Big institutions keep arguing about why they need to exist and cost so much to operate but resist transparency. Artists, audiences and funders should start to demand transparency from institutions. NOW.
I have heard from multiple sources with knowledge of the L.A. theater world that Center Theater Group allocated $700K of its $1M Mellon Grant “to develop stage productions with L.A.-based artists that use new technologies and a non-textual approach to performance” for general operating expenses. If true, this is egregious but hardly unique. And frankly, what was the thinking behind giving CTG $1M for experimental theater since they have no track record of developing, producing or presenting this kind of work? They developed THREE shows. For $1M I could develop ten or more shows with almost no overhead. There are many very good arguments for de-linking curatorial practice and cultural production from bricks-and-mortar facilities. At the very least there should be different funding categories and criteria for small and mid-sized arts organizations commissioning and present contemporary work versus large institutions supporting what is essentially commercial work or the preservation and presentation of iconic work from the canon.
I briefly made this argument recently on Diane Ragsdale’s blog and got jumped on by a commenter. Eventually though we broke through the rhetoric towards a place of common interest and understanding. Here’s the thing – all of this conversation in the arts has become so loaded and vitriolic that it has become almost impossible to have a meaningful, substantive conversation about the arts ecology and how to create a truly sustainable, scalable, integrated arts system in the U.S.
Part of why Culturebot is doing the Citizen Critic Project is to get the idea out there that we need to have conversations and they cannot only be driven by institutional, top-down agendas. Audiences should be able to have open, truthful conversations with Artistic Directors and “curators” about why they pick the work they do – who they support, why they support them and how this serves the mission of their organization. Artists should be able to ask the same things and get substantive responses. Being a passive consumer of the performing arts is like being a codependent enabler of a substance abuser. And if artists accept passivity as the default position, then they are implicit in their own powerlessness.
When people claim their place at the table and start to really make themselves heard – while also being willing to listen – then we can make some progress. Its easy to have an opinion, harder to have a conversation. Audiences and artists are inextricably linked – and are frequently the same people. They are what makes an institution exist, institutions that are supposed to be mission-driven and responsive to their constituents. Audiences and artists have a right to demand transparency and the field at large needs to have a real conversation about what the performings arts in america should look like in the 21st Century and how that is to be achieved.
I’ll tell you one thing, we’re not going to get anywhere if $.70 on every philanthropic dollar is spent on gen op and not on making art.