Monday, December 31, 2007

How the Boston Foundation stole Christmas, Part One

The Boston Foundation's view of the arts in a nutshell.

To some of us, it's the best of times for the arts in Boston - I've been here nearly thirty years, and certainly by the standards of that yardstick, we're living in a kind of demi-paradise. In the late 70s and 80s, there simply was no theatre or dance "scene," and serious music and the visual arts were dominated by a handful of dinosaurs that had been founded in the previous century. What's more, the ethos of scarcity was re-inforced by a weird kind of social approval. This was the way things were supposed to be: we had the MFA for the Impressionists, the BSO for Beethoven, and theatre and dance belonged at Harvard or in New York.

All that, thank God, has changed, and there are now dozens of worthy small to mid-size arts organizations in town. There are two functioning opera companies, both a small theatre scene and a fringe theatre scene, an orchestra devoted solely to new music, a robust early music community, and a brand-new museum for contemporary art. But strangely, a kind of nostalgia for the old ways persists among the old guard - how else to explain the recent Boston Foundation report, Vital Signs: Metro Boston's Arts and Cultural Nonprofits, 1999-2004 (at left), which calls (in disguised, guarded terms) for a diminution of artistic activity?

Oh, sorry - I meant they call on arts organizations to "consider exit strategies" - at least those organizations that "lack a clear vision" and "struggle to attract audiences and donors." Never mind that this description might have applied to Boston Ballet, the BSO, and the ART in the late 90s (not to mention the Wang Center today) because the Boston Foundation doesn't have such politically-connected behemoths in its sights. No, the BF would most like to hustle the struggling small organizations out the door, to make more room for the big ones - and to be really blunt, they'd really like to hustle out the struggling white organizations.

Ouch, I know - could the BF actually be racist? Well, not intentionally, I'm sure; but I'm happy to explain (in a bit) how the above position falls right out of the collision between their data and their political stance - even though I doubt they've articulated that clearly even to themselves.

But then there's a lot they haven't articulated to themselves - perhaps the central issue being their MBA-driven mindset. To the Boston Foundation, the art itself seems almost beside the point - instead, they're obsessed with the art "marketplace," a word authors Susan Nelson and Ann McQueen use repeatedly, and which is inherently deceptive. To be blunt, the arts don't operate in a "marketplace." Even though, yes, people buy tickets to the arts, said tickets can't pay all the bills (this is due to the fact that in the modern economy, profit is squeezed out of scale, industrialization, or digital innovation; if only a hundred people could use Google at a time, trust me, they'd be in financial trouble too). Instead, arts organizations depend on philanthropy to survive; donations aren't a "nice-to-have," they're a "have-to-have," and usually in the arts world audiences follow the donors, rather than vice versa.

But with classic MBA tunnel vision, Nelson and McQueen's analysis concentrates on the metrics consultants routinely apply to start-ups: price points, scale, capacity, unrestricted net assets, etc., as if a theatre company or gallery could simply "scale up" its offerings (in one unguarded moment, the report suddenly admits this is impossible), or charge lower price points when these are generally set by rental demands. Indeed, it's clear as you ponder this report that the BF thinks it's operating in the venture capital la-la-land of McKinsey and Bain, where you can toy with capital targets and net present values to your heart's content.

This is all the more apparent when one considers those arts groups the BF considers successes. At first I thought it was weird that they virtually ignored the most transformative arts event of the past few years (the development of the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA) or that they likewise paid no heed to the biggest artistic turnaround the city may have ever seen (the Boston Ballet). But then I appreciated that these stories fit neither the BF's economic nor political mindset: the Boston Ballet is currently operating with a (relatively small) deficit, and the BCA is an example of exactly what the BF most seems to deplore - an investment in facilities for small groups (again, more on this later).

No, the BF is most taken with the Actors' Shakespeare Project, the ICA, Opera Boston, and the Peabody/Essex Museum, as well as the more community-oriented ACT Roxbury and Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. I don't mean to knock any of these organizations or their achievements (any success in the arts is to be celebrated), but I have to differ with the BF's analysis of almost all them. The Peabody/Essex merger, for instance, hardly seems to have been market-driven; indeed, was it even a merger? It seems more like a top-down consolidation by several major moneyed players - and the BF unconsciously admits that most of its own prescriptions were ignored in the process: for example, the combined museum's mission "remained an open question" throughout (despite BF's relentless calls for clear mission statements from others). Modeling the success of the Actors' Shakespeare Project along marketplace guidelines is likewise problematic: the group raised $300,000 in its first season - before it was even in the market - and has tripled that number since then (despite, I'd point out, no parallel "scaling up" of its activities). So the ASP skipped the "small organization" step entirely, and of course also received constant positive publicity from the Boston Globe, its magazine, and other media outlets.

The similar media push behind the ICA (at left) was beyond constant, it was all but relentless; I've never seen such a publicity juggernaut in the past three decades. In a word these groups didn't so much "develop" their audiences as have them handed to them by the media (although of course I realize they worked long and hard to take advantage of said boon). And tellingly, however certain the BF may be that the donor/media consensus is driven by "excellence," other folks aren't so sure: the ICA hasn't really won over local contemporary art experts, and the ASP's productions, though always frisky, remain uneven. As for Opera Boston, I feel they probably fit the BF model best - although even here, they essentially filled a niche (for intellectually serious opera) that many had long known existed.

So do I begrudge the success of these institutions? No, I don't, not at all. I'm glad the ICA expanded, I'm happy to see the ASP succeed, I always try to see Opera Boston, and I adore the PEM. The point is that their success should not be held up as evidence of the wisdom of the Boston Foundation. Most of them, indeed, did not achieve their success through any application of MBA methodology, but rather through the time-honored routes of access, connections, political consensus, and big-money largesse.

For in the end, said largesse, not art, is the Boston Foundation's real concern, and the explosion in smaller arts organizations makes that job so much more complicated than it used to be. That philanthropic crisis, along with why small white arts organizations should go, why we should have fewer theatres, and why we should save the dinosaur, along with other secret beliefs of the power elite, will be considered in Part II of this article.

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