How Should We Talk About Failing Arts Organizations?

In this conversation, Richard Evans and Karina Mangu-Ward of EmcArts discuss some of the key issues stemming from the ongoing conversation about whether or not “we should allow failing arts organizations to die.”

Devon Smith, Shannon Daut, and Aaron Dworkin at the 2014 Americans for the Arts Convention during their debate on "We Should Let Arts Organizations that Don't Adapt Die." Photo by Chloe Donaldson.
Devon Smith, Shannon Daut, and Aaron Dworkin at the 2014 Americans for the Arts Convention during their debate on “We Should Let Arts Organizations that Don’t Adapt Die.” Photo by Chloe Donaldson.

In response to the online and in-person conversation around Devon Smith’s blog post (and contribution from a debate at this year’s Americans for the Arts convention), “We should allow failing arts organizations to die,” Richard Evans and I sat down for a free wheeling conversation. We discussed the issues raised in this ongoing discourse and what it all means for us and our work here at EmcArts, which focuses on helping organizations adapt.

Karina Mangu-Ward: It’s tempting to pick apart the arguments put forward by Devon and other people responding, but I don’t think that’s very useful. Instead, I want to question the premise. Is this debate about failing organizations useful, or are we having the wrong conversation?

Richard Evans: The idea of planning for death is an attractive headline, but it doesn’t reflect a real understanding of organizational dynamics and what we might do to make them more effective. I think there are some people who are very keen to walk away from the infrastructure created over the last 60 years. It’s also tempting to say that art and artists don’t have all the baggage that institutions do. But not having institutions could set us back a long way as well.

KMW: Nina Simon made a similar point on Twitter. She said, “I feel like it’s a lot more efficient to reinvent existing organizations than create new ones from scratch.” Do you agree?

RE: The drive for more and more organizations is certainly unsustainable. But again, the terminology has got a certain shock value: “reinvent” is like “transformation.” These are emotive words that sometimes lie at a distance from the reality of doing it. At one point, Devon in her rebuttal says, “death and radical rebirth are equivalent.” That’s just playing with poorly defined concepts.

KMW: Does this rhetoric set us back?

RE: Well, the thesis implied by this is a vague kind of Darwinism: “Let the ones that are fit for purpose survive and the rest would go away.” Or it’s almost organizational eugenics: “Let’s increase the healthy genes in the gene pool, and that way we’ll get stronger sons and daughters.” If we say that this extraordinary form of high consciousness that we call art merits being part of our community’s fabric, then the idea of professionally managed organizations is certainly an enduring concept. Of course they need to change and adapt. But to say that we should expect there to be a consistent death rate, to me, misunderstands the role of art in the community and the role of art in organizations.

KMW: I sense in both Devon’s piece and Diane Ragsdale’s recent response a kind of helplessness about what we might actually do with organizations that are struggling to adapt, other than letting them die.

RE: I think that’s right. Both of these pieces, in their different ways, propose a “treatment regime” for sickly organizations. They’re looking in from the outside on these organizations, as if they’re monolithic, and saying, “You’re failing; you should go.” Too often, people looking in from the outside want to subject individual elements in a complex system to some kind of logical treatment. Those who recognize that system’s actual dynamics know that applying a treatment of that kind won’t produce the expected positive results, and that less newsworthy work around adaptation (often illogical next steps) is more likely to increase the value of the system’s activities as a whole. So it’s like relying on a single remedial treatment as opposed to taking a developmental or even an improvement-based approach.

KMW: What might that look like?

RE: First of all, it’s recognizing the whole enterprise — the nonprofit arts and culture field — as a system. These organizations aren’t standalone things that you can pick off. They’re all interdependent. And we know from systems analysis that taking one player out of the system doesn’t necessarily improve the performance of the system.

KMW: The idea is that “failing” organizations are sapping resources from healthy ones.

RE: Yes, but in cutting one or two out you aren’t necessarily addressing the right problem. It’s a bit like scraping around in the brain and getting the wrong bit, and suddenly you can’t speak anymore. In other words, what I’m saying is: Don’t mess with complex systems without developing a sophisticated approach.

KMW: Right. Many of the proposed “solutions” are linear and rational – like changing the government allocation of funding, creating an arts stock market, or instituting term limits on arts leaders. But we’re dealing with a complex system. Not only are these solutions impossible to implement (as their authors acknowledge) they not suited to the complex challenges at hand.

RE: If we move from pontificating about it from a distance, to actually being in there with organizations in the room, we know how powerful it is to delay reaching toward a solution. One characteristic we see in organizations and individuals that are really good at managing complexity is their ability to deal with paradox. They don’t look for the linear or rational approach. Instead, they are good at seeing multiple perspectives and living with ambiguity over time.

KMW:  If rational or linear solutions aren’t going to work, what can we do?

RE: I think it begins with a mindset shift. We went through a 50-year period of increasing resources to our sector and vastly increasing the numbers of organizations. What we ended up with is a kind of Ponzi scheme. We’ve consistently had expectations of growth. So we’ve created for ourselves, with the best of intentions, a system of necessary resource scarcity. If we can move our mindsets (and our funders’ policies) away from this insistence on organizational growth, and focus instead on adaptability and letting go of old assumptions, then I think we can begin to get to some of the root causes rather than deal with just the symptoms.

The second thing has to do with failure. It’s easy to use the word “failure” to gloss over the situation. Yet we know from our work that failure is really important –- it’s how we learn to do new things well. The important thing is not to allow failure to become an organization-wide attribute. In the corporate world, they say: If you’re not failing often, you’re not doing well enough. In our field, it’s the exact opposite. So again it’s a mindset thing – moving away from the polarizing notion that it’s either success in all categories — or it’s failure and the organization should be killed off. Between these extremes lies an organization’s capacity to fail productively, and learn.

KMW: On ArtsFwd, I spend a lot of time trying to tell stories about organizations that are doing this work well — managing complexity, living in ambiguity, embracing paradox. My hope is that by sharing stories of what adaptive practice really looks from the inside of organizations, we can begin to bust the myth that organizations are monolithic, that they are either thriving or failing, or that they need a rational, external treatment to stave off or accelerate their decline. Instead, we try to show that the kinds of complex challenges facing our organizations and our sector need a different approach. Of course, we try to model this way of thinking in how we design and implement EmcArts’ Innovation Labs and place-based New Pathways programs, which are meant to assist organizations as they stumble and experiment their way forward. We try to provide a framework for productive failure and the capital to support it.

RE: As good examples, I’d cite our recently released case studies on Woolly Mammoth and Denver Center Theatre Companies, as well as our video profiles on the Oakland Museum of California and the Wooster Group. In each case, these organizations are modeling the kind of short-term research and testing it takes to rapidly adapt. In the complex world we actually have to deal with, they are feeling out the relationship between failure and success, or rather between effort and achievement, in ways that have produced significant results. These kinds of real-world examples inform everything we do.

Karina Mangu-Ward is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.