Should we allow failing arts organizations to die?


Agree or disagree: we should let arts organizations that don’t adapt die.

Arts organizations are already dying. In Detroit, in New York City, in the UK. From operas to art galleries. This is no longer an urban versus rural debate. A nonprofit versus for profit debate. A “one discipline is dying” but “others are inexplicably thriving” debate.
And a follow up article that was also interesting . . .
Should we allow failing arts organizations to die?

Are we overdue to amend our default cultural policy?


Jumper


Posted: 24 Mar 2013 03:24 PM PDT
Philadelphia_Orchestra_at_American_premiere_of_Mahler's_8th_Symphony_(1916)
A few weeks back, in a guest-post on Engaging MattersRoberto Bedoya extended an invitation for others to join him in blogging about “how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural policies and cultural practices.” The proposition grew out of a series of posts (largely written by a bunch of white people, like me) focused specifically on the Irvine Foundation’s new participatory arts focus and, more generally, on (funding) diversity in the arts. I don’t feel qualified to address this topic and I’m positive I do not do it justice, but this is my sincere attempt to unpack some small part of this large issue. (You can read my previous posts on the the Irvine strategy here and here.)
Prologue on the white racial frame
A  few days ago, DC theater director Eissa Goetschius posted on her Facebook page:
Because I was curious, I just looked through the archives of the Shakespeare Theatre online to try to see how many directors of color have worked there over the years. Unless I missed some – which might be possible as this was only as scientific as googling the names I didn’t know – there have been two in all of their years of existence. Harold Scott directing OTHELLO and Rene Buch directing FUENTE OVEJUNA both as part of the ’90-’91 season. I REALLY HOPE I’M WRONG ABOUT THIS. SOMEONE TELL ME I’M WRONG. ‘Cause this means they haven’t had a person of color direct a show in over twenty years.
In a similar vein, about a week ago someone mentioned to me that it seemed like all the AJ bloggers were white. I don’t know all the AJ bloggers, so can’t confirm whether they are all white; and Elissa also gives the caveat that her search was possibly flawed. But if these figures are true, or even nearly true, they should strike us as remarkable. The question is, do they? On a day-to-day basis? Or do we take for granted that there is nothing all that strange about an absence of non-white directors and bloggers?
I am embarrassed that, for instance, I never noticed all the other AJ bloggers may be white.
When Roberto Bedoya issued his invitation/challenge, I felt I needed to read a bit about the “White Racial Frame” (a term credited to Joe Feagin). Here’s a paragraph I found to be useful (from Wikipedia):
The dominant white racial frame generally has several levels of abstraction. At the most general level, the racial frame views whites as mostly superior in culture and achievement and views people of color as generally of less social, economic, and political consequence than whites—as inferior to whites in the making and keeping of the nation. At the next level of framing, whites view an array of social institutions as normally white-controlled and as unremarkable in the fact that whites therein are unjustly enriched and disproportionately privileged. (Italics added.)***
There has been an ongoing discussion for decades now about the need and desire to diversify the arts sector; and notable progress has been made at individual organizations. But if statistics like those showing up in Clay Lord’s recent graphs, and Elissa Goetschius’s Facebook post are accurate and indicative of the field generally, it would seem that much of the striving is insincere … or the efforts are sincere but ineffective/inadequate … or that we’re striving in vain because we have misidentified the problem … or the goal … or … ???
Growing diversity and the emergence of the cultural hierarchy
In his widely read 1990  book, Highbrow Lowbrow, Lawrence Levine documents the transition in America from the 18th and early 19th centuries—a time when Shakespeare and opera and classical music were popular forms of entertainment enjoyed, re-purposed, and performed by, for, and at the will of the people alongside jugglers, animal tricks, and Yankee Doodle Dandy—to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when cultural hierarchies emerged as a tool for not only defining the “highbrow” arts and segregating them from the “lowbrow” arts (a/k/a “popular”, which became a derogatory term) but defining the “cultural elite” and segregating them from the rest of society. While this history is understood by many in the arts sector, I feel compelled to revisit it in light of the topic of this blog.
Describing the fragmentation and subsequent loss of a shared public culture in the late 19th century, Levine writes:
Theaters, opera houses, museums, auditoriums that had once housed mixed crowds of people experiencing an eclectic blend of their expressive culture were increasingly filtering their clientele and their programs so that less and less could one find audiences that cut across the social and economic spectrum enjoying an expressive culture which blended together mixed elements of what we would today call, high, low, and folk culture. (P. 208)
What was motivating this shift? Levine tells us:
It was not merely the audiences in the opera houses, theaters, symphonic halls, museums, and parks that they [they champions of culture] strove to transform; it was the entire society. They were convinced that maintaining and disseminating pure art, music, literature, and drama would create a force for moral order and help to halt the chaos threatening to envelop the nation. (P. 200)
The “chaos” to which Levine refers related (in large part) to the arrival of new immigrants that “made an already heterogeneous people look positively homogeneous.” Culture was increasingly portrayed as both a force with which to “transform the American people” and as an “oasis of refuge from and a barrier against them.”
Related to (and perhaps stemming from) these contradictory messages, the more people were told that “the arts” were a certain kind of fare for a certain kind of people, (that is, the more they were told that art was serious and sacred and required education and civilized behavior to be appreciated), the more they felt disqualified (and disinterested) to participate. Hence the emergence of two worlds—a cultural gulf, in the words of Levine—moving in opposite directions, each less accepting and understanding of the other over time.
Sound familiar?
While the mid-20th century brought challenges to the cultural hierarchy in America and renewed (and sometimes even sincere) efforts to integrate, diversify, and democratize the arts, Levine suggests that by the close of the 20th century not much progress had been made. In the epilogue to his book, he offers as evidence the key propositions in Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind. Describing views of Bloom (and others—Levine notes that Bloom is not a lone voice), he writes:
There is, finally, the same sense [as existed at the close of the 19th century] that culture is something created by the few for the few, threatened by the many, and imperiled by democracy; the conviction that culture cannot come from the young, the inexperienced, the untutored, the marginal; the belief that culture is finite and fixed, defined and measured, complex and difficult to access, recognizable only by those trained to recognized it, comprehensible only to those qualified to comprehend it. (P. 252)
The emergence of a cultural hierarchy in the early 20th century was a tool for social and ethnic exclusion and from its inception this segregation was led by wealthy individuals in society—at the time, white people, often men. The production of high art may have required patrons (productions costs rose while the patron base shrunk); but, more importantly, patrons demanded that the worlds of high and low art be separated.
I wish I could say that this does not still feel like “the natural state” for the arts in the US.
Disrupting the hierarchy
A few years back Clay Lord interviewed me about the work on intrinsic impacts that Theatre Bay Area and Alan Brown were doing (which, as I understand it, found that a production at a small community theater in the upper Midwest had greater intrinsic impact on its audiences than any production by a professional theater in the study). At one point I said that I hoped their work could “help reframe the conversation about social value and about what it means to be a leading organization.” I asked Clay:
Can we somehow use these new metrics to help us see the world [differently]? … Who’s at the top? Who’s at the bottom? Who’s considered leading? These are rankings that were established decades ago and it’s nearly impossible for even an incredibly worthy and high-performing entrant to displace one of the ‘pioneering’ incumbent organizations at the top of the pyramid. We need data that can help us see the field differently.
Well, it would appear the Irvine Foundation has collected it. Moreover, armed with data and having gained a new understanding of the culture sector in its region, Irvine appears to be attempting to invert (or flatten?) the cultural hierarchy. (That’s my read, at any rate.) Its new strategy is to fund organizations/programs that use hands-on participation to engage nontraditional audiences ahead of (or alongside?) organizations/programs designed primarily to provide passive entertainment for those already inclined to participate. (It’s hard to tell from what’s been written whether the new strategy is intended to complement or displace the old one.)
Understandably, this shift has been a bit of a jolt to the cultural sector of the region. As Nina Simon reported on her blog, the move has been characterized as being “ahead of the field” and has not been embraced by as many arts organizations as Irvine hoped or expected. Throughout its process Irvine has welcomed input and has responded graciously to questions and critiques.
The critical response to Irvine’s new program is telling. Irvine’s new strategy is backed by solid research. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s not a capricious move. This strategy is more thoughtfully conceived than many funding strategies to hit the arts sector in the past several years.
So, what’s the problem?
Irvine is disrupting the status quo.
The reason it’s difficult for even incredibly worthy newcomers to rise in our sector is because incumbents continue to be privileged by the system. Over and over again we see rewards (fame, status, economic advantage) accruing to a small number of already established leading organizations—what Robert Merton in 1968 coined the Matthew effect, a term taken from a verse in the bible:
For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.
Even when foundations attempt to support diversity somehow old, large, and largely white, professional institutions seem to benefit. When philanthropists give money to flagship resident theaters to do black plays instead of giving money to small black theaters to simply stay in business they may do so in a sincere attempt to encourage diversity in largely white theaters but what they legitimize is not “diversity” but rather “white theaters.”
And legitimacy cuts both ways. It’s hard to legitimize professionals without making amateurs illegitimate. It’s hard to legitimize large resident theaters without making every other kind of theater (e.g., ensemble theaters, ethnically specific theaters, community-based theaters, grassroots theaters) seem less legitimate.
Let’s stop talking about diversity and talk instead about equality … and policy
Of the many posts contributing to the Irvine/Diversity Funding discussion over the past month, I found myself returning to one by Linda Essig. Inspired by having heard urban theorist and former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa speak about his vision for more sustainable and egalitarian cities, Linda wrote a post asking whether it was time for us to stop talking about diversity in the arts and talk instead about equality.
She writes:
One of the basic concepts he [Peñalosa] espouses is that in an egalitarian society, because every bus rider is equal to every car driver, a bus with eighty passengers should be given eighty times the road space of car with a single driver.  Further, bicycles in motion should be given higher priority than cars that are parked. In Bogotá, this meant dedicated bus lanes; it meant bike lanes protected from automobile traffic by a median for parked cars; it meant bike lanes and sidewalks were paved before parking lanes.
Linda then extends the metaphor to a discussion of diversity in the arts asking, for instance, whether we are giving equal attention, space, and opportunity to non-Greco-Euro-Anglo art forms. Reframing this diversity discussion in terms of equality resonates for me.
Awhile back I wrote a post on the extraordinarily high quality of the school system in Finland, which differs from the US education system in several ways, one of which is its focus on social equity rather than excellence.  The policy of Finland: “Every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location.” Education is seen not as way to produce star performers but as a way to achieve social equity.
Likewise the revered Venezuelan social program, El Sistema, which puts instruments in the hands of hundreds of thousands of children. Both programs demonstrate that excellence and equity need not be at odds. Finland has a far superior education system to the US public education system. El Sistema created Dudamel and many other talented musicians.
At the end of the post on Finland’s education system, I asked:
In ten or twenty more years does the nonprofit arts and culture sector want to be the US education system: excellent art for rich people and mediocrity, lack of resources, and lack of opportunity for everyone else? Or do we want to be Finland’s: high quality artistic experiences (or ‘an expressive life’ as Bill Ivey might say) for every man, woman, and child?
We always say that the US has no cultural policy, but is this true? Or is our implicit policy the one that was set by elites at the turn of the last century and served their social goals at the time? Moreover, is it possible that our resistance to creating a national cultural policy has become a method for maintaining those goals?
Late-19th-century policies and practices transformed the US cultural sphere and resulted in the loss of a shared public culture and the disproportional privileging of certain art forms, institutions, and people over others.
Shall this history continue to distort the way we see (and fail to see) our world?
Or shall we make an amendment to our default culture policy?
Photo: Philadelphia Orchestra, 1916
*** (Leslie Houts Picca and Joe Feagin. 2007. Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage. New York, NY: Routledge)
Are we overdue to amend our default cultural policy?

The Dark Side II: Not In It For the Money


Jumper


Posted: 23 Sep 2012 10:50 PM PDT
A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about the recent turmoils at a few orchestras in the US which garnered several comments—all well worth reading and more interesting, in my opinion, than my original post—so I thought I’d continue the conversation. As one person wrote, the section of my post that seemed to provoke the most discussion was the statement: “I must be hopelessly naïve because I want to believe that if you go work for a nonprofit you’re not doing it for the money.”
More than a few said that this was a potentially damaging idea for us to continue to perpetuate in the nonprofit arts as it seems to translate into a justification to pay both artists and administrators far less than a living wage, an action that, some suggested, can result in lower quality performance in arts organizations. I couldn’t agree more with the sad state of wages at many nonprofit organizations. But the point about “in it for the money” was meant to be read in context of the three points that followed.
(2) if you go work for a nonprofit that the nonprofit leaders are also not doing it for the money; (3) that nonprofit leaders are going to do the best they can to fairly and equitably compensate everyone involved in the nonprofit and; (4) those same leaders are going to expend resources in line with the values of the institution (e.g., art, artists, community, education).
“Not being in it for the money” is not meant to suggest that people should be exploited. Indeed, the degree to which the vast majority of arts organizations in this country pay non-living wages to both administrators and artists led me to write a post for the McKnight Foundation awhile back asking whether we can rightly call ourselves a “professional” nonprofit sector or whether we are, rather, a sector made up primarily of “pro-am” organizations. The pro-am frame is not intended to be a negative one (though I imagine some may perceive it as such); I would suggest, however, that it has become a more accurate way of describing the majority of arts organizations.
The thing about pro-ams is that they are doing it for the love and not the money. And if they stop loving it (e.g., become demotivated), they aren’t willing to sacrifice the time (on the side of the day job they often have to hold) for the low or nonexistent compensation that comes with their art work.
Here’s the second point that I was attempting to make above: Asking people to do it for the love and not the money (i.e., take lower wages) only works if everyone is on the love boat. Arts administrators cannot pay themselves rather decently and expect everyone else to happily work for non-living wages.
In any event, returning to the orchestra post, my initial point was simply that money is not the primary motivator for pursuing nonprofit arts work; one assumes that if money were the motivation most people would pursue other work given that nonprofit arts work is often difficult to find and, once found, often involves long hours and low pay (a lot of love, not so much money).
The reason I characterized the recent disputes as “unseemly” (a word that was also questioned) is because, as I understand it, a few involved locking musicians out of orchestra venues or refusing to let musicians play concerts they were willing to play—behaviors that strike me as rather out-of-step with the idea that nonprofit professional performing arts organizations exist, in large part, to support talented artists and the creation of great art works and educational programs: it is the means by which they are understood to achieve their ends. What ends would those be? Let’s call it “contributing to a civil society”–an idea Russell Willis Taylor spoke eloquently about in a recent keynote address.
We presume that nonprofit performing arts organizations exist in large part for the purpose of supporting artists, who (as a colleague in the theater said at a recent meeting) are the workers that make the artistic goods and services around which our institutions are centered. They justify the nonprofit administrators’ salaries; not the other way around. At the formation of the nonprofit arts sector in the early-to-mid twentieth century, many nonprofit organizations were granted nonprofit status first and foremost on the basis of doing just that—providing better wages to artists so that they would not have to hold other jobs, so they would be available for rehearsals and performances, and so that the quality of the performances would improve.
Likewise, a cornerstone of the case for nonprofit status for theaters in the 60s and support from the Ford Foundation was the support of acting companies. To be clear, this wasn’t charity. A case was made that the quality of theatrical performances would only improve if actors could devote more time to their craft and rehearsals and didn’t have to also work other jobs on the side; and also, that no actor in his or her right mind would relocate from New York to Texas without some financial incentive and the promise of being able to play multiple roles within a given season. A key feature that was intended to distinguish the “professional nonprofit” theater or orchestra from the “community” theater or orchestra was the quality of its talent and productions or concerts—quality that was achieved through deeper investments in artists.
So here we are decades later and most theater companies that had acting companies (and not all of them did) have lost them. And now, as I watch the proposals for contracts based on fewer weeks of employment and significantly lower salaries in some professional orchestras I wonder if some orchestras are pursuing a path of nonprofit professional resident theaters (perhaps to a lesser degree, but nonetheless in spirit): outsource as much of the “talent” as possible, but keep the administrators.
I share the concern of Margot Knight who remarked:
What I DON’T see, often enough, is the willingness for pain to shared among EVERYONE that works for the organization in a proportional way. (e.g. EVERYONE takes two weeks unpaid leave which equates to a one-time savings of 4%). Depending on the job and the responsibilities, the time can be taken throughout a year or all at once. And that should be coupled with EVERYONE having a role to play in fund development. There must be some models that are collaborative, that are working, to ease this discord.
We have systematically made the case for administrative growth (and the sustaining of the infrastructure that was built up) over the years—growth that has had the unintended effect of increasing pressure on the artistic product to bring in higher revenues. We now have artists supporting arts institutions. It’s the opposite of the goal at the outset.
I’d like to suggest that one thing that might distinguish a “professional” nonprofit arts organization from an “amateur” arts organization would be that it pays its artists well enough that they can take money off the table (in the words of Daniel Pink, in a great RSA animate video on money and incentives) and invest sufficient time to achieve a level of mastery in what they do. What seems to be at issue in many of the recent disputes is that not only  are wages being reduced to the point where it is making money an issue (i.e., people are sincerely worried about being able to pay rent, support children, etc.), but contracts are being shorted to the point where they are sincerely concerned about the quality of their work.
As Margot Knight remarked, the musicians feel backed into a corner.
Many Americans have, of course, had to accept much lower wages in recent years (and many have lost their jobs entirely). Those working in the arts cannot expect to be immune from this reality. As Andy Buelow suggested, no one is entitled to wages in perpetuity and our wages are, to a great degree, based on our value to society. There was a time when society valued professional journalists and that seems to be waning. There was a time when being a customer service representative, or an accountant in the US, might give one steady employment—now one’s job is likely to be outsourced to India.
Is it troubling that society places less value on orchestras and theater companies and dance companies than it once did?
Deeply.
Do we have to face this reality and respond to it?
Yes.
But in line with Margot’s sentiments, if orchestras have reached the point where they need to dramatically reduce wages and weeks for the band I too would feel better if I saw administrations being radically restructured as well. Indeed, I’d go one further and say that BEFORE we start cutting wages to artists we should perhaps pursue all possible ways to restructure the administration of the organization.
How?
Well, some are evidently trying outsourcing large parts of the administration. I have more confidence in this approach than trimming positions across the organization and trying to make do with a dangerously bare bones staff. But there could be another way forward. In one of his comments musician Henry Peyrebrune quoted a well known report by Richard Hackman on the low level of job satisfaction of many orchestra musicians:
It is true that the most powerful influence on orchestra players’ professional satisfaction is the degree to which their organizations provide them opportunities for meaningful involvement in orchestral affairs. (We also found that professional dissatisfaction was highest in orchestras where the board of directors dominated the decision making process, the other side of the same coin.)
Artistic advisory committees are a case in point. Many orchestras have them, but few orchestras take them seriously. Musicians on the advisory committee may (or may not) meet regularly, but rarely do their views count in developing the artistic direction of the orchestra, in choosing guest conductors or soloists for future seasons, or in deciding about tours or repertoire. […] Players are professional musicians who have much more to give to their orchestras than usually is sought from them—and involvement about artistic matters is one arena in which those potential contributions can be harvested. But it has to be real involvement. Pseudo-participation usually is worse than no participation at all.
Notably, in the same video mentioned above, Pink suggests that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are what contribute to job satisfaction. Does the musician that does nothing but play music feel connected to the purpose of the organization (contributing to civil society through the arts)? Does the administrator that does nothing but execute a marketing or individual donor plan week-in and week-out?
With growth and professionalization of the nonprofit arts sector came specialization—a degree of which, by all accounts, seems to have enabled quality of performances to improve (perhaps even to a degree that many people cannot now fully appreciate). But specialization comes with tradeoffs. And it is sometimes hard to reconcile the myopia that comes with specialization with the full-on, whole-hearted, multiple-skill investments that we often expect (and may increasingly depend upon) from employees of nonprofit arts organizations.
Is it completely crazy to think that one way forward is a degree of generalization (or de-specialization): for musicians to take a more active role in running their institutions? If there is only enough “concert” work to support a 20-week contract, could musicians be paid the remaining weeks of the year to do (not only) education and outreach activities but also to help run the joint (as I hinted at last week when I asked what would happen if all the administrators walked out the door and left the musicians in the building)?
Moreover, is it possible that these entrepreneurial musicians would be more fulfilled in their work than the majority of musicians or admininstrators (working in nonprofit arts organizations) are at the moment?
And that the band would still play excellent concerts?
Is this a better option than shuttering our orchestras when they finally collapse under the weight of their asset intensity ratios?
I’d be curious to hear from those that have been doing this for years, and also those graduating from music or arts admin programs these days.
The Dark Side II: Not In It For the Money

The dark side of nonprofit-land


Jumper


Posted: 09 Sep 2012 02:07 PM PDT
Unseemly.
This is the word that keeps coming to mind when I think about the recent spate of lockouts, strikes and general discord at US orchestras. The underbelly of orchestras that has been shown in too many of these cases completely undermines my belief that nonprofit organizations are filled with good people trying to do the right thing. Moreover, I worry that the public airing of these disputes has left the American public with the inaccurate impression that all orchestras are filled with greedy bastards both on stage and in the offices. I don’t know when it happened but it feels to me like we’re not in nonprofit-land anymore. Or we’ve gone to the dark side of nonprofit-land. Either way, it’s bad news. We’ve ended up somewhere that feels cold and soul-less.
To be honest, it’s hard for me to even reconcile the need for and validity of unions and hardball negotiations with a nonprofit ethic. I must be hopelessly naïve because I want to believe that (1) if you go work for a nonprofit you’re not doing it for the money; and (2) if you go work for a nonprofit that the nonprofit leaders are also not doing it for the money; and (3) that nonprofit leaders are going to do the best they can to fairly and equitably compensate everyone involved in the nonprofit and; (4) those same leaders are going to expend resources in line with the values of the institution (e.g., art, artists, community, education).
Clearly this is easier said than done.
These protracted negotiations and strikes always seem to raise the question, “What’s the value of the orchestra?” But one might just as easily ask, “What’s the value of the administration?” Perhaps if the administrators walked out the door and left the musicians to figure out how to raise money and market performances and keep the lights on we could better understand how much of the current administrative heft is still needed to keep the public, the money, and the electricity pouring into the joint.
Maybe it does take a village of administrators to run an orchestra in 2012. But maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it takes seven really entrepreneurial producers, a more engaged band of musicians, a slew of volunteers, and some really smart public/private partnerships?
(It’s an idea.)
Likewise, we might ask, “What’s the value of the orchestra hall?” “What’s the value of a year-round concert series?” “What’s the value of liveness?” What’s the value of musicians who only play music?” “What’s the value of a professional orchestra compared to a community orchestra?”
I could list 100 other questions aimed at questioning all of the “taken-for-granteds” in orchestras—all the means that we have come to treat as ends, many of which contribute to the economic difficulties facing orchestras.
I’d feel better if orchestras that have clawed their way back to the beach after drowning in deficits and being caught in the riptide of contract negotiations and strikes were sitting together on the sand, facing the setting sun, wrestling with all of these questions, and trying to find new means to the common end of serving society through the arts. But can people who treat each other with such contempt ever hope to sit together and solve problems?
How did we end up on the dark side of nonprofit-land? And how do we get out of this dehumanized place?
The dark side of nonprofit-land

Nonprofit Arts Orgs and the Boards That Love Them


Nonprofit Arts Orgs and the Boards That Love Them
Posted: 06 Aug 2012 11:51 PM PDT
 
Last week I read an article by Pablo Eisenberg in the Chronicle of Philanthropy in which he argues that greater oversight of nonprofits is needed because nonprofit boards can no longer be trusted to make sure the institutions they govern are serving the public interest, which they are legally obliged to serve. Eisenberg mentions hospitals and universities in particular, citing the recent debacles at University of Virginia and Penn State as evidence for why we can no longer put our faith in boards. However, I think it’s fair to say that the arts sector is not immune to “poor performance, corruption, and a lack of public accountability.”
Let me ask you: Do these seem to be reasonable questions to be asked of a nonprofit arts organization?
Why was the board unaware that the organization had been, for years, overspending? Who made the decision to spend funds that were restricted and on what were they spent? What is motivating what appears to be a radical shift in the programmatic strategy for the theater? How do you reconcile your mandate to be accessible with the fact that you are charging over $100 per ticket for this show? Why did you cancel the new play scheduled for this season and replace  it with a revival? Can you explain why, over the past five years, administrative salaries and costs have grown at a faster rate than artistic salaries and costs? Do you think audiences may be declining because the quality of the programming has declined? Why did the board approve significant raises for the executive and artistic director even though the last three seasons have ended with deficits? Why are no female writers, or writers of color, featured in the upcoming season? Is it true that the work of a political artist was censored by your chief curator?
I think these are reasonable questions–difficult and complex to answer as they may be.
And yet, nonprofits often seem unable or unwilling to answer such questions directly, or they bristle at the idea that someone (a funder, a journalist, a new board member) would ask them in the first place. But one could argue that nonprofits shouldn’t need to be asked such questions at all–that they should be more transparent in the first place about the decisions they take, presumably in the public interest.
Which raises more questions: How seriously do nonprofit arts groups take their ‘public interest’ mandate? Do board members actually see themselves as representatives of the community’s interests (which they are)? Or rather do they consider themselves to be primarily advocates for the needs and goals of the institution?
Here’s Eisenberg on why boards cannot be trusted to look out for the public interest:
The reasons we can’t trust boards are most obvious at colleges and hospitals, which account for a large share of the assets of nonprofit institutions.
Most trustees at public universities and nonprofit hospitals are essentially political appointees, named by governors and state officials because of their political connections, as financial supporters, party members, or close allies to universities and the medical profession. The large majority are not experts in either health or education. Nor are they a cross section of their communities. They are among the wealthiest people in America, and they largely serve as lobbyists to attract more government aid to their institutions.
And at most colleges, public or private, it’s rare for boards to include students, professors, or members of the public in their boards, although some hospital boards include patients, nurses, and people who represent the community.
Also missing from the boards of most national and regional, and even community, groups are the blue-collar workers, teachers, small-business owners or grass-roots community leaders. It may be a cliché to say that we have become much more of a class society, but increasingly the nonprofit boards reflect that truth, and with it the problems of democratic representation and public accountability.
Instead, most trustees of large nonprofits mirror corporate America.
With the exception of the phrase about “political appointees” much of the same could be said of the boards of the largest arts organizations in the US.
Reflecting on Eisenberg’s article, I wonder:
§ Is  this failure of nonprofits to look out for the public interest a new phenomenon? Or is it possible that boards and executives have always used nonprofits to achieve institutional rather than public aims? Put another way, is the problem with the nonprofit form itself (and the fact that it lends itself to manipulation) or with board members who have become, perhaps, more likely (for whatever reason) to use it to misguided ends? Or both, perhaps?
§ If a nonprofit fails to act in the public interest, what can the public reasonably do in response? If a community decided that a nonprofit was not well run what would its options be? A leveraged buy-out would clearly not be possible but is there an equivalent for nonprofits? And if not, why not, and do we need such a process?
Eisenberg’s suggestions for improving nonprofit oversight include: requiring all nonprofits with budgets over $5 million to appoint an inspector general or hire an ethics or compliance officer; appoint an independent ombudsman to investigate complaints by whistle-blowers; or appoint an oversight committee of citizens to communicate with boards about possible infractions.
The arc of the first five comments (each made by a different person) posted by readers in response to Eisenberg’s article made me chuckle:
“I’d like to be one of those new Ethics Officers. I would imagine that to be a $2m/year job, with the primary role being to not object to the Board’s or my own salaries.”
“No more regulators or regulations or layers of accountability.”
“Regulation on top of regulation is useless. As soon as one of Eisenberg’s ethics officers cheats or steals, we’ll need ethics officer overseers. Yes, some boards will be inept — so are some professors, and writers, and editors. Over-regulation solves nothing.”
Sure…let’s pile bureaucracy on top of regulation on top of oversight on top of more bureaucracy. And while we’re at it, make sure we never, ever trust the private sector to govern itself. Typical academic clap-trap! I guess Eisenberg proves that when your only tool is a hammer (bureaucracy), then every problem looks like a nail. We already have more-than-sufficient regulation. Let’s start by simply enforcing the existing rules. The last thing we need is more government inserting itself into the situation.
“I can’t help but think that the previous comments are not coming from people who provide the funds for the charities.”
Reading through the comments posted in response to his article, I noted that many people were skeptical of Eisenberg’s suggestions. Nonprofits are often offended or annoyed by the suggestion that greater oversight is needed, and assert that they are capable of self monitoring. But Eisenberg asserts that boards have proven over and over again that they are not.
In last week’s post I shared the Marshall W. Meyer and Lynne G. Zucker theory of permanently failing organizations: organizations that persist despite the fact that they are not achieving their goals. Arguably, permanently failing nonprofit organizations do not serve the public interest. But as the responses to Rocco Landesman’s 2011 supply/demand salvo showed, arts organizations seem to find it unacceptable that the NEA or the IRS or state arts agencies or any outside entity, really, would weigh in and mandate the closure of some organizations.
Thus, it seems that if permanently failing organizations are going to be encouraged to either take the necessary risks to become high performing, or acknowledge defeat and close their doors, board members are the ones that need to make that demand–on behalf of the public interest. Board members are in the driver’s seat when it comes to approving organizational plans, budgets, and (often) finding resources that allow an organization to persist.
Of course, if you were appointed to a board exclusively because of your ability to give or get money, or if you mistakenly believe your job is to keep the institution alive rather than on mission, or if you are reluctant to admit defeat “on your watch” … well, it’s easy to see why nonprofit board members may be prone to tolerate a permanently failing existence.
I’m not sure how to address the failure of nonprofit boards to, at times, do their jobs (and for the record I do not think all boards are failing in their responsibilities to the public); but it would seem that if the public is, indeed, losing trust in the ability of boards to act in their interest then we might very well expect increased calls for greater oversight to be imposed–for the ultimate good of the nonprofit and the public it serves.

Nonprofits and those who love them, eh?

Nonprofit Arts Orgs and the Boards That Love Them