Why We Do This

7/28/2014 Monday 9:09 am

The following is the last chapter of my book, Creativity To Community:

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Why do we go through all of this?  Why should we, as artists and art lovers, go through the mundane steps of incorporation and nonprofit petitions, and drum up community support one coffee at a time year after year?  Why take the careful steps required to set up organizational structures and office practices, and shoulder the sometimes-sticky politics of growing organizations in our communities?  Why do this for modest salaries, if any, and no potential, thanks to the nonprofit structure, for business ownership or substantial personal gain?

We go through all of this because nonprofit arts organizations are the vehicles through which the arts thrive in America.  Nonprofit arts organizations bring patrons and audience members to the arts year after year, and pay artists to make the art that we love so much and that our society so desperately needs.  Said another way, without nonprofit arts organizations in America, there would be no museums, and no symphonies, operas, ballets or the myriad arts groups that give voice to thousands of worthy and miraculous artists who serve our diverse communities in countless ways.

The arts are part of a complex ecological system.  On one side of the system there are artists and on the other there are consumers in the form of audience members, students and more.  There is a vast network of schools, universities and conservatories, along with apprenticeship programs and master craftspeople, all of whom help train and develop an ever-growing population of artists.  This growing population of artists makes an ever-increasing quantity of art, in various forms, that is in need of being consumed, appreciated, purchased and enjoyed.

Late during the evenings of most arts festivals, I am struck by how many conversations turn to discussions of the need for more employment.  Great artists from around the world are looking for work, they are looking to teach, or looking to perform.  European artists speak longingly about the perceived superior artistic market in the United States, and American artists speak longingly about how in Europe everyone supposedly loves the arts, and how the arts are, theoretically, supported lavishly.  Students of the arts who are approaching graduation appear petrified as they end a period of time in their lives where they have been taught almost exclusively about artistic aesthetics and the highest-levels of technical achievement, but have not been taught one ounce about what they can do with those skills to make a living in a world where most people do not understand, appreciate, or pay for the finer points of great artistry.

These late-night discussions point to the great crisis in the arts world – the elephant in the room.  They point to the enormous break in our ecological chain.  The break that results in so many young artists turning to alternative careers after art school in order to make ends meet while, at the same time, so many would-be art consumers in our country do not have adequate opportunities to nurture their artistic sense because of their financial or social situation, or a simple lack of opportunity in their geographic location.  We have advanced systems in academia for churning out highly trained artists, and we have many millions of potential consumers out there who would benefit from exposure to the talents that these wonderful artists possess.  We lack, however, the step that connects the two together.  In a sense we have tons of supply in our fine artists, and we have the capacity for tons of demand in our population at large, but the sales, marketing and delivery systems that bring one to the other are vastly insufficient!

That, in short, is where nonprofit arts organizations come in.  Successful nonprofit arts organizations in America connect deeply with our communities, and through the strong roots they establish, they draw together the strength and support necessary to provide for the artists that enhance our lives.  Money is a huge part of the equation, to be sure, but the connection that exists is so much greater than money.  The community roots that principled nonprofits nurture, help them to be in constant dialogue with the community, and help their leaders to understand what each community really needs.  At the same time the expert communication generated by well-run nonprofit arts organizations helps to promote artists in ways that are meaningful to the community.

It is this connection that we need to build.  Those of us who are artists, or who have loved ones who are artists, recognize this need because we want so badly to provide opportunities for artists to survive.  We wish for an environment where great artists can support themselves making the art they are driven to make, while receiving the respect and appreciation their efforts deserve.  Those of us with community perspective recognize this need because we know children who have stayed in school because of an art class, outsiders who have found community in the arts, or soft-spoken individuals who have found their voices on the stage.  We know the power of community coming together – leaving their homes, computers, and televisions – to meet each other in person and appreciate great cultural expression as a community.

For these reasons we are driven to develop nonprofit arts organizations.  We pour our energy, and passion, and time, and personal resources, into this endeavor because we envision communities that embrace the arts, communities that benefit from the arts, and communities where artists receive the support they need to thrive.