Arts Engaged
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Way Forward

The Way Forward

New Understanding of Mission: pp. 45-46

Before jumping into the details of what a new approach to mission in the arts might look like based on the above, it is important to revisit the systemic pressures at work. As times and circumstances change, it is often necessary to reconsider core purposes and their fit with new realities.

To return to the buggy whip lesson, there is the case of the Studebaker corporation. Studebaker was a successful and reasonably innovative company making automobiles in the post-World War II era. It began as a wagon and buggy manufacturer and successfully made the transition to horseless carriages in the early twentieth century, demonstrating the capacity for adaptive change. They were not, however, able to make the transition to cars for the 1960’s and went out of business in that decade.

Thinking about this once-influential old company leads to consideration of whether some missions may simply not be good fits for changed times. It may be that changing demographics, economics, and social expectations have made the mid-twentieth-century approach to arts presentation unwieldy for today in a way that Studebaker was not able to navigate in the 1960’s. That arts model was authority-based, rooted in a society that appeared to be fairly homogeneous (although the appearance was a forced one), and dependent upon relatively low labor costs and significant support from a wealthy class committed to supporting a cultural expression they saw as their own.

Institutions need to adapt to significantly changed circumstances . . . if they can. It is likely time to “trade in the Studebaker” of artcentric missions and remake them in ways that better fit with the realities of the twenty-first century. Whether or not that’s possible is the big unknown for the arts industry’s future.

The Nature of Not-for-Profit Mission

Mission serves (or should serve) as the trump card arbiter in decision-making for the not-for-profit world. That mission, one that is socially valuable but that cannot “pass” the market test (where earned income exceeds expenses), is the reason 501(c)(3) corporations were established. Choices regarding programming and stewardship of resources (together these form the totality of not-for-profit work and management) must ultimately advance the mission of the organization.

David LaPiana, in his book The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution, defines mission as a description of the social good an organization seeks to create. This understanding of mission is designed as a conscious antidote to self-focused approaches to mission. Core purpose in the not-for-profit world is inherently complex because, Janus-like, it must face two directions: inward concerning the health of the organization (and furthering of mission); outward for the public good. Arts missions are further complicated by the need to include service to art in addition to the well being of the institution and the good of the community. Nevertheless, the mission must articulate the complex raison d’etre the organization serves.