Richard Evans on Appreciating New Frameworks for the Arts

On Monday, Michael Kaiser wrote on The Huffington Post that he wanted to “scream” when he hears pundits and bloggers “calling for ‘new models’ without explaining what these new models are or what specifically they are meant to address, except for a vague unhappiness with how things are working (or not working) now.”

Yes. I couldn’t agree more. It’s really unhelpful to propose a need for significant change in the way organizations operate in our (or any) field without offering either a viable analysis of why that’s needed, or good examples of enterprising organizations that are leading the way. Some in our field are guilty of this.

What Michael seems to overlook is that the challenges we have to address – the consequence of 50 years of professional arts development that has unintentionally painted us into a small corner of the country’s artistic life – have been extensively documented. And more importantly, staff, trustees and artists of organizations across the country are developing courageous responses to these adaptive challenges and those responses are being documented with increasing frequency.

EmcArts works with organizations throughout the country that are daily responding to the adaptive challenges they face, from large organizations like the Music Center of Los Angeles enormously expanding its civic footprint through participatory programs that draw thousands weekly to the plazas at the summit of Grand Avenue and now constitute a major new revenue stream (Active Arts), to The Wooster Group in New York drawing tens of thousands monthly to its continuous stream of online Video Dailies that offer quirky and compelling behind-the-scenes access to its work (and greatly boost ticket sales), to the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, whose Object Stories initiative brings the lives and cherished artifacts of local citizens into the museum as self-portraits of remarkable power, dissolving the myth of museums as places that show “nothing by you.”

These are just a few of the many organizations opening up new pathways to success, some of which we’ve been able to document on ArtsFwd. But we need more examples. We need more documentation and informed diffusion of these innovations, so that we reach a tipping point in our field, at which funders as well as practitioners and boards are empowered to take the measured risk of investing in vital new approaches that are paying dividends across the country and ushering in a new era for our work, in which we are “unlearning” much of what previously were taken for granted as “best practices.” If we don’t, our assets are likely to become liabilities (traditional planning, for instance, can disable our capacity to adapt, much marketing reduces the yearning for engagement to an act of consumption, and conventional capitalization has slowed down our response to social change).

To answer Michael’s rhetorical questions, artistic performance on many scales will survive, because our communities will continue to yearn for the kind of meaning that entering an artistic experience alone provides. Cultural organizations? They too can thrive, to the extent that in the future they play a role in building the creative vitality of our communities. That means they will change, and successful ones will likely be very different from the models of even the recent past. Those that stick with old assumptions and established strategies alone, lamenting lost support but doing little to adapt, will struggle. It was Andre Gide who said that “one doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore.”


Richard Evans is the President of EmcArts, where he directs program design, research, and strategic partnerships that place a particular emphasis on innovation, adaptive organization change, and effective ways that the arts and culture field can respond to the demands of a new era.