybe, virtuous. (There are other reasons too, but let's set those aside).
So I'm sorry, but you don't get to have all of the money, power and health benefits and also get all of the emotional satisfaction that is the main compensation keeping people in your terrible fucking system, alright?I'm sorry the cool kids didn't want to eat at your table, and I'm sure this looks to you like ingratitude from the plebes, whom you are enriching with your fucking gold-plated benevlolence, but suck it up.
Alright. (Just a quick equivocation: I recognize that basically everyone in the arts could probably make more money doing what they do somewhere else. And I don't personally think that the antipathy that artists voice towards administrators, or the weird condescension that arts folks have towards the people who do the "dirty work" -- note the loaded phrase there-- of making the money and keeping the lights on is a positive thing. I think it's childish. I simply also understand this rage and condescension and don't really see where the wealthy heads of organizations get off complaining about it.)
Now that that's out of the way... I actually agree that we need to rethink the nonprofit system. I think you'd have to be an idiot (or blind) not to see that the system isn't working and is on the verge of collapse. But Dare's hinted at solution-- using the nonprofit system to incubate starter groups and then at some point reach "a sustainable place where we earn our own unrestricted revenue"-- is ahistorical at best. Patronage has always been an essential part of vibrant arts movements. This was true in Ancient Athens-- where tickets were subsidized by the goverment and productions were subsidized by wealthy individuals-- Elizabethan England to our own post-mid-century artistic reneissance in this country.
So the question that needs to be answered is "why is here and now suddenly different?"
It's not enough to highlight that the Nonprofit system doesn't work. We have to talk about why it doesn't work before we can figure out how to fix the problem.
And the reason (for me) why the Nonprofit system doesn't work is because the system relied on a good faith assumption that the stewards of these institutions would abide by certain values. That the nonprofit system meant that people involved in them would think carefully about the demand that they serve the public good. What has happened is that the leading organizations in this industry were taken over (or founded by people who turned out to be) egomaniacs and frauds who wanted to build temples to themselves and thought that the 501 (c)3 tax code simply meant there was an additional revenue stream open to them to do so. And because they did this, and because they were often the largest or most influential organizations, these maneuvers became the industry norms for what success looked like and so the incentives shifted. And with those incentives shifting, the ethics underpinning the entire field gradually changed to be closer to the ethics of Wall Street.
(There are, of course, not the only problem facing our field. Declining government support is another, declining ticket sales too. So is the end of the Monoculture. So is the fact that all of our Brows are collapsing and basically no one believes that "high brow" culture is superior anymore etc. etc. and so forth.)
If we're going to solve this problem, then we need to find a way to move the arts away from capitalism not closer to it. Dare claims that one of the problems with nonprofits is that they end up chasing the almighty dollar. But he also talks about making arts organizations self-sustaining and capable of earning their own unrestrained revenue. Unless his solution is "therefore, arts organizations should begin counterfitting dollars," I'm not exactly sure how these two positions are going to square with each other.
BUT! This is the first in a series, so maybe there's some great ideas floating around out there that he'll get to. And I do, honestly, appreciate people thinking hard about how to solve this problem. But when someone comes at artists trying to sell them on a bunch of buzzwords from a cut rate MBA program (entrepreneurship! unrestrained revenue! America Is Awesomesauce!) I get suspicious.
UPDATE: Now that I've taken a few deep breaths... I think i should partially clarify the above here to say that part of the problem with all of this is also simply that many of the companies that decided to gut their missions, buy bigger buildings, move into bigger spaces, alienate their core audiences and jack their ticket prices up were also bad at business. They bought big buildings whose running costs they couldn't really afford. They built their finances assuming the real estate bubble wouldn't burst, taking their endowments and donors with them. Etc. and so forth. I don't have a problem with an organization that does excellent work and also is good at making money. I don't have a problem with organizations expanding when they need to. I do have a problem with them behaving irresponsibly, expanding in a way that forces them to change their missions, diluting themselves because they have more seats to fill etc.