Scarcity or Abundance?

I had this provocative post all planned out today, one in which I said (insincerely, I should add) that you Grantmakers should just stop giving money to large institutions. The plan was to use a bit of a rhetorical post to goad all you silent grantmakers out there into the comments and also get a bit of an understanding of why so much money goes to the giant battleships of the arts community when small organizations can do a lot more with it.

But then I read this post by my good friend Matt Freeman in which he talks about “Scarcity Models” of funding vs. “Abundance Models” of funding:

In my day job (which is for a religious institution) we talk a lot about scarcity models versus abundance models. When we talk about taking money from one thing (urban, cultural institutions) to give that money to rural communities, we’re acting as if there is one small pot of money, scare resources, and we have to refocus those dollars one way or another.

But, instead, we see that when Americans prioritize something (say…war) money strangely materializes in sums that dwarf the entire budget of the NEA tenfold. There is money out there, and we should expect it and ask for it. I believe that both the urban theater communities and small rural communities should expect funding. The problem isn’t that one group is hogging all the money.

The problem is that the funding is too low, not that funding is misdirected.

It seems to me that there’s a lot of truth in that. At the same time… will we ever get to a point in the arts where we can think abundantly? Or is money always going to be scarce? In theatre, it’s always been scarce.  There are historical reasons for this.  The Federal Government never made good on its promise to water the seeds the Ford Foundation planted and, essentially, the regional theater movement has been plate-spinning on a precipice ever since. Is this going to change?

Or do we need to go through some kind of radical transformation so that the current amount of money is abundant? And what would such a transformation look like?  Diane Ragsdale over at Jumper blog has some thoughts about this, and they ain’t pretty:

In the arts and culture sector we seem to want to reap the benefits of transformation without the process of creative destruction. We say we want transformation but we refuse to let underperforming organizations die, or shy away from de-funding what has always been funded in order to fund that which has never been funded, or desperately try to maintain an overbuilt infrastructure. Such reactionary impulses to preserve the status quo will not result in a kinder and gentler transformation. To the contrary, they may result in stagnation of the arts and culture sector. As Light says, we can let the future take its course. I fear, however, that if we do so we may regret what we have become in years to come….

…Is arbitrary winnowing the future we want? With more being given to those who already have the most? Survival of (only) the oldest, largest, and best connected, and not necessarily the best performing?

If not, if we are sincere about wanting transformation, then the gain of progress is unlikely to be accomplished without the pain of losing or challenging some longstanding industry structures, beliefs, practices, jobs, conventions, and hierarchies.

In theater at least, we seem to be in a place right now where larger/older theaters like The Magic and Intiman can reboot themselves with an emergency infusion of cash from around the country no matter how mismanaged they were. Or, like Pasadena Playhouse, they can turn themselves into a tax shelter for commercial producers and no one bats an eye. My anger at the above clearly reflects a scarcity model of thinking, but things seem pretty scarce right now. In order to get to abundance, we might need some of the creative destruction referenced above.

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8 Responses to Scarcity or Abundance?

  1. Paul Mullin says:

    Hey Isaac,

    I was just talking about a general lack of willingness on the part of funders to join the public discussion over here:

    Although the main subject is a new $100,000 wrinkle in the Intiman’s struggle to stay alive.

    Keep up the good work!

    Paul Mullin

  2. Janet Brown says:

    Thank you Isaac for all your insights! Artists and arts organizations do come from a culture of scarcity, there is no doubt. We are also trapped in the nonprofit business model, which allows for strange financial practices that are like a rubber band and bounce from “how much money do you need?” to “how much money can you raise?” Add to that, 40-50 years of “sector building” of prominent theatres, symphonies, ballets and operas and you have donors who are institutionally invested for decades and families that have been donors for generations. So, what happens when poor business practices exceed sound growth and good planning? The donor steps in to save the day.

    A real issue for organizations in crises is that the donor gives just enough money to get the patient from the gurney in the hall back into the hospital room but not out of the hospital all together. This is why we believe our work in helping funders and organizations be better capitalized and have solid business practices is so very important. Are we propping up organizations with unhealthy financial practices and if so, how does that affect the ability to spread dollars to small/mid-sized and new arts groups?

    Oh, and Isaac….let’s see that provocative post.

  3. Paul Mullin says:

    Yeah, Isaac. Let’s see that provocative post. All evidence points to you only being young once.

  4. John Abodeely says:

    I wouldn’t recommend the provocative post. Provocateurs are able to change people’s thinking but not easily. If you have power and you are a provocateur, you are able. For example, Rocco Landesman said there are too many arts organizations AND he’s the head of the NEA. The other way to change people’s mind are to dive into their thinking AND your thinking–the Dinner with Andre tactic. But that generally requires a one-on-one conversation. Provocateurs in distant places–like blogs–can easily be ignored or written off as extremists who don’t understand how things really work. Why would Establishment leaders like the head of Heinz or Pew listen to a “radical” small-scale theatre artist when he advocates for eliminating their business model? I use that only as an example; I do not endorse that kind of response.

    To your intended topic, I wonder if the arts were, will, or can be abundant. Were they in ancient Greece or high cultures in Latin America or Africa? Were they in Europe? Were there always the big guys and the little guys? Does anyone out there have the historical knowledge to tell us what we’re actually aiming for? Or are we just asking for more because we know there are still starving artists and geniuses without a studio? If it is the latter, that is fine, but it’s a tougher, uphill battle.

    To the more revolutionary models that are intimated, I’ll say I am a fan. B Corps, LC3’s, and Google Foundation are all indicative of a new age sometimes called philanthro-capitalism or social-profit corporations. I do not think the traditional model of foundation-money-nonprofit-production is smart enough to respond to problems and challenges that are more complex now than they were in 1930. Complexity appears today at the intersection of public education and poverty. It appears today as the rise of Everyone into the role of cultural creator and cultural arbiter; few are left as cultural consumers, exclusively.

    Isn’t it standard thought that the Big Guys don’t change; the little guys grow beneath the canopy. The little guys grow because the Big Guys ignored the opportunities that appear too small to warrant Big Guy attention.

    So I would suggest that instead of focusing our attentions on the old model, let’s get smarter at showcasing and promoting the new ones.

    • Janet Brown says:

      Thanks John for your thoughtful post. I’m not sure I agree with you about provocation. I think it depends on who you are and what the situation is. Isaac certainly is in a position to be provoke new thinking and throw out some old perceptions that are whispered and never talked about out loud. Rocco isn’t a good example of this for sure. Common sense would dictate that this is NOT a time for the chairman of the Endowment to be making statements of “too much art” from his perch as the nation’s primary advocate for the arts within the government system, anyway. “Stirring things up” needs to come with careful thought and understanding that the audience in front of you is not the only audience you are talking to. “Feeding the enemy” is not a good strategy to win the war. I’m just sayin’….

  5. isaacbutler says:

    Let me just distill my provocation to a question, and then put it here in the comments so it carries less weight:
    Why should the funding community continue to financially support large institutions? Given that they already have access to big name (And big wallet) donors, and that smaller companies can make more use of the money, and given that institutions are by their very nature more concerned with growth/continuance than with their missions, why not just let them fend for themselves?

  6. Paul Mullin says:

    You know a field is in crisis when a simple, quiet, common sense question is considered too provocative not to bury.

    I hate to say it, Isaac, but I think the near deafening silence from funders in response to your posts here proves something about how broken things really are. I’ll leave it to my superiors in intellect and connection to figure out what that “something” is. As an independent artist, I have learned to survive and sometimes thrive outside the dithering castes of arts administration. I suspect at least part of the reason playwrights like myself are willing to speak up when others are not is that we have had nothing to lose for decades. When everyone else is lost beyond losing more, perhaps then something new can begin.

  7. Janet Brown says:

    I think we would all be surprised about how many grantmakers are considering this very question, Isaac. Many of these arts institutions were created and supported by the very individuals who created foundations with missions to sustain them. The idea of reassessing these commitments is floating out there fueled by the downturn in the economy, changing audience behavior and a new generation of donors and program directors concerned with equity and serving their rapidly changing communities.

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