Really, do 'some art institutions deserve to fail'?


It isn't really all that bad, is it? - SHUTTERSTOCK
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  • It isn't really all that bad, is it?
OK, I didn’t say it, but Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal did earlier this month when he wrote, basically, that some arts organizations have outlived their usefulness. The critic is pretty well-regarded (he’s also a biographer, librettist, playwright and blogger), but when anyone throws around un-minced words like this in a national publication, people listen.

They don’t always agree, of course, and the social media-verse is definitely rife with outraged readers either slamming the article, or bemoaning it as another sad-sack treatise on the decline of culture in our era.

What I found more interesting, however, where Teachout’s thoughts on the role of a CEO in a cultural organization. He writes:

According to management guru Peter Drucker, hiring an effective successor to a departing CEO is "the ultimate test of any top management and the ultimate test of any institution." When it comes to arts organizations, I'd say that the ultimate test is knowing when an institution is suffering from a case of creative and administrative sclerosis that is about to become terminal, then doing something about it, as the Metropolitan Opera is endeavoring to do. In order to survive, such institutions will have to constantly re-examine their missions and adapt to the brutal challenges of American culture in the 21st century.

There are two regional institutions at the CEO crossroads currently: the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center in Pueblo.

Sam Gappmayer
 announced his departure from the FAC last week to head up the Peoria Riverfront Museum in Peoria, Ill. And Sangre — well, it’s been looking for a leader for years. (Since 2010 actually. Two were hired and soon left, for reasons not really flattering but not clear, either; and most recently, a candidate Sangre accepted declined their offer.) So the search continues.

Both Sangre and the FAC face the usual assortment of horrors Teachout outlines, like declining audiences, the crappy economy that just won’t quit, and the new generation of “old people”: the Baby Boomers, who are more interested in rock music than, say, dance or opera. He also points out another crippling issue with larger organizations: bureaucracy.

It's in the nature of aging bureaucracies — and nothing is more bureaucratic than a solidly established arts organization — to place self-perpetuation at the top of their to-do lists. Not surprisingly, such bureaucracies tend not to be very good at thinking of new ways to do what they're already doing, much less of brand-new things to do.

So, by way of self-preservation, these places are hobbling themselves with their own self-importance and stale-ass ideas? Well, not everyone if you ask me. It really glosses over a lot of laborious, day-to-day work that museums do as they try to balance their mission for supplying the public with art and culture while also working within what is often a tight budget.

Then there’s the problem museums face no matter what the circumstances, and that is whether to go with the big-name, high-price blockbuster more-or-less guaranteed to draw the crowds, both dedicated and new, or develop something less well-known and edgier, which may be a masterful show, but fail to gain visitors. Last year’s Son of Pop Floyd Tunson retrospective at the FAC was a successful example of the latter.

The same can be said for theater or music. The FAC theater company regularly mixes the crowd-pleasers with the headier stuff (A Christmas Story and Assassins, to borrow from past seasons) to try and compromise, but it doesn't always work, ticket-sales-wise. It’s the same old story of the big Hollywood stinkers raking in tons of dough while the indie darlings fade away.

Teachout does bring up valid points, and his argument really makes you think, so that alone is a job well done. But I think Ben Cameron of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation said it better when he spoke in Colorado Springs in January:

We are in a fundamental redefinition of culture and communication—a redefinition that is shaking the newspaper industry, the book publishing industry, and in what may be a taste of things to come has left the music
distribution industry in disarray.

[To succeed] it will require us to place the audience at the center of our missions. The nonprofit movement was not founded for artists. It was founded for artists yes and the art form yes and the audience—and we do ourselves a profound disservice any time we focus exclusively on one to the neglect of the other two. There is an enormous difference between “To exhibit great painting” and “To connect audiences to great paintings”—a difference that, if taken seriously, will affect every budget, every staffing decision, every program in an organization.

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