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The Metamission of The Arts

Arts and Service: pg. 46-47

To address the environmental threats to the future of the arts industry, arts organizations must articulate (and live out) their core purpose in ways that are viable in the new landscape. The biggest challenge may be reconciling deep-seated artcentricity with the need to serve, to further the public good in ways the public sees. Simply “being there” will not be sufficient.

There is not any question of whether art will continue to be made and appreciated, it will; it is the fate of the current arts industry/infrastructure/ establishment that is of concern here. (And to clarify, this is not a discussion of the role of artists. This is about institutions.)

So what has been the assumed underlying core mission, the “metamission,” of arts organizations that organizes their relationship with art and their communities? In the Western world, since the time of the Church in the Middle Ages the role of the arts establishment has been the production and/or presentation of art. (Note that visual artists are the producers of individual works; the institutions—galleries and museums—produce and present exhibits, exhibitions, and collections. In the performing arts, choreographers, composers, and playwrights create the equivalent of blueprints for work that others produce and present.) This worked as long as costs (primarily labor) were low and support sources (the Church, government, wealthy individuals, and corporations) were sufficiently committed to the product to fund it. Today both sides of the equation have shifted so much—increased expense and rapidlydeclining will (or ability) to fund a Eurocentric spectator experience—that an existential threat exists for the industry.

What needs to change?

On the resources side, the key to the future lies in a dramatic increase in perceived public value. Increasing voter and stockholder understanding of the value of the arts will, of course, increase the potential for public and corporate support. In addition, heightened awareness of the arts’ public value will vastly expand the number of people interested in making personal contributions. But the path to this Nirvana runs through being valuable to people in ways far beyond continuing to do what we’ve always done. (There is little that can be done on the expense side of the professional arts, since labor will only grow relatively more expensive over time. One option would be to adopt a greater role— not an exclusive role—as supporter of opportunities for citizen artists to create and perform. This would cost less and would help develop awareness of public value.)

Survival depends upon re-examining mission. The fundamental “metamission” shift needs to be from focus on a product and its delivery to a focus on community and how the arts can support it—a service orientation, one honoring the integrity of the art.

Simply put, it’s not “about” the art; it’s about the arts’ interaction with people and how the arts benefit them. While this may seem a radical break from current habits of thought about art in the industry, it is essential.

The industry must seek more ways for its work to benefit larger segments of the public directly, especially those who are not now convinced that any significant benefits exist for them. Fortunately, in practice this transformation need not be as world-shaking as some might fear.