The Playgoer: Whither the Nonprofit Model?

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Whither the Nonprofit Model?

An interesting lede on the "National Website of Wales" of all places. (Gotta love that Arts Journal!)

Former Westminster Culture Secretary Chris Smith has warned the Assembly Government that if it directly funds Wales' 'big six' arts organisations it must not interfere with their creativity. If politicians believe they can give artistic advice in return for handing out money, the culture industry could suffer rather than thrive, he said.

'A government cannot and should not seek to create art,' said Chris Smith - now Lord Smith of Finsbury - who is now director of the Clore Leadership programme, which trains leaders of the cultural sector.

'Most governments that have tried to do that have come up with the worst art imaginable.

Amen, of course.

But I when I read this today I also thought of yet another provocative point made by Gregory Mosher at a panel discussion last week. It went something like this: after someone at a nonprofit theatre bemoaned the 6-12 months out of the year spent on writing grant proprosals, he asked, maybe you should find investors? In other words, what is the nonprofit model doing for us anymore, if it's only led to more grant-writing, which leads to more bullshit descriptions of what theatre is supposed to do, which leads to more contingencies and stipulations and limitations on the work, and which invariably leads to the kind of self-censorhip we see whenever the role of "public money" in art is cited as the reason to silence free speech.

Does the thought of finding some enlightened millionaires crazy enough to invest in challenging theatre sound that much worse? Or even less unrealistic than having creative freedom in the dwindling "big government is over" era we now live in? Let's face it, so many grants are corporate funded anyway now, no? Why not get completely into bed rather than keeping one foot on the floor!

Mosher didn't argue all that, but pertinent thought experiments like these could be built around his point.

The example of Charles Mee was brought up by another panelist. Seeking total autonomy, he was lucky to find a wealthy couple to, basically, be his patrons. But he proposed it to them as a business--pay me to write plays. I have no idea what arrangement he has with them for returns, but it doesn't seem to be total philanthropy.

Ok, there may not be a patron waiting for everyone. But notice how the thought of enlightened aristocrats can start to seem not so bad? No worse than relying upon the grace of a Bush-appointed NEA and a Pataki NYSCA, at least.


Anonymous said...

The market helps create interesting dramas. Charles Mee and Richard Foreman are brilliantly talented but God forbid if everyone wrote like them!

The need to make stories that appeal to a paying audience often makes for the most exciting, dynamic, democratic work. In some ways the commercial model is superior both to the non-profit corporate and government grant model, and the patron model.

That said, there does need to be a non-profit revolution, where financial freedom -- freedom from corporate and/or governmental pressure, however subtle -- allows a wider range of work to be done.

Scott Walters said...

I agree with you dismissal of the non-profit model, which has become a way to keep theatres poor and begging. Patrons might be the way to go -- at least you only have to serve one master. I keep thinking there must be another business model yet to come, one that parallels the Web 2.0 revolution of podcasts and YouTube. Still thinking...