I’ll be one of 8 guests at WESTAF’s annual Dinner-vention! In this briefing paper, I share my perspective on how we should talk about broken models.
I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve been selected as a guest at the Dinner-vention 2, organized by Barry Hessenius of Barry’s Blog and WESTAF. On October 9, I’ll join seven other dynamic, forward-thinking leaders in the arts to discuss some of the most pressing challenges across the field. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone and engaging in what should be a spicy conversation.
To prepare for the Dinner-vention, Barry asked all of us to capture our preliminary thinking in a briefing paper that responds to the topic: “Broken Models: Picking Up the Pieces and Moving Forward.”
I’ve shared my briefing paper below. I encourage you to read the papers of the other seven guests, which you can find here.
Update: You can watch our conversation live at 9:00pm Eastern on Thursday, October 9, via WESTAF’s livestream feed here.
What’s a model, exactly?
I’m a very literal person, so the first thing I did when tasked with this briefing paper was look up the definition of “model.”
Model (n): 1) A standard, an example for imitation or comparison
OK, got it. A model is like a blueprint. Or a recipe. So, this Dinner-vention is a debate about standard or best practices in our field. We’re taking a long hard look at the routines we’ve replicated again and again because they work, or at least they’re supposed to, or they once did.
What models are we questioning?
My next step was to plainly state what I see as the old model in each of the areas Barry mentions (plus I added strategic planning, evaluation, and artistic development).
However, I assume every model evolved to meet a particular challenge. So I also tried to name the challenge I think we’re facing right now in that area. For me, there’s nothing worse that poor problem definition. We can reform our models until we’re blue in the face, but that’s useless unless we get clear about the future we want and the challenges we’ll face in getting there. Only then can we answer the question: why aren’t our models working?
I think this was a useful exercise, so I’ve shared the results below. It’s wide open for debate. My hope is that it serves as a starting place for a shared understanding of the standard practices we’re questioning and the real challenges we’re faced with as a field, so that we can begin to understand whether our approaches are the right ones.
In each case, I see a stark disconnect. The old models we’re using aren’t matching up with the deeply complex challenges we’re faced with right now.
- Old model: Ticket sales + government + foundation + corporate + wealthy patrons + small donors + endowment income = Balanced budget
- New challenge: To generate new sources of sustained revenue and capital
- Old model: Sell subscriptions and market shows
- New challenge: To engage new and more diverse groups of people in meaningful arts experiences
- Old model: Give/get boards focused on fiduciary oversight and maintaining stability
- New challenge: To cultivate boards that are partners in change
- Old model: More ticket sales, more revenue, bigger budget, nice building = Success!
- New challenge: To evaluate the success of our organizations based on the value they create in people’s lives
- Old model: Attend leadership conferences and seminars, build your network, wait for your boss to finally leave/retire/die. (Alternatively, change jobs every year.)
- New challenge: To develop a generation of new leaders equipped with the tools they’ll need to tackle the wickedly complex challenges the future has in store
- Old model: MFA programs, residencies, commissions, occasionally a grant, get a day job
- New challenge: To support artists in making a living and a life
- Old model: Decide where you want to be in 5 years. Outline the steps to get there in a long document no one will read.
- New challenge: To plan for the future in a way that allows us to stay close to our core values and make incremental improvement while also making room for experimentation, failure, and rapidly changing conditions.
- Old model: The money goes to whoever the funder says it to goes to. Usually bigger organizations run by white people in major cities.
- Our challenge today: To distribute funds in a way that is equitable, geographically diverse, and creates the most value
Note: I decided I was too ignorant in the areas of creative placemaking, advocacy and arts education to weigh in. I’ll leave that to my colleagues.
Here’s my main argument
Over 60 years in the field, we’ve developed standard practices, or models, in all these different areas. They worked for a while. Now they don’t. This has given us a false notion that we need new models in each area. This is wrong.
Models, best practices, recipes, and blueprints work only when your challenge has a knowable, replicable solution. Sure, there are some challenges that fit this mold. I’d argue that having a great website, designing an effective ad, doing a successful crowd funding campaign, and producing a complicated show are all challenges where best practices, models, and experts are really valuable. You might not know the solution, but someone does, and you can find it out.
But what happens when there actually isn’t a knowable solution to your challenge? When there is no expert, no model to call upon? When the only way forward is through experimentation and failure?
I’d argue that every one of the big challenges I name above falls into the realm of complexity, where the search for replicable models is fruitless. There isn’t going to be a new model for generating revenue that the field can galvanize around that will work for every or even most arts organizations. Nor is there going to be a long lasting model for community engagement that can be replicated by organizations across the country. For the deeply complex challenges we face today, there simply isn’t a knowable solution or model that can reliably help us tackle them. These kinds of challenges require a new way of working.
We don’t need new models, we need a new theory of practice
Instead of new models, I’d argue that we need a new theory of practice, one that champions a different set of priorities in how we do our work.
Our old models imply a vision of success that’s rooted in growth, stability, and excellence. They drive us towards efficiency and competition by perpetuating an atmosphere of scarcity. They are not as creative as we are.
What if a new vision of success in our field could prioritize resilience, flexibility, and intimacy? What if we could be enablers, not producers? What if we could harness the abundance of creative potential around us?
This new vision of success doesn’t demand consensus around a new set of standards, best practices, or “examples for imitation,” it demands a new way of thinking and acting that empowers us to shift and change our routines all the time, as needed.
A proposed theory of practice for the future
Here is my call to the field: a proposed set of practices that align with the world as it is today, not as it was before:
- Let’s get clear about the challenges we’re facing and if they’re complex, treat them as such
- Let’s ask hard questions, listen, do research, and stay vulnerable to what we learn.
- Let’s question our assumptions and let go of what’s no longer working.
- Let’s embrace ambiguity and conflict as a crucial part of change
- Let’s bring together people with different experiences and lean into difference
- Let’s experiment our way forward and fail often
- Let’s recognize the system in which we’re operating.
- Let’s rigorously reflect and continuously learn
When I set out to write this post, I wanted to question the premise that a conversation about “broken models” could even be useful in a time when expertise, excellence and replicability are the values of the past. I wanted to propose that we move past the very notion of models – let’s jettison the word itself from our vocabulary.
In the end, I guess you could call what I’ve proposed a kind of “new model.” But I’d rather think of it as a new mindset.