How Did We Get Into This Mess?

I got an email from Drew McManus today regarding some of my past posts (I knew there had to be someone out there reading this! Thank god I was complimentary of him.) He had quite a few observations about the subjects of my entries. Perhaps I will integrate some of them in future postings.

One of the things he mentioned was an article he did for Partial Observer which further supplements the (on going) discussion I noted yesterday about the importance of providing interesting information in press kits and releases.

He also made mention of the similarities between breakdown of position duties in my entry, Executives Without Direction, and the American Symphony Orchestra League. Thinking again about how much of an executive director’s focus is on fundraising these days reminded me of a paper I read on the history of arts funding in the US.

I went back and read the article, “Leverage Lost
The Nonprofit Arts in the Post-Ford Era”
by John Kreidler, which appeared in In Motion magazine. (Note: There is a mistake in the link to the 3rd section that takes you back to the first section of the article. The correct link is In rereading the article, a number of interesting points caught my eye.

First, I was reminded that at one time in US theatre history the “executive director” of a proprietary theatre company didn’t have much time to do strategic planning at all because they were acting, doing publicity, backstage work and financial management. Things have certainly improved since then, but obviously, I think there is still a bit to go.

The education aspect also caught my eye. In the article it says of the time between the Industrial Revolution and 1957:

“The rise of public education during the industrial revolution surely contributed much to the development of both artistic labor and arts consumerism during that time.

The studies that link education to arts participation usually use grade levels as the measure of educational attainment. Thus, college graduates are far more likely to attend museums or become poets than high school dropouts. It is quite likely, however, that nonformal educational attainment also correlates closely with arts participation. For example, children who are encouraged to sing in the home are probably more inclined to sing or attend choral concerts as adults . In the 19th century, amateur and church-based choral ensembles flourished, and it is likely that this movement helped to stimulate public demand for the services of professional orchestras that were beginning to form in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.”

It was both amusing and of some concern to me to think that TV, movies and other technologies might indeed be to blame for some of the ills of the world (as is so often claimed) and for the possible degradation of arts appreciation because they supplanted the piano as the center of family life.

The article also talks about how industry created the middle class, provided them increased wealth and leisure time and increased the population of cities. This population shift to cities along with increased wealth and leisure time created environments for creative expression to thrive in many metropolitan areas.

The author illustrates the shift from proprietary ownership of arts companies to formations of arts organizations with boards of directors and professional managers with an orchestra example.

“The experience of American symphony orchestras provides one illustration of the evolution of arts organizations during the pre-Ford era. By the mid 19th century, musical literacy was relatively high among Americans. Children learned to sing and play instruments at an early age, and performance within families was a popular form of entertainment. Amateur choruses began to form, and some of these hired musicians for accompaniment. The musicians, in turn, formed themselves into orchestras, hired conductors and began to produce public concerts as proprietary organizations independent of the choral societies. Many orchestras continued to operate in this manner until the end of the 19th and early 20th century when a transition gradually was made to nonprofit organizations as the primary organizational model. In the nonprofit model, the orchestra came under the control of a lay board of directors, usually prominent citizens, which employed a professional conductor and manager. The conductors were given responsibility for hiring the musicians in the nonprofit orchestras, whereas the musicians had often controlled the proprietary orchestras in the early pre-Ford era. Whether operating as proprietary or nonprofit organizations, however, all orchestras remained heavily dependent on ticket sales in the marketplace for much of their income.”

He goes on to talk about how the dearth of proprietary companies was seen as a harbinger of the end of arts activity.

“The traditional commercial forms of theater, vaudeville and circus declined or vanished in the face of the new medium of movies. Other performing arts forms were also affected by the new technologies of recorded music and radio, and ultimately by television. Some observers viewed these developments as the death of the live performing arts, and while it is evident that many proprietary performing arts organizations dissolved, it is not so clear that the overall output of arts goods and services was declining at all.”

The last sentence implying that the format and organization of artistic expression was evolving into something new while the output remained fairly constant seems an important one. Today arts people see the decline and closing of established arts companies and venues as a destruction of their way of life. The truth may be that there is a change similar to the transition from the proprietary system to the non-profit situation we have today. We just need to be aware of what the trend is toward.

By the same token, during this period there was apparently a loss of attendance to technology. This would certainly be of concern when looking at the implications of the next evolution in the arts environment. The author writes:

“Whereas broad-based audiences, comprised of both commoners and educated, well-to-do elites had once attended proprietary productions of Shakespeare, even in small towns and mining camps across the nation, in the twentieth century the commoners began to gravitate toward the movie houses and other new technologies, leaving only the elite to patronize an assortment of proprietary high art.

Given this substantially smaller base of customers, the laws of supply and demand would allow only one outcome: the high art sector had to diminish substantially in rough proportion to the diversion of demand toward the popularized new forms of art and entertainment, and the remaining high art consumers had to accept increased prices to maintain their favored art forms. In large measure, these increased prices took the form of organizational subsidies (donations), rather than user fees. Prior to the arrival of the new technologies, the basic model of the proprietary arts organization had served reasonably well. At this juncture in history, however, popular art continued to follow the proprietary pattern, while high art, cut off from much of its consumer base, started to adopt a new model: the subsidized nonprofit organization.”

The author continues into the period between 1957-1990 which he characterizes as a sort of golden age for the arts in modern times. The author cities the philanthrophy of the Ford Foundation and the embracing of high culture during the Kennedy administration as the impetus for the formation of the NEA and the widespread rise of corporate and foundation support of the arts.

He also points to education, more leisure time and change in demographics as contributors to an arts boom:

“The era had truly arrived when the baby boom generation appeared in vast numbers on college campuses throughout the nation. This large, mostly white, and relatively affluent generation not only provided most of the discounted labor for the surge of arts production and formation of new nonprofit arts organizations, but also contributed substantially to the enlargement of consumer demand for the arts…”

“…an even more pronounced shift developed in the late 1950’s and early 1960s in reaction to the widely held perception of cultural inferiority that marked the post war years. This shift in favor of open expression (free speech, free art, free love) was accompanied by a complementary change in attitudes toward public service. The notion that work in public service was virtuous, in comparison to work in private enterprise, gained currency…”

“Another planet that aligned at the beginning of the Ford era was the pinnacle of the American public education system, and a heightened emphasis on the liberal arts. A greater proportion of the population was enrolled in higher education than at any previous time and, according to some authorities, the quality of the public educational system reached its peak. It is also significant that, given the values and prosperity of this time, unprecedented numbers of college students chose to study the liberal arts. Comparative literature, drama, fine arts, art history, music and a host of other arts-related disciplines flourished.

Probably the majority of liberal arts students had no particular career ambition in these fields. The number of drama graduates in any given year, for example, substantially exceeded the supply of full time acting jobs in the entire nation. Still, at the time it was widely believed by students that any college degree, even in the arts, was a passport to an entry level job in some reasonably well-paid profession. Until the early 1970s, a seller’s market prevailed for holders of undergraduate degrees, so one could afford to obtain a college degree for its own sake rather than committing oneself as an undergraduate to a business or technical degree. Thus, institutions of higher learning were producing legions of students, many of whom, whether they realized it or not, were becoming prepared to work in the nonprofit arts or to become arts consumers.”

The author then goes into the post-Ford era of 1990-present and talks about issues arts people are very much aware of as elements in the decline of the non-profit system: cut backs in private/government/foundation funding; rise in cost of living/drop in disposable income; expectation of higher pay and job security; dimmer view of public service; decline in education, focus on 3 Rs to detriment of arts education; lack of leisure time; and technology displacing arts attendance as an entertainment activity.

The author pretty much echos the finding of the PARC survey I cited in an earlier entry–education matters. It seems to me that if the other two elements common to past growth in interest of the arts–change in demographics and increase in leisure time–are present and education and exposure are not, there is little hope of a revitalized interest of arts in the future.

What is to be done then? I have made a number of suggestions in past entries about employing technology to this end (quick index found here). There are plenty of constructive solutions discussed by arts administrators. The author of “Leverage” mentions some practices arts organizations can adopt to make themselves less vulnerable to the changes and more aware of shifting expectations.

There was one section of “Leverage” that especially resonated with me.

“This generation also may be reluctant to purchase even a single ticket to a high art event that requires arrival at a set time, and constrains the audience to a silent, passive posture until the performance ends. Rather, the increasing preference may be shifting to forms of performance, such as comedy, literary salons and jazz, that are more interactive, flexible with regard to arrival and departure times, and less constraining on one’s behavior during the course of the event.”

This was almost verbatim the opening of my talk, “Arts in an Age of Technology” (which I originally wrote in 1999. I am sure I didn’t read “Leverage” until 2003) It had additional significance in that it was also a topic Drew McManus addressed in the Partial Observer article I cited above. “The audience � and therefore the community – won because they were presented with a concert experience that included them as opposed to the stereotypical �sit, listen, and go home� occasion most people relate to. ”

While I regret that I am not the genius I thought I was when I first expressed that sentiment back in 1999, it is good to know that others in the arts world are thinking along similar lines. This way I don’t have to bear the burden of evangelizing to the entire world alone!

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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