Org Ecology

I’m creeped-out by the art as an industry viewpoint of Randy Cohen and the Houston Arts Alliance (see "Happy happy happy new year!" in the December 31 newswire). Just take a look at this video:

Arts marketing is especially grotesque because it’s mixed up with the perennial fight of the arts to seem worthwhile in materialist, business-oriented American culture. To make things clearer, let’s place this whole argument into a field whose benefits are undisputed. Medical research is a good parallel. There’s a hell of a lot of money in it, but the minute people begin making organizational decisions based on the economics rather than the science, the science suffers. Obvious. (doctors chime in here, please) But when arts orgs go astray, the fuzzy yardstick used to measure artistic merit makes it harder to see.

I’m not saying that artists and nonprofits should be ivory-tower idealists. The struggle for money to fund even the worthiest endeavors necessarily entails politics, strategy, and salesmanship. But it’s important to keep in mind that the salesmanship isn’t the point (of course, it can be the point, but that’s only one specific kind of art). The problem is that, imperceptibly, every arts organization that continues to be successful finds itself, out of necessity, paying more attention to its institutional survival than to its programming. It seems inevitable: a Darwinian process in which arts orgs that don’t do what’s necessary to survive, disappear, while orgs that adapt, flourish. Nonprofit organizations are like sharks- they’ve got to keep swimming or they’ll die, and they just keep on growing.

If organizations had finite lifespans, everything would be OK. Old, tired orgs could lay down and die with dignity, celebrated for their accomplishments, freeing up resources for newer, more vital ones that replace them.

Here are the ages (in org years, like dog years) of some Texas nonprofits I know:

Lawndale 57, is looking much better than last year. With a face lift and a triple bypass surgery, it may be good for  a few more decades.

Aurora Picture Show turns 28 this year. All grown up, it’s making some hard career choices. It likes where it is, but it’s thinking of moving to get a better job.

The CAM, 60,  is still hard at work. It’s had to get up and face another day, but it’s still got a few years to go before it can retire on full pay.

The Art Car Museum, now in its early forties, still doesn’t know what to do with itself. Spoiled early on, it’s friends love it for itself, even if it’s teachers sigh at it’s wasted potential. 

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Austin’s ok mountain, 9, is having a ball in third grade. The world is full of interesting possibilities, and the homework isn’t too bad yet. It’s making friends and is getting nearly all S’s on it’s report card. A great kid, and a pleasure to work with.

Commerce Street Arts Warehouse, 25, was killed in a car crash while driving under the influence.

also by Bill Davenport

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One response to “Org Ecology”

  1. Bad metaphor, Bill. Commerce Street was not killed. It’s car was stolen. We left the keys in it and the windows rolled down, but we won’t make that mistake again.

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