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systemic challenges

Systemic Challenges

Systemic Challenges: pg. 20-34

Aging audiences, skyrocketing costs, breathtaking demographic shifts, failing education, and decreasing social relevancy have all been cited, for years, as threats to the future of the arts establishment. Yes, the arts will always exist. It is the future of the organizations that comprise the nonprofit cultural industry that is at risk. The collective pressures of change—change even greater than that facing print journalism—make now the time for serious re-examination of the core mission of arts institutions (if the time has not already passed). Developments in economics, demographics, education, social expectations, competition, support, and marketing represent a perfect storm of threats that require immediate attention.


Economic cycles of the last few decades have presented the arts world with serious and ever-shifting challenges. However, the concern here is not with the vagaries of such cycles but with more systemic issues that affect the financial health of arts organizations regardless of whether the economy is in a moment of boom, bust, or in between.


Cost disease


The arts are a labor-intensive industry. Economists have observed that where an enterprise cannot be made more productive (higher output with the same or less input) over time, it suffers “productivity lag.” That is, it becomes increasingly more expensive in comparison with other goods and services. This was identified as the “cost disease” by economists William Baumol and William Bowen in their 1966 book Performing Arts, The Economic Dilemma. They observed that string quartets will forever be playable only by four musicians.

Art is created by individuals expending time (usually a great deal of time) to generate a product. Similarly, performing artists presenting the work of composers, playwrights, or choreographers must spend large amounts of time in preparing, rehearsing, and performing work, time that cannot be reduced by technological intervention. The time it takes to perform a work is the time it takes to perform it. Period.

Some creative artists use technology to assist in the labors of the creative process or manipulate technology as their artistic medium, but technology has little to offer in generating productivity gains for creation. While it is true that, for instance, music notation software has lessened the burden on composers, that is a post-creation burden and was sometimes handled by scribes other than the composer.

Recordings of performers do provide a means of access to “product” that don’t involve the performer once the recording is made. Similarly, technologically generated music or video is far less labor intensive than live performance (Baumal and Bowen’s string quartets notwithstanding). Both generate significant increases in productivity.

The argument for the value of live performance is that the experience of it is substantially different from listening to recordings or technologically generated performances. It is the humanity of artistic expression that gives it its power. At the same time, all other things being equal, the rate of increase in expense in the arts (along with all labor intensive industries) will be faster than in other sectors. This is a fact of life that has become increasingly important over the last half century as labor costs have skyrocketed.


Arts genres developed in different economic environments

A related issue is the economic circumstances in which the arts that form the core of the symphony, opera, ballet, and (to a lesser extent) theatre repertoire were developed. Labor costs in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe were far lower than is true today. The wage scales that led to the corps of servants portrayed on Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey were the same as those that supported the development of the large ensembles of musicians (orchestra and opera) and dancers. It is probably superfluous to point out that the domestic service industry is almost entirely a phenomenon of the past; it could not be supported as costs rose.

The arts have always been subject to the economic realities of their time. In the economic straits of the immediate aftermath of WWI Europe, Igor Stravinsky for a time turned away from the large orchestras of his Ballet Russes days to smaller works—chamber music, chamber orchestras, and, notably, L’Histoire du Soldat’sensemble of three actors, several dancers, and an instrumental septet.


Arts Facilities

The University of Chicago’s 2012 report, Set in Stone, highlighted the difficulties faced by arts organizations undertaking large capital construction projects. It focused on poor planning (wishful thinking) as a key to the dilemmas it described. However, the construction and maintenance costs inherent in any large facility are also increasing at rates not offset by productivity gains. Labor costs are a significant element in both.


The edifice dilemma is not limited to the performing arts. The “product” in typical museums and galleries requires space for long-term display. As a result, the visual arts have inherent cost problems similar to those faced by performing arts.


Labor Intensive/High Capital Cost Art

Here is a thought experiment that highlights the severity of the economic issues faced by the arts establishment: From a strictly economic perspective, if an entire arts industry were being created from scratch today, what would it look like? It is virtually certain that artistic creation would continue to be labor (and therefore cost) intensive. Art is made by artists. Where human performance was understood by the public to be superior to recordings or synthesized work, live performance would be supported. That said, it is almost certain that the genres (newly) created in this hypothetical reality would feature a very small number of performers. (The exceptions would be in a handful of major urban centers where a larger population base could support it or on special occasions outside of those centers where civic interests would provide one-off funding.) There would need to be much attention paid to demonstrating to people the value of live performance. Why is it worth the price differential? The contributions of each performer would be augmented as much as possible by technological support and there would likely be great dependence upon recorded, digital dissemination of the work as a means of marketing as well as more cost-effective distribution.

In the visual arts world, less dependent upon large numbers of living artists, the economic challenges are related to the high and escalating costs of facilities construction and maintenance. (As noted elsewhere, this applies equally to performing arts organizations that own their own venues.) It is likely that renting and borrowing space on an as needed rather than a permanent basis would be more common. The relatively recent phenomenon of the “pop up museum” suggests that this is not an exclusively hypothetical concept.


The Public

It almost goes without saying that the nature of the population, as well as the expectations of individuals, has changed drastically in the last two generations and certainly has since the development of the principal genres presented by the arts industry today. These factors inevitably create the need to evaluate fundamental understanding of mission.



From the Myth of Homogeneity to Majority Minority

At some point in the 2040’s the U.S. will become what can be described as a majority minority nation. That is, there will be no single racial or ethnic group that makes up the majority of the population. Some cities and states are already there. While the country was never as homogeneous as its white population once imagined, there is no getting around the fact that the future will be radically different from the past.

An arts industry that treats non-European cultural expression with tokenism or views it as anything other than a full part of its mandate will not be able to attract the individual, corporate, and governmental subsidy essential for survival, let alone vibrancy.


Addressing Diversity

Knowing that society is being transformed, “diversity” has become a hot topic in the arts. Some arts professionals lust for it, some long for it, many are bewildered about it, others roll their eyes. It is an unavoidable topic because, given the economic realities addressed above, long-term viability demands expanding reach in under-represented populations. It is an especially difficult topic because the word has been assumed to be code for race or ethnicity. To be clear, diversity is in fact far broader than either of those alone (e.g., age, education, religion, socio-economic status, urban/suburban/rural). But the reason the pursuit of diversity is elusive (and mysterious to many) is that achieving it demands change; it demands a careful analysis of motivation, goals, and processes; and it demands skills unfamiliar to many in today’s arts industry.

Caveat Regarding DiversityWhile doing so is important for reasons that are both pragmatic and just, pursuing diversity can be a narcissistic end. “Diverse audiences” as a goal is self-serving. It is self-focused, artcentric. It is about making the organization look better or feel better about itself. The goal should be serving/making life better for diverse communities.

The arts industry should be seeking to make arts institutions vehicles to improve the lives of members of those diverse communities with whom relationships are sought. This is the only effective way to diversify audiences, and it is, not coincidentally, the only effective basis for community engagement.


Motivation and Goals?

Arts organizations must be honest with themselves about their reasons for pursuing diversity. If the motive is primarily (or only) a funder’s requirement that is not taken to heart, the results will be minimal. Under-represented populations of any kind are aware (or quickly become so) of motivations when approached by the arts community. If the impetus for reaching out is half-hearted, the response will be less than that.

If there is a sincere desire to become more diverse, what is actually being sought? Is the goal “simply” spectators or participants that collectively reflect society more accurately than is true today (a heady target by itself)? Is the aim to be more systemically diverse, having the board, staff, artists, and patrons “look like” (even when the diversity is not physically obvious) the community? Is that aim deeply held and does it really take advantage of the perspective and wisdom that diversity brings? (Of course, simply having representatives of diverse populations onstage, in the board room, theatre, concert hall, or museum does not mean that the groups of which they are a part feel included. No individual is a stand-in for any group.) Or is the hope even greater, to partner with an under-represented population for mutual benefit? (This last will, of course, have the most impact and durability of results.)


By What Means?

Most importantly, what is the organization willing to do to achieve diversity? If diversity (of any kind) is pursued simply by revised “messaging” or incentivizing attendance, the chances for success are small. The adventure travel promoter wanting to expand reach into this author’s “group” (white, upper middle class, over-educated, a bit overweight, and graying) by using a spokesperson to whom this population could relate or offering discounted rates would get no response from them. Most people have enough experience with camping to know that, while adventure travel may be a wonderful thing, it is not for this group. (The ground got much harder between most people’s twentieth and fortieth birthdays. And now . . . !)


Granted, messaging and incentives can help. Maybe adventure travel is not all bugs, Thermarest mattresses, and freeze-dried dinner packets. Learning that would be helpful. It is more likely, however, that interest would be piqued if adventure travel activities that more directly addressed group-appropriate “issues” were offered. This gets to what is for some in the arts industry the principal problem with seeking diversity. At some point it almost inevitably requires re-examining the “product” that is offered. While this need not be as difficult an issue as some imagine, it does demand change, sometimes fundamental change on the part of the arts organization.

Building Bridges, Mending Fences
Finally, it must be understood that under-represented groups are so notjust because they are unfamiliar with the arts. In some cases it is because they are too familiar—at least with arts organizations. To illustrate, there is a phenomenon that can be called “The Porgy Problem.” Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is an iconic masterwork. It is, justifiably, performed countless times by opera companies everywhere. It also can be a textbook example of the myopia with which arts organizations conduct themselves in communities with which they are not familiar. A complaint often heard from African-Americans around the country is that when companies presented Porgy, they would approach African- American churches and communities to sell tickets and to “spread the word.” This was viewed as exploitation: “We hadn’t heard from them before and we haven’t heard from them since.” And they are understandably angry.

There are people in our communities who are not merely neutral toward the arts but, based on experiences such as this (and even more serious affronts), are hostile to the arts community. This is difficult to acknowledge, but awareness of the fact gives valuable preparation for working in community. Knowing there may be holes out of which the arts have to dig is worthwhile. It provides preparation; antagonism should not be taken as an excuse to give up.

Many communities are wary of the arts. In recent years there has been increasing discussion of the need for the arts industry to make real progress in this area. However, given the historic associations of the arts with power and privilege, under-represented communities have little patience with small steps toward change. In 2014, Barry Hessenius (former Director of the California Arts Council and former President of the California Assembly of Local Arts Agencies) made a bold and impassioned case that major results in the area of diversity and social justice must be forthcoming and forthcoming soon:

[I]f we are to really move towards a future that corrects the mistakes and omissions of the past, we are going to have to abandon the idea that we can treat this as a challenge, and move to treating the issue of equity, of social and racial justice (within our field anyway) as an obsession. We need to move away from the dispassionate and detached position of observer to one where we voluntarily and eagerly move as committed activists to change—not in the long term, but now. This isn’t just another issue or challenge for us—this is a defining moment for us. We can’t simply treat it as business as usual and approach it as just another issue to deal with. It’s more fundamental than that. GIA Wrap Up & Thoughts on the Equity/Racial/Social Justice Issue—http://



The arts world has a unanimous understanding that shifts in public education in the last half century have been disastrous for the arts. There is no longer an assumption that children in primary or secondary schools will participate in and learn about the arts. The generational trickle-down effect is that fewer people are prepared to be knowledgeable consumers of the arts.

Efforts to correct this situation are laudable and essential. However, there is an assumption that “fixing” the educational system will solve the problems related to arts education. It will not. Any fix—even if it occurred instantaneously everywhere—would not bear significant fruit for twenty years or more. None of the other issues described here will go away. The industry does not have that long to wait. Even less acknowledged is the fact that the limited attention the arts receive in public school curricula is a result of the broad public’s disconnection from the arts, not simply a cause of it. School boards are remarkably responsive to voters’ passions. Elected officials at the state and federal levels will also press for those things about which their constituents are adamant. The arts simply do not fall in that category for the bulk of the electorate.

Continuing lack of arts education in the public schools will only increase stress on the arts establishment as the years pass. Returning the arts to a valued place in school curricula is an important, even vital goal. But accomplishing that will be more likely if the arts world engages more deeply with the public. This will lead them to see the value of the arts in their own lives and encourage them to press for the arts’ inclusion in schools. Lobbying educational leaders and policy makers must continue; creating public advocates is even more essential.


Social Expectations

For a wide variety of reasons, people’s relationships with organizations of all kinds and with each other have changed in the twenty-first century. There is less trust of institutions; and there is more expectation that organizations will consider individual needs and interests and provide the public with opportunities for input and participation.

Decline in acceptance of “authority”


The upheaval of the Sixties and the public scandals of which Watergate was a prime example voided the social contract in which institutions and authority figures were given the benefit of the doubt. This is not news. Police, teachers, doctors, pastors and priests all have less unquestioned respect than was true in the 1950’s.

The technologically mediated means of individual communication available today have amplified that trend. Each person (who has access to the Internet) has a ready platform to voice questions or concerns if not outright mistrust. Web 2.0 (the online sharing of ideas, opinions, and information) has created an environment in which increasing numbers of people expect to be heard.

These changes impact the arts establishment. Historically, it has been an authority-based industry. Experts decide what cultural experiences to provide. The public’s job (when the public has had a job) has been to appreciate them. While this is not true of the whole history of the arts in all cultures, it is true of the European-rooted art forms that are the focus of much of the nonprofit arts industry in the U.S. With the rise of “participatory culture” built upon online communication tools, people are no longer content to passively accept what experts offer them. They have an expectation of input. This is not a trend that will fade.

Demographic, economic, political, and social changes are necessitating an increased focus by arts organizations on the cultural needs and interests of the broad public. Technologically-rooted changes in the relationship between individuals and the organizations with which they interact are supporting this trend as well. There may be those who rail against this new world, but the railing will not make the need to alter traditional approaches (and mindsets) go away. The good news is that the mechanisms that have precipitated this particular shift also provide the means for addressing it. Social media are a cause; they are also an answer. It is far easier to interact with large numbers of constituents than ever before in history.

It is a grave mistake to deny (or ignore) the inevitable.

Increasing individual agency

Much has been made of changes in expectation on the part of the public, especially members of generations born after the 1960’s. There appears to be a greater sense of the right to be heard, the right to influence their experiences, the right to have choices. In sociological terms, personal agency is assumed. This has and will continue to have a significant impact on the arts presentation of “spectator art.” Passive reception of experiences curated by others does not fit well with these changing assumptions. This trend compounds the resistance to prescriptive programming just mentioned. The desire for active participation in personal experiences is an important flip side to this. It is an area in which the arts might find real growth opportunities.

Participants Not Spectators
Another result of an increasing sense of agency is that individuals are far less “willing to be bewildered” than in the past. Traditions or customs thatmake no sense to the newcomer, as well as work rooted in cultural traditions foreign to them,are not accepted without question. These are not stupid people—a tragic assumption sometimes made by arts professionals. They are willing to learn but not willing to acquiesce to assertions of greatness, especially when standards of greatness are limited to those of a specific culture. Explanations as well as an openness to re-examination of everything— including the arts’ content—will be required to work in this new reality.

Today it is possible to tailorproducts and experiences tosmaller and smaller groups ofpeople. (The concept of the“long tail” that enables this willbe discussed in the section oncompetition.) As a result, thereis an expectation, far morepervasive than ever before, that anindividual will be provided with options that closely match their desires. Access to instantaneous communication options has created an expectation that individuals should “have a say” in things of interest to them. Participation, not observation, is the default assumption people bring to interactions with those providing them service.

The whole concept of (and relationship with) “audience” may need to be reconsidered. Expectations of participation will lead to a redefinition of roles. Instead of providing content for a collection of observers, the new model may be that of creating experiences for shifting groups of partners.



In the current environment, institutions must work harder than ever before to demonstrate the value of their specialized knowledge, of their expertise. This is relatively simple with physicians and pilots (although internet-fueled self-diagnosis is a growing bane of doctors’ existence). Inability to make that case is one of the reasons for the decline of the corporate news media. Organizations must also be responsive to the expectations of inclusion and participation on the part of their community members. Otherwise, they will be unable to connect with them.


People Are Different

The public from which support for the arts must come has changed radically. Some (even most) of those changes are exciting. The new options, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds they provide can and should invigorate the field. Some of the changes may be viewed as regrettable, but no industry survives if it ignores significant change in the nature of the population it serves.




The Astonishment Deficit

It is remarkable to consider that in the nineteenth century an orchestra in a concert hall could and did make among the loudest sounds people of that time ever heard. The sheer physicality of the experience made it unique in a way that is no longer true today. Until the twentieth century, the only way to understand the experience of drama or dance was to go a live performance.

They were otherwise largely unimaginable. Reproductions of works of visual art were at first impossible and then paled in comparison with the original.

Granted, recordings, broadcasts, and reproductions are still inadequate substitutes for liveperformance and original works. The symphony orchestra in the hall can still astonish, but the level of that astonishment is less than it was in the past and will be less so in the future. The margin of difference for it, for all performing arts, for the direct experience of original art is diminishing. There is a danger that the nonprofit arts establishment may lose in the competition for the capacity to astonish.

This is in no way intended to denigrate the value of performance or original works of art. It is simply a fact that for the population as a whole, these are all less amazing in the context of their other experiences than they once were. It makes the “sell” of the arts just a bit more difficult.


The Long Tail

As the arts industry originally developed there were relatively few alternative forms of entertainment or leisure time possibilities outside the home. Today,the sheer quantity of choices is astonishing. Some cable television services offer a thousand programming choices simultaneously. This is so unmanageable that mechanisms are springing up to assist in identifying those opportunities of the greatest interest to individuals.

The affordability of production and distribution of content, at least of digital media, has made it possible to provide opportunities to very small interest groups. Referred to as “the long tail” (a term derived from the long, slow slope on the right side of a distribution graph indicating few data points for each position), the concept points to the fact that it is now possible, in ways never before imaginable, to provide individualized, specifically tailored goods and services to large percentages of the population even though each particular good or service is only sought by a small number of people. This reinforces assumptions that experienceswill be provided that are ofparticular interest to everyone.The progression from three(or four) television networksto hundreds of cable channelsand now untold numbers ofYouTube and similar contentsources is a demonstration ofthis phenomenon as well as beingone of the many, many forms ofcompetition for the public’s non-work time.

This tailorability of contentis an especially difficult challengefor the arts establishment.The economic realities of arts production and presentation makeit less flexible, less maneuverablethan much of its competition. Responding to this is one of themost significant issues facing the arts today.


The Visible Hand

All of the systemic issues addressed above represent challenges that are putting inexorable and increasing pressure on the arts industry. Collectively they are functioning much like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” in economics and will demand transformation by virtue of forces outside of and beyond conscious manipulation.

There is one arena, however, in which the hand (to maintain the metaphor) is not invisible. That is in arts policy. The rapidly changing electorate will demand policy shifts. Public funding patterns that have provided large-scale support to Eurocentric arts organizations will be threatened. Such funding will eventually become completely untenable. In some places, this “future” is now.

In June of 2014, Barry Hessenius reported in Barry’s Blog about controversy over public funding of the arts in San Francisco. (A Potential Deep Divide in the Arts Sector— A group concerned with cultural equity lobbied vigorously for more funds for organizations not focused on Eurocentric arts. Their points included what will inevitably be rallying cries in similar debates across the country:

•Funding based on budget size institutionalizes the status quo, permanently dividing cultural haves and have-nots.

•Traditional funding policies favoring large and long-established institutions ensure that organizations serving primarily white audiences receive disproportionately large percentages of public funds. To frame it in another way, the criteria whereby public funding decisions (and many private ones as well) are often made amounts to a kind of Grandfather Clause for culture. There is virtually no way for new organizations or ones serving the cultural expression of what have hitherto been minority groups to break into the game. This was not the first salvo in what will inevitably be a spreading controversy, but it was early and direct about the core issues. It is easy to see why San Francisco was on the leading edge. There is a significant amount of money involved, it is an extremely diverse city, and it is in California. Social movements often begin and spread from there. This is definitely a harbinger of things to come. In his conclusion Mr. Hessenius observed that the status quo will not hold. [I]n the near future the established cultural sector will no longer be able to claim a disproportionate allocation to itself—irrespective of whatever theory it puts forth to justify its claims. [Emphasis added]. . . Demand for equity by the multicultural communities will inevitably grow and put pressure on all funders—and a more equitable distribution of funds will likely mean less funding for the current recipients. . . . [The] . . . former majority cultural community . . . will find its preferred status over.

Unlike the gradual shifts that are resulting from the work of the invisible hands of economic and social changes, the transformation in public policy resulting from demographic shifts in the voting populace will gather momentum over the next generation (or two at most) and become an avalanche. For self-preservation if for no other reason, it is imperative that arts organizations make a serious commitment to engaging with their communities.

Arts organizations thatbelieve or act as if they believethat they cannot meaningfullyserve diverse communities willinevitably experience diminishedcommunity relevance and publicsupport. Many, if not most, willsuccumb to fiscal unsustainability. Those that do survive will exist as cultural relics of a bygone day. This is not because they have become less important to those for whom they do have great meaning; it is because that group will become an increasingly smaller percentage of the population at large.



The visible and invisible forces at work affecting arts organizations demand a substantial re-visioning of the central nature of the business. Concern and action for the welfare of communities must take precedence over service to art, whether that has previously been a conscious focus or not. The impending crisis (some would say existing crisis) will necessitate new ways of thinking about core product, relationship with those served, and the nature of what organizations attempt to do in their communities. Community-focused choices will position the industry to transform as many if not most libraries have done. Blindness to the need for change or insufficient transformation in response to that need will have the same result for arts institutions as that experienced by buggy whip makers, photographic film manufacturers, and the nation’s print media.