Posts filed under ‘About Organized Collectives’

Stabilization Redefined – How a Change of Perspective Changes Everything

Arts groups with operating budgets below $150,000 – I refer to them as “organized collectives” – are the backbone of the arts field and certainly the most numerous.  This unruly, shape-shifting sub-sector is where artistic risks are taken with abandon and without concern for the marketplace.  It is where artists, with their ears to the cultural ground, create work that reflects – unfiltered and raw – the images, sounds, and movements of their society and its people.  These artistic impulses[1] bubble up to small, loyal audiences who attend to be challenged and inspired.  This is where artists are leaders and audiences are willing to follow.

 Now I know that while the best, most engaging work takes place in this artistic sub-sector, I also know that the worst work imaginable takes place here too and with much more frequency; partly because high risk goes hand in hand with miserable failure, partly because many artists never had creative chops in the first place.  Even so, identifying and helping sustain worthy artistic impulses at this level is critically important to the advancement of the entire artistic field.

 Without the underpinning of a strong emerging arts community, risk resistant institutions and arts corporations are left to re-circulate existing artistic product, a trend that is now apparent.  Revivals anyone?  Sure there are established playwrights, composers, literary and visual artists making new work but the emergence of new artistic paradigms happen at the ground and sometimes under-ground level.

 In addition, the importance of the organized collective field to audience development cannot be underestimated.  Experimental artistic impulses help audience members develop greater capacities for more new and challenging work.  Audience tastes and appetites develop over time and with sustained menus of diverse offerings.   Conversely, when audience expectations are not developed, a cycle of superficial supply and demand is created.  We see this throughout the arts field today, with audiences dwindling in general and those that remain demanding well known, entertainment-based, escapist artistic products.  And institutionalized Artistic Directors acquiesce because their Boards and Managing Directors demand it; full houses and increased earned income keep doors open.

 And so a strange nonprofit arts landscape has emerged, with performing, visual and literary arts groups striving to look more like their for-profit kin while hanging on by their fingernails to the nonprofit tenants that sparked their creation in the first place.   And, it seems to me, institutions and nonprofit organizations that are more concerned with financial bottom lines than with weaving new or preserving old cultural fabric, are assuaging their artistic guilt by creating adjunct activities to advance educational or social agendas, and cultural leaders and funders are encouraging it so contributed revenue streams continue to flow and we limp along dragging these strange and bloated  appendages behind us and wonder why the arts are struggling.

 Still, throughout this bleak landscape there are consistent sparks of creativity and even brilliance and they’re coming from organized collectives.  I understand that this sub-sector is completely mystifying; in fact in 2009 I thought I’d take a stab at figuring it all out by determining how many organized collectives there are in Los Angeles County. Easy enough, I’d just count them.   I got the ball rolling by creating an excel spread sheet and typing in the names of about 50 organized collectives that I could think of.  I emailed my list to a bunch of colleagues, asked them to add names of additional groups they knew and then pass it on to other people.  In eight weeks the list was up to 324 groups – and outdated.  The field was much larger and more in flux than I had originally imagined.

 Then in December 2010 I got another surprise.  Jocelyn Guihama, Managing Editor of the UCLA Center for Civil Society’s report entitled Hard Times: Impacts, Actions, Prospects stated that the number of Los Angeles County nonprofits (she was referring to all non-profits not just arts groups) shown in the current report had more than doubled over previous years to over 18,000.   In prior years, nonprofits in LA County consistently numbered around 9,000. The reason for this remarkable increase was that in 2010 researchers had access to information on small groups whose operating budgets were less than $25,000 – in other words, to those that weren’t filing tax returns.  This information was thrown out “just to clarify the current much larger nonprofit population number,” but to me it was a mind-numbing statistic.  First I was shocked that these small organizations doubled the size of the field and, secondly, that these tiny groups exist in all nonprofit sectors, not just the arts.  These numbers can no longer be ignored.

So how do we provide for a healthy, vibrant organized collective field? 

It is interesting that this large sub-sector has failed to draw sustained attention – in fact these groups have been all but ignored. Traditionally it would seem that nonprofit leaders and consultants would ‘attend to’ this underserved segment of the nonprofit community by taking measures to stabilize it. But because of the organized collective field’s large and unwieldy nature, traditional methods of stabilization would fail miserably. 

 “Stabilization” is a tricky term that I believe means different things to different people, so I thought I’d try to find a definitive definition for this article, but after some mildly exhaustive research I concluded that there is no clear definition.   What I do know is this; stabilization relates to longevity and that the process through which an organization attempts to stabilize itself involves activities like strategic planning including plans for the development of infrastructure, financial systems and cash reserves or – the holy grail of stability – endowment.  

 The other thing I do know for sure is that stabilization activities happen one group at a time. In other words, Group A tries to stabilize through a variety of methods often with the assistance of consultants and funders.  Once Group A is on its way, consultants and funders move on to Group B, then Group C, and so on.  I know that there are a number of interesting projects in New York, Minneapolis and other cities that offer shared office space and other resources and these projects are definitely exploring more innovative, field-wide approaches to stabilization. But even these organizations (that sometimes call themselves incubators’, implying that organizational growth is a goal) are interpreting stabilization as permanence, which I believe is counter to the natural order of things, at least, in the organized collective field. Organized Collective A may not be here tomorrow and that is an excellent outcome (Rocco Landesman’s would agree with that) or Organized Collective A may be around for a decade and that too is an excellent outcome (Theatre Communication’s Group would agree with that).  Me, I believe there are too many bad art products and that there can never be too many good ones.  If we could just get beyond our commitment to arts organizations and shift our focus to insuring consistent streams of excellent artistic product, our cultural ecosystem would re-balance itself and appropriate levels (all kinds of levels – economic, organizational, audience) would be reached and maintained.  I know this is true.  I know this because I have infinite faith in the transformational power of art and even more faith in the artist whose purpose in life is to create it.

(Organized Collective) Field Stabilization

Obviously I believe the place to start with this concept is with organized collectives.  Before field stabilization can happen it is important to accept the natural order of the field, it doesn’t matter how it shifts, morphs or changes – ignore it and suppress any desire to fix it.  (Yes, I am speaking to consultants and funders.)   By focusing on the “constant” in the field which is that it creates artistic work, we can discuss possibilities for its stabilization.

Because I have no interest in intellectual theorizing or arts commentary (I am way too  practical for that), I’m going to throw out what I believe are valid field stabilization methodologies.  These methodologies are based on my experience and instincts. 

 I like to think of the nonprofit arts sector as a junior high school dance: girls on one side of the gymnasium and boys on the other, each desperate to communicate and simultaneously terrified of rejection.  I think that a junior high school dance would benefit greatly from some sort of neutral filter that would occupy the space between the genders and assist with communication – cut through the adolescent angst and get to the point – which in this instance is dancing.

 Likewise, the nonprofit arts sector with its artists, collectives and organizations on one side and its funders on the other, would equally benefit from neutral filters.  The most logical and obvious neutral filter would be the Service Organization.  But unfortunately, and this I believe is one of the biggest issues in the nonprofit sector today, service organizations have sacrificed their neutrality for grant money; often seeing themselves as just another nonprofit vying for funding and catapulting whatever casual suggestion a foundation program officer might make into a full blown initiative in the hopes of increasing contributed revenue. 

 In addition, I believe that service providers are the least innovative nonprofit cohort.  They are often so busy scheduling the same fundraising, marketing, board development and financial workshops that they’ve offered for the past 40 years, or attending every conference, gathering, and meeting that comes along,  or spending too much time trying to stabilize their own organizations by cultivating donors that they have turned a deaf ear to their constituencies.  Or, more accurately, they have turned a deaf ear to one of their constituencies.  Service Organizations should equally serve arts groups and funder/leaders.  The primary role of a service provider is to, with neutrality, fill the distance between arts groups and the people who support them.  There are is a vast divide that separates arts groups from funders/leaders; they are separated not only by physical distance, but also by cultural, social, and economic distances.  It is almost impossible for funder/leaders to openly communicate (meaning alternately speaking and listening) with organized collectives and other arts groups even though, to some extent at least, they exist to support them.    I’ve been to many Meet the Funder sessions and have witnessed, first hand, the pathetic, solicitous behavior of arts groups and I have also seen the aloofness and sometimes condescending attitudes of funders.  Service providers should, well, help the dancing begin.

 It would be an interesting experiment if service providers committed to spending a portion of each day practicing their role as neutral information gatherers and distributors.  Information could be gathered through phone calls or in person meetings with constituents.  Equally interesting would be a mandate for service providers to post what they have discovered about their constituents on their website regularly, say monthly.  This information could be accessed by funder/leaders as desired or needed.  I believe that this simple exercise could help re-position service organizations – move them into the center of the gymnasium so to speak – and help them to see and practice what I believe is their primary role in nonprofit society.

STEP ONE: SEE THEM

Service organizations as neutral filters can begin the process of stabilizing the organized collective field, but not by themselves.  Because the organized collective field is so dense and fluid it would take a number of “scanners” continually observing and regularly funneling information to begin to get a sense of the amount and quality of work coming out of the field.  Bloggers are well suited to filling this role.  Service providers should research arts bloggers, find out who they are, where they are, what they write about, and why they write about it.  What artistic disciplines in what geographic area are being written about by qualified bloggers?  It is also important to determine what artistic disciplines are not being covered by the blogisphere or what geographic areas are not being covered, then set up blogs and qualified bloggers in those areas. Since there will probably be a certain amount of “engineering” necessary to get a fully blogged community, funding would be necessary.

 Qualified bloggers can be used to scan the organized collective field and to bring excellent artistic impulses to the attention of service providers. Bloggers are a good match for the organized collective field because they mirror its qualities – the blogisphere is also fluid, shape-shifting, and hard to quantify

 In keeping with the notion of information gathering and disseminating, these findings should also be regularly posted on the websites of service organizations, to be accessed by funders.

STEP TWO: VET THEM

One of the best things the nonprofit arts community has come up with is the peer panel.   I believe peer panels should be used much more frequently and that they could be very useful in helping to stabilize the organized collective field. Peer panels for field stabilization should be convened prior to any type of proposal writing – saving everyone a lot of time and money.

 Once a quantity of artistic impulses has been identified, neutral peer panels should be convened to discuss these artistic ideas and the collectives or artists who have them.   Panel discussions should be focused only on artistic quality and former production ability.  Excellent and viable impulses are then prioritized based on the above criteria.

STEP THREE: FUND THEM

A menu of excellent, vetted artistic impulses should be maintained on a website for foundations, and for that matter, individuals, to review and select for funding.

 The neutral scanning and filtering process discussed above shifts the focus away from the “organization” and puts it on the art, opening up possibilities of significant field-wide impact.  It would certainly shift a current line of thought from: “The reason to incorporate as a nonprofit organization is to get grants” to: “The way to get grants is to do excellent work.”  In addition to helping clarify the reasons to formally incorporate as a nonprofit, the process of neutral filtering and selection could lessen the number of groups that choose to become nonprofit organizations. In addition, to positive impacts on the organized collective field, the funding community is served, as are prospective audiences for whom the vetting process can also serve as a marketing tool.  

 


[1] Artistic impulses are organic, creative ideas that over time may (or may not) turn into artistic product.

34 comments February 15, 2011

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