Is Artistic Authority Being Eroded?

I was glancing at an interview with Arti Prashar on Arts Professional UK site as she departs her position at Spare Tyre Theatre Company. I had come for the title of the article, “Exit interview: ‘We’re asked to follow a business model that just doesn’t work'” but it was something else that really caught my attention.

She says,

“…I began to observe, slowly but surely, that the authority of artists was being eroded. I wasn’t having that, so I negotiated becoming the Artistic Director and CEO.”

It struck me that she felt she needed to become CEO in order to retain authority. (Her first 8 years at Spare Tyre was as Artistic Director.) It made me wonder if this was the case globally outside of the UK. I suspect it is.

I have discussed the problems with the sentiment that “arts should be run more like a business,” in a number of blog posts over the years. I wonder now if that concept, combined with the sense that artists should be more business minded might be contributing to the erosion of artists’ authority.

Artists should definitely be knowledgeable enough to monitor the health of their own careers so that their work is not exploited by others. But if an artist is not perceived as possessing authority in their own realm independent of their business acumen, that is troubling.

Prashar doesn’t give specific examples of how she felt artists’ authority was being eroded. As I thought about how this problem might manifest, I began to wonder if this was actually related to the question of why we value art.

If an artist doesn’t feel they have the authority to say a work has value on its own, but needs to cite relevance in connection with social and political movements to convince others it has value, that may be just as problematic as economic impact and ability to raise test scores being the only rationale for granting funding.

You may be thinking that these elements are all important for getting people to participate in an event or other opportunity. People need to either perceive something is relevant to them or is worth their time and money as part of their decision to be present.

But can an artist walk into a room and say this thing is important and worth doing and be believed simply based on their authority as an artist? If not, why?

Is it because we have come to doubt or suspect their authority to make that statement despite 15 years of practice?

If I walk in and say the same thing is important and worth doing because 1000 people will pay $50, do you doubt my authority to make that statement? Do you think to inquire how much experience I have in making these predictions if I am waving a spreadsheet around instead of a violin bow?

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the 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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1 thought on “Is Artistic Authority Being Eroded?”

  1. Excellent post!

    I am reminded about an essay Diane Ragsdale wrote (https://www.artsjournal.com/jumper/2019/02/is-it-time-to-resurrect-the-artistic-leader-discretionary-fund/) in which she quotes an article from HowlRound. David Dower writes:

    “There is a lot at stake here. Not just for the individuals or the institutions directly engaged in transitions. These risks are ours as a field. If the institutions with incoming individuals—many of them women and people of color who have been long kept out of these roles—stumble, we open the door to old arguments about “readiness” and “qualified candidates” that have masked and abetted the dominance of the white male in our field.”

    Diane goes on to suggest:

    “To perhaps state the obvious, what I’m calling for is distinct from awarding funds to support a specific proposal 6-12 months into the tenure of a new leader, putting forward a new strategy that is aligned with the priorities of a foundation. I am advocating for a genuine discretionary fund that says, “Welcome to your new job! We don’t care how you choose to spend this money, we are backing you.””

    This aligns with your concern about taking artist leaders seriously for the artistic vision they bring to the table independent of its connection to broader financial or traditional contexts. From a business angle art is seen as a means to extrinsic ends, that the art serves this or that goal. What is missing is the idea that art needs the opportunity to discover itself in a way that is not constantly looking over its shoulder for validation. It needs the freedom to express unfamiliar and risky takes on things that may take time to gain acceptance if even then. Art needs permission to fail extrinsically.

    In a different essay (https://www.artsjournal.com/jumper/2017/02/is-artistic-leadership-at-americas-arts-institutions-lacking-is-this-at-the-root-of-declining-relevancy/) Diane quotes a Zelda Fichandler essay from 1970:

    “I am not very strong on community giving, except perhaps when it represents only a small percentage of the total. I think we could well do without the hand that rocks the cradle, for the hand that rocks the cradle will also want to raise it in a vote and mix into the pie with it. For while a theatre is a public art and belongs to its public, it is an art before it is public and so it belongs first to itself and its first service must be self-service. A theatre is part of its society. But it is a part which must remain apart since it is also chastiser, rebel, lightning rod, redeemer, irritant, codifier, and horse-laughter.”

    Diane writes,

    “Arts institutions cannot uphold Zelda Fichandler’s notion of the theatre as belonging to the public but first belonging to itself if they are, essentially, social clubs for the upper middle class. The institution cannot be “chastiser, rebel, lightning rod, redeemer, irritant, codifier, and horse-laughter” if it has neither independence nor publicness.

    (…..)

    “Perhaps now is the time to prioritize artistic vision over business skills; to grant artists primacy within the arts institution; and to shift attention from wealthy donors to the community-at-large. Perhaps now is the time to embrace the paradox of being Public Arts Institutions: a part of society—but a part which must remain apart in order to fulfill its multifaceted role as “chastiser, rebel, lightning rod, redeemer, irritant, codifier, and horse-laughter.””

    Essentially she is asking the same question that you are and for much the same reason. If the value of art is no more than the service it brings to some ulterior goal it can never transcend its obligation to manifest that goal. But if the value of art is in some vital sense independent and fundamentally meaningful unto itself, then we have not only the right but the obligation to operate in some capacity doing what art is AS art before it becomes something public, as Fichandler points out. Art only gets to have a public face because people cared enough about the art as art to put it out in the world, to find a stage or a pedestal or a home in which it can live. Art has to matter first to be worth doing and worth doing to make public. Art would never get made if its only value was to support some bottom line. The bottom line only has importance because it reflects the collateral stake we have in seeing art find its audience, but the art itself has to matter first and independently to even get made. It is the entrepreneurship that serves the art, not the other way round.

    This is a big conversation.

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