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Culture & Religion

The Case for Letting a Failing Arts Industry Die

Allowing arts organizations to die so others can sprout in their place isn’t heartless or misguided, it’s just the circle of life. Devon Smith at argues that the process of propping up failing organizations gets in the way of progress.

What’s the Latest?

Devon Smith has a post up on Medium where she defends the decision to let under-performing arts organizations die. Smith argues that there exists something of a circle of life when it comes to the arts:

Tracked by their 990s, over the past 20 years, 40% of arts organizations have perished. But they are being replaced even faster. For every arts org that survived between 1990 — 2010, 2.6 more were born (NEA Research Art Works).

She also cites the emerging prevalence of nontraditional means of accessing art: Kickstarter, concerts, the internet, etc. The question arises: what purposes ought today’s modern arts organization aspire to serve, and what do we do with organizations stuck in the past?

Smith’s take:

“I don’t buy the idea that if our arts organizations die, so will our ability to access art.”

What’s the Big Idea?

To Smith, progress involves trimming the fat. If certain theatres, opera houses, or other non-profits aren’t serving their audiences or artists, what point is there in keeping them alive? 

If we were focused on saving the best among us, we’d need to let go of some, maybe even many, of the rest. A productive crop can’t grow when it’s being choked off by weeds. The healthy can’t stay that way surrounded by a crowd of the sick. It’s hard to outrun the zombies if you have to carry the weak.

Smith goes on to argue that money invested in the arts would be better spent trying to invigorate newer organizations with progressive ideas. Funds that go toward propping up unsustainable archaic institutions end up hurting the arts community as a whole.

One can make a few easy critiques of Smith’s argument — she doesn’t aptly define what a “failing” means. In some places she describes it as the entire industry, at others you get the feeling she means specific administrator-led organizations. Ultimately, Smith punts on that issue. While she offers a lot of thoughtfulness in her post, there’s very little concrete amid her wandering through abstraction.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What this inevitably leads to a discussion of art — what it does and the way it change in times of great cultural shift. One interesting connection Smith makes is a comparison between art and journalism, another field that has experienced serious external and internal disruption in recent years. The journalism world was forced to adapt to technological change. Do we see the same thing with art? And does “traditional” art really exist in an apples to apples relationship with newspapers or magazines? That’s certainly debatable.

Smith seems to come from a position where art exists as something people do to commemorate the present time. For others, art is something that’s taken in to touch the past — art as museum piece, in a way. The reason society maintains museums — both literal and figurative — is to acknowledge our culture’s link to times before. Is there room for that in a world where the arts industry is euthanized? 

One point that Smith continuously strikes is that failure and death are a part of life, natural points in the process of any system. Propping up arts organizations precludes the fruition of natural progress. It’s better to unplug than to feebly scratch away for fleeting life. It’s a fascinating take.

Read Devon Smith’s post on Medium and tell us what you think. 

Photo credit: Viorel Sima / Shutterstock


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