Somber Silence The New Standing Ovation?

I saw an article on the NBC News site questioning the value of standing ovations with a subtitle suggesting the seeming default occurrence of the act was a symptom of “‘everyone gets a trophy’ culture.” I almost passed it by because it didn’t sound like it was going to say anything new on the subject.

I am glad I didn’t because along with observations about standing ovations being meaningless if you do them all the time and suggesting that audiences can be manipulated into giving standing ovations, the writer Maggie Mulqueen, says they can also represent demands audiences expect to be met:

At a classical music concert I attended recently, the soloist left his violin backstage during his bows as a clear sign that there would be no encore despite the demands of the audience. As we headed out of the theater, I overheard grumblings of disappointment that he had not acquiesced to the call for more. We don’t expect every sporting event to go into overtime in return for giving the teams a standing ovation, so I am not sure where this sense of entitlement comes from for the performing arts.

Later, she provides an anecdote illustrating how lack of applause can be a greater testament of the power of a performance than a standing ovation—while admitting concerns that the performers might read it the wrong way.

The play ended suddenly, the stage went dark, and the audience, stunned by the power of the play, was silent for several seconds. Then, as the weight of the experience sank in, hands began to clap, tears were dried, and actors took their bows. The audience filed out quietly as we tried to regain our bearings.

Ironically, the absence of a standing ovation that night added to how memorable an event it was. Because the content of the play is sober and dark, such a gesture would have felt like a celebration and been in poor taste. As I made my way back to my hotel, I wanted to tell everyone I saw on the Tube to go see it. But mostly, I wanted to reassure the actors. “You were great,” I wanted to tell them. “Please understand it was your forceful performance that kept us in our seats.”

Quit Your Job, But Don’t Quit The Arts

Perusing my archives, I came across a post about something Adam Thurman of The Mission Paradox blog wrote regarding the poor work environment in the arts. While people, including myself, were talking about this issue long before Adam wrote his piece, it is kinda depressing to think that it really took the upheaval of a pandemic for the arts and culture industry to listen and respond seriously to the insistence that things must change.

The link to Thurman’s blog is no longer active, but it was mirrored on the Americans for the Arts site .

At the time I wrote it, I only quoted his third point:

3. Don’t let them use your passion against you. Consider this:

Imagine you were a lawyer. What if I told you that there were some law firms (not all, but absolutely some) that didn’t get a damn about their employees? What if I told you that some firms were designed to bring in people and get as much out of them as possible before they burned out?

Would you believe me?

Of course you would. Hell, because it’s the legal profession you would expect such behavior.

Here’s da rub:

Some arts organizations are the exact same way. Just because the end product is art and not a legal brief doesn’t mean the place automatically values their employees. Just because the place is a non-profit doesn’t automatically make it a nice place to work.

But I also wanted to excerpt from a couple other of his points:

1. It doesn’t have to be like that. I know you’ve probably convinced yourself that all the garbage you deal with is just the cost of being in the field.

It isn’t. If the group you work for is being run poorly it is because people are ACTIVELY making choices that allow that to happen. It isn’t just a matter of circumstance. It’s an outcome of choice…

2. You are not the savior.

You’re smart. You see the problems in the organization. You care. You want to play a part in fixing them.

Good.

But not everything wants to be fixed. Some organizations have been run so poorly, for so long that they really can’t fathom another way. Don’t make it your responsibility to save them for the path they have chosen….

Perhaps most importantly since people are seriously considering getting out of arts and culture altogether, and it is wise to make that a subject of serious thought:

5. But don’t quit the arts. Quit your job, that’s fine. Just don’t do it without a plan (use that Year in Step 4 to develop it)

If you can’t find a job as an arts administrator in a great organization . . . maybe you get out the field for a while. That’s ok. You can come back.

But the arts need you. They need your skill, your experience, your energy. So maybe you join a Board of an organization, maybe you volunteer. Maybe you start your own organization.

[…]

This thing you love, the arts . . . it is your world too. It’s your world just as much as it belongs to any poet, any dancer, any actor.

It’s vital you remember that because along your path you will be confronted by those who alternate between seeing you as completely irrelevant to the artistic process on one hand and the great oppressor of artistic ambitions on the other.

That’s garbage.

You belong. Find your place. Use your skills. Help get great art into the world. It can’t happen without you.

Pursuit of Low Overhead Ratio Is Starving Cultural Org Of Success

For a long time now pursuit of a low overhead ratio has been viewed as a benchmark of good governance in the non-profit sector. There have been arguments against that view, but the perception doggedly persists. Recent research specifically focused on arts and cultural non-profits indicates that these organizations actually need to be spending between 30-35% of their budget on overhead in order to be successful.

I wrote a post for ArtsHacker on the topic recently highlighting this:

As we explained in the academic journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, we found that when arts nonprofits devoted 35% of their budget to overhead, they fared best in terms of attendance.

Attendance declined, by contrast, for organizations that spent extremely low and high amounts of their budget on overhead. Groups that spent far too little saw their attendance decline by 9%. Attendance for arts groups that spent way too much on overhead fell by 30%.

While there spending too much is definitely detrimental to attendance, a sizeable portion of non-profit cultural organizations are expending far below what is beneficial.

Hop over to the Arts Hacker post to get more detail about why pursuit of a low overhead ratio sends cultural organizations into a downward spiral as well as why the researchers insist there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all rule of thumb about expense ratios.

You Probably Need To Be Spending More On Overhead

Questioning Capacity Building

Over the last few months, Non-Profit Quarterly has run a series of pieces on the topic of capacity building. In particular, the authors have challenged the notion that current capacity building efforts are healthy for non-profits given that the definitions of capacity building and effectiveness are made externally by funders rather than internally by the non-profit entity.

Particularly because these definitions tend to hew closely to commercial quantitative metrics which aren’t particularly valid when it comes to organizations dealing with homelessness, drug rehabilitation, domestic violence, etc., where low numbers served can mean the organization needs more capacity or that they ARE being very effective in achieving their goal.

Additionally, as Marcus Littles points out in his piece, there are entrenched issues facing Black and Brown lead organizations which impede their growth in ways consultants can’t fix:

…A board development training plus a communications audit does not equal sustainability in seven months. A technology plan combined with an organizational culture audit does not equal organizational resilience in a year. Why? Because on their own, competency building and skill development do not enable Black and Brown leaders and organizations to overcome the structural inequities that make it difficult for them to thrive.

In surveying a group of leaders at Black-led community-based nonprofits, Littles notes a distrust of capacity building programs, not only because of a perception that they “perpetuate white-dominant norms of effectiveness,” but also that they signal a lack of commitment to the success of an organization by funders:

The first: “Capacity building is the consolation prize money that foundations offer when they are willing to pay for us to get advice, but they aren’t willing to resource us to help our people get free.” The second quote resonated with most of the folks we interviewed: “When I think of capacity building, the first thing I think is that capacity is the wrong word.”

Capacity is a tepid word. Once an organization’s capacity is built, what does it become? Capable? Sufficient? Competent? Capacity building is a process without a tangible aspiration. It is an investment with an unambitious return.

These perspectives made me stop to think a bit more about the idea of capacity building. The idea of capacity building as a consolation hasn’t necessarily been true in my experience since I generally have applied for separate monies to support a specific goal rather than having someone say, we won’t fund X, but we would like to offer you funding for capacity building. Though up until recently when funders began to allow funds to be used for operational expenses, it could be difficult to answer questions about how the increased capacity would be sustained in the future if the capacity wasn’t going to directly result in increased earned or unearned revenue or be volunteer supported.

So in that context, I can understand the feeling that capacity building programs can feel a little hollow without an interest and commitment to an organization to provide some sort of support over multiple years if required.