Monday, March 7, 2011

Belated comments on Arts Supply/Demand issue; Soil Kitchen Project Coming Up!

First off, must apologize for dropping off the face of the earth on my blog for a month or more. It's just been unbelievably busy and I have not found the time to write. The "New Posting" box has been open on my computer for weeks, as has the similar page for Huffington Post.

I had intended to dive in on the debate provoked by NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman on the supply/demand issue (New York Times article is here; Rocco's blog is here; sample blog response from Linda Essig's Creative Infrastructure here ). But now it seems rather anticlimactic. I will say, in brief (OK, I am not so brief), that I think the debate sparked by Rocco is a very healthy one. It is crystal clear if you look at the Americans for the Arts National Arts Index and other research that the number of nonprofit arts groups has been rising dramatically for the past decade or more, while at the same time the "market share" of philanthropy going to the arts has been declining, and the portion of arts participation that consists of traditional cultural attendance (buying tickets to theatre/music/dance/opera; going to a museum) has been flat at best. I have been saying for YEARS (my colleagues in NY can attest to this - I organized a Forum on the subject about ten years ago) that we as a field must look at the fact that the marketplace does not work well in determining whether supply meets demand in terms of number of arts groups.

It is very hard for arts groups to die - administrators want to keep their jobs, board members don't want to let the ship go down under their watch and are emotionally invested, long-time funders tend to keep supporting weak organizations in hopes that they will turn around and because of their historical commitment. In the corporate world "shareholder value" drives everything - for the most part a merger or bankruptcy happens if the marketplace demands it. Executives and stakeholders in a company being acquired are rewarded/(bribed?) with golden parachutes, stock options, etc. No equivalent to this exists in the arts, so arts groups tend to hang on long after they have lost their "juice," unlike restaurants - also creative endeavors - that come and go all the time and the public is still being served with an array of dining options. And the "barriers to entry" are relatively modest in the arts - VLA can help you get incorporated, you don't need to start out with a building or infrastructure. And virtually every existing organization measures its success by growth. Our nonprofit arts industry - still relatively young compared to other parts of the world - has now been around long enough that it takes a lot of money and a lot of audience to feed that beast. Think of the scale today of the Met Museum, MoMA, Art Institute of Chicago, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Millennium Park cultural programs, etc. Many of these organizations have substantially increased in scale over the last ten years - some did not even exist ten years ago. And that does not count the THOUSANDS of new organizations formed in the past ten years. Something has gotta give: either we find a way to drive demand - to make the arts a more compelling experience/cause for audiences and donors, or we are likely to see a wave of reorganizations, mergers, bankruptcy and/or outright dissolution. Funders, board and policy leaders need to think about these issues and figure out how we ensure the survival of the groups making the best work and doing the best job of serving their community. Rocco's comments had a lot of folks protesting that he was somehow saying there was a ceiling of art need that we have somehow reached - that there is not a need for more art. Of course, that is not the case - there is always the need for more (good!) art. But I do not believe we have a perfect system for making and delivering the best art to the public, and for inspiring and engaging the public in that art. That is where the work is needed.


Now that I have that off my chest, on to some exciting and inspiring art!  The City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy has been working on a major new temporary public art installation called Soil Kitchen, April 1-6, 2011, by the artist collective known as FutureFarmers, led by Amy Franceschini. This is the first time the City has commissioned a major temporary public art project, due largely to the fact that our public art program is funded by "percent for art" funds that are not flexible, because they are capital funds that MUST be spent on permanent art. This project was made possible by the support of the William Penn Foundation.

Here is some background on the project: Soil Kitchen is a temporary, windmill-powered architectural intervention and multi-use space where citizens can enjoy free soup in exchange for soil samples from their neighborhood. Placed across the street from the Don Quixote monument at 2nd Street and Girard Avenue in North Philadelphia, Soil Kitchen’s windmill pays homage to the famous windmill scene in Cervantes', Don Quixote. Rather than being “adversarial giants” as they were in the novel, the windmill here will be a functioning symbol of self-reliance. The windmill also serves as a sculptural invitation to imagine a potential green energy future and to participate in the material exchange of soil for soup - literally taking matters into one’s own hands. This exchange provides an entry point for further dialogue and action available in the space through workshops, events and informal exchange. Soil Kitchen provides sustenance, re-established value of natural resources through a trade economy, and tools to inform and respond to possible contaminants in the soil.

Soil Kitchen will coincide with the E.P.A.’s National Brownfields Conference. Soil Kitchen gathers soil and creates a Philadelphia Brownfields Map and Soil Archive. In addition to serving soup and testing soil, the building will be a hub for exchange and learning; free workshops including wind turbine construction, urban agriculture, soil remediation, composting, lectures by soil scientists and cooking lessons.

Executing this project required many partnerships, both with City agencies, and with property owners and nonprofit agencies. Many public programs are planned during the course of the project, and I urge you to check it out! Remember, April 1-6 - go to the project website to get more information and see the schedule of events.

2 comments:

  1. You wrote: "Rocco's comments had a lot of folks protesting that he was somehow saying there was a ceiling of art need that we have somehow reached - that there is not a need for more art. Of course, that is not the case - there is always the need for more (good!) art. But I do not believe we have a perfect system for making and delivering the best art to the public, and for inspiring and engaging the public in that art." I couldn't agree with you more, which is why I was surprised (in fact dismayed) when NAC member Ben Donenberg replied in his response to my post that "the amount of art we have is perfect."

    On another note, I'm becoming a fan of FutureFarmers and require my arts entrepreneurship students to review their website as a case study in cultural innovation.

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  2. Linda, Thanks for your comment. Glad you are a fan of FutureFarmers. Maybe there is some way you can make it to Philly while Soil Kitchen is up. Would be a great opportunity to get together!

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