Saturday, February 6, 2010

Too Big to Fail?

Museum of Modern Art, New York, interior

I have been thinking recently about the increasing peril faced by non-profits in this economic downturn. My concern has come from two directions. The most obvious wind of fear comes from the drying-up of donor funds lost in the recent financial collapse. No need to explain further.

The other area of concern has been the proliferation of non-profits over the past decade and the sense that we have outgrown the capacity for the community to support all of us.

This morning I read James Undercofler's post about non-profit structure itself being responsible for the stifling of nimble, responsive artistic production. This analysis certainly describes the past 40 years of non-profit arts organizations who, having started up as artist-run collectives in the 1970s, say, hit their mid-teens and assume that it's time to "grow up." So the organization expands its board, professionalizes its staff to meet financial and reporting requirements, and shortly lose their original edge. Have some organizations become "Too Big to Fail"?

I have written before about the damage caused when you graft a for-profit business system onto a non-profit--it can distort the original vision of the non-profit.

This image is from a panel discussion I attended last week at the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis. The topic--''The City as Studio"--points to how artists increasingly see a need to engage with a more dynamic, organic, open-ended structure such as "city" in order to make their work, by-passing non-profits for their often cumbersome processes and lack of resources.

By becoming "Too Big to Fail", do we disappoint the primary consumers of our work--artists and audiences?

Non-profits need to resist the for-profit "bigger-is-better" model, the failed 80s business model of endlessly expanding markets in order to preserve their core function. We of course need big encyclopedia museums--but what does "encyclopedic" mean in this global economy? Ultimately, this financial crisis is both forcing us, and allowing us, to be more precise and experimental with what non-profits do in order to inspire artists and their audiences.

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree with you. Artist are the source, and the audience, for alternative exhibition spaces. Too bad it can't be for free, since that is actually the nature of the exchange. Those with money want another type of institution based on success not expression.