The following essay by Shannon R. Stratton is part of “Beyond Survival: Public Support for the Arts and Humanities,” a call for reflections on and provocation about the precarious state of arts funding after decades of neoliberal economics and the long culture wars.
I cut my teeth on arts administration in a strange way: from scratch, by starting a nonprofit. Over the twelve years I ran Threewalls, a visual arts organization I cofounded in Chicago with three colleagues, I was constantly hustling to figure out how to both sustain the organization as it was and “right-size” it. I wanted Threewalls to have paid staff and continue to pay artist fees, but I also wanted it to create the resources the artists in the Chicago art community needed—not what foundations or patrons wanted or expected. Artists have a professional right to determine what is important in their field—not to have it determined for them by outside parties for whom the basic survival of artists alongside the advancement of the field was not a significant concern. Thus, a community board of artists worked with us on curating the season’s exhibitions, ensuring that exhibitions reflected currents in art practice in that region from the point of view of the artist. I liken this to any professional journal: it’s edited by people doing the work in the field, not outsiders attempting to steer it based on conflicting positions on what art should do or should be for a disinterested public.
When it comes to funding, I feel a similar way. Too often the decisions around survival are made by people who are not close to the artistic fields they are funding. They have never been in the trenches as either a creator or an administrator of programming. My greatest hope would be that organizations, administrators, and/or stakeholders could find time to harness the conversation around funding and lead it. Those in receipt of funding need to join forces in being openly and comfortably critical of the money trail—and who ultimately benefits from certain content or product being emphasized. The outsized influence of a single funder or a foundation providing significant funding sends many organizations down paths that diverge from their founding intentions as they chase down projects that ultimately muddy the organization’s vision. We need to hold space as experts in not just nonprofit management, but survival—and articulate how this business is fundamentally different than the for-profit arena. We need to not be afraid to right-size (which may mean, ultimately, we’re smaller than we want to be) to produce work of real merit, unsullied by mission creep in order to grab dollars. We need to think through funding strategies that support the field and the people advancing it, as opposed to developing populist programming to get butts in seats at the expense of the reputation of the organization and its educational mission.
The art world needs leaders that can stand up for the mission of arts organizations and the work they were founded to do, and not be swayed by pressure to produce the blockbuster pop-singer exhibition that has become many museums’ piggy bank. While certain museums are the right home for this kind of exhibition, too often museums are pressured to host a one-off spectacle to satisfy donors who want to see lines around the block, thus getting people into the museum who ultimately never return. The task of reeducating the public about the value of noncommercial cultural experiments seems the most pressing. How can we resist the push to replicate spectacle to justify existence? How can we train a new generation of leaders to occupy roles at foundations, in development and membership departments, who share the same values as artists, historians, curators, and educators about the importance of unencumbered and uncompromised cultural production?
In a conversation with a friend and mentor a few months ago, we talked about how the right leader of a cultural organization needs to be one who see the institution itself “as material” and is invested in, and inspired by, how to mold and shape that material. An institution is a complex organism whose place in the landscape constantly needs to be reevaluated and then restated. And, sometimes, an organization has outgrown or outlived its role and needs to be drastically reimagined or even shuttered. We are entering an era in which the relevance of certain platforms are shifting and changing, and new models emerging. We all need to be prepared for that change, while keeping the conversation alive about what the arts need in order to continue to innovate.*
*(And we all know that’s more unrestricted, general operating funds.)
Shannon R. Stratton has worked in the visual arts as an artist, writer, curator, professor, publisher and arts administrator with an emphasis on artist-run initiatives and concepts in contemporary craft. She is currently Chief Curator of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.