This is likely to be the first in a series of spewed thoughts about a super complex topic – the pros and cons for the artist of interfacing with the non-profit.
I’ll say two things:
1) I am generally anti non-profits for the majority of content generators, especially for small ensembles and individual creators. I try to be as informed as possible but I am also sure I will say any number of uninformed things. I’m trying to parse through a larger number of still evolving thoughts about how money and the arts and sustainability and still having time to actually make work all intersect. In some ways, this is an attempt to elicit challenges to assumptions I have to help me get more info.
2) I’m on the precipice of possibly joining the board of a relatively large and impactful organization. I’m interested in joining a board to see what it actually is like to be a part of such a thing, and to see what kinds of art “organizations” do and don’t need such a thing.
So I want to start with a question I’ve had on my brain for a while: Are there any artists who, if given the choice, would actually want to keep a board of directors if they didn’t have to? I know that many of my peers have talked to me about learning to find meaning and usefulness and sometimes even joy in the people they’ve invited to be part of their non-profit board. But if they weren’t required to find a way to live with this set up, would they still do it?
This is the question that I wonder about all the time. It’s the reason, or at least a very large part of the reason, that I haven’t myself made the non-profit leap. It’s because I fear that at it’s core, the non-profit system really isn’t set up to serve the way that I personally make stuff. Here’s how I see it: a non-profit is an entity whose primary mission or core values are prized over the generation of profit in the pursuit of a given activity.
I think many, probably most, artists who currently exist in the non-profit sphere are down with this. We’re not in it to be millionaires. We’re in it because we believe in the necessity of the thing we do to be shared with others. If we had food and housing and money to raise kids taken care of, we’d probably give it all away for free. So the point is not that our entity can’t make a profit, can’t create a surplus of funds, but that in essence the surplus isn’t the point of the work. The work is the point of the work. And in the US this means that a non-profit can pay its employees and buy things related to the work it does, but that anything above and beyond this expense doesn’t go to some group of investors but stays within the entity to be used to make or do more of the stuff they make and do.
So far, I’m in. Now on to who’s running the show.
According to Foundation Center’s website a non-profit board of directors:
“Is the governing body of a nonprofit organization. The responsibilities of the board include discussing and voting on the highest priority issues, setting organizational policies, and hiring and evaluating key staff. Board members are not required to know everything about nonprofit management, but they are expected to act prudently and in the best interests of the organization. They approve operating budgets, establish long-term plans, and carry out fundraising activities.”
So think about this. In a non-profit the ultimate status and hierarchy lies with the board. At the end of the day they are the people most responsible for the running of the entity. It’s the board of directors in this set up that are tasked with ensuring that the people who are employed by the organization are doing just that – carrying out the mission of the company.
And it’s here that I really start to wonder if we are trying to put a square peg in a round hole.
Think about the work of an individual artist or small ensemble. What is their mission as a creator or group of creators? What are they trying to do, really, at the core? To make their work in the best way possible. To follow their own artistic impulses. When they define a “mission” it may have a lot of fancy words, like mine does:
Swim Pony Performing Arts: Loud, strange and never seen before on earth! Swim Pony is committed to the creation of unique live performances that are joyful and defy tradition in order to bring contemporary audiences beyond their experiences of the every-day.
But really, these words are just my attempt to try and explain what my personal artistic impulses are. They are my attempt to give name to the ever-shifting series of interests and impulses Adrienne Mackey has in making stuff. They are the way in which those impulses expand to include a variety of people who get involved with that vision.
Which means that were I to incorporate the mission my board would be responsible for is “To make Adrienne’s work the most Adrienne it can be.”
Here’s a scenario where I chafe a little: What happens when a company founded by an artistic director under what is in essence a single visionary’s work is at odds with its board?
What happens when Jane Doe Dance Company’s board says that Jane Doe is wrong about what upcoming project will best to uphold the standards of the Jane Doe mission? At the end of the day, in this structure, when push comes to shove the board has the power to tell Jane Doe that they know better than she does. They are empowered in this structure to tell an artist that they know better about how their work should be made.
I’m not saying that this happens often. Or that most people end up in this position.
I’m saying that’s the power dynamic that is structurally implicit.
And to me that makes no sense.
There are ways to still work within the system. But at its core I think this is the wrong dynamic. It’s the wrong delineation of responsibility. I am all for advising and contribution. I believe that artists should get input from the outside about how their work is best made and how it might be financially sustainable and responsible. But at the core, I don’t agree that the final responsibility for a creator’s product can be located outside of the creator.
Yes if it’s an organization that promotes a kind of artwork or genre.
Yes if it’s an organization that curates a type of work.
Yes if it’s an organization that is at its core a habitat for artists to plug into.
But I don’t think so when it’s an organization whose sole mission is the work of a single artist’s vision.
And if that’s true, I think we need to be honest that this is probably the wrong way to do it. That the non-profit structure wasn’t designed with this in mind.
Or maybe I’m wrong.
Help me see otherwise…