There was a post by KCET columnist Corbett Barklie last fall that has had me thinking and wondering if there hasn’t been enough conversation about this topic.
In short, Barklie feels that arts organizations are sacrificing a focus on the intrinsic value of art in the pursuit of “social service” related activities. (my emphasis)
Arts groups exist to interpret the past, elucidate the present, and imagine the future. To borrow from Dewitt H. Parker’s The Principles of Aesthetics, “The intrinsic value of art must be unique, for it is the value of a unique activity — the free expression of experience in a form delightful and permanent, mediating communication.”
Nonprofit arts groups and the artists that run them are not reactionary entities. They are visionary entities.
You may be thinking, “But what about art groups who work in schools? Artists who work in hospitals?” In my opinion, those are arts service organizations — a rarely made but critical distinction. Arts service organizations exist to create and provide ancillary programs that help fulfill the missions of social service nonprofits such as schools, community centers, hospitals, etc…
Because no distinction has been made between arts groups and arts service organizations, the general arts and arts policy conversation (set by funders and designated leaders) is getting more and more muddled. And artists who exist in organizations that are only concerned with artistic excellence are beginning to feel marginalized.
Unless and until arts groups find their voice of disagreement and set aside fear of funding or political ramifications long enough to speak up for themselves, the conversation will continue to focus less and less on challenges facing arts groups that are committed solely to artistic excellence. Eventually these arts groups will fade from view completely.
My first thought was, but isn’t an educational component the way it is supposed to be? Most non-profit organizations are organized under the aegis of the education part of 501 (c) 3. In a time when there is less arts education in schools, isn’t it in our best long term interest to be providing educational services? But then again, by Barklie’s definition, I have been working for arts service organizations for the last 20 odd years so this is the normal for me.
So my question to my larger audience; is it as Barklie suggests (and most recently echoed by Diane Ragsdale), have funders and others lead the arts in this direction?
After all, at one time, art was presented for arts sake and there wasn’t any efforts to supplement the efforts of education and health care.
Is this an improvement or a dilution of our effort? It can be argued that pursuing education programs helps put arts organizations in touch with their and constituencies, helping to remove ivory tower mentality and acculturate the community.
But there is also the issue of diverting resources from the core competency and mission of the company. For profit businesses aren’t expected to do this. Many get immense tax breaks with no expectation that they serve the public good.
Is it the new normal that arts organizations must split their focus in order to maintain their existence? Is there an egotism inherent to believing you should be able to pursue the intrinsic value of art alone?
Shaping oneself as an arts service organization seems about the only option for garnering foundation funding and mollifying governmental entities who want something more than pursuit of artistic excellence as a justification for being.