(photo credit: henrybloomfield, flickr Creative Commons license)

You know, for a long time I resisted incorporating the current economic environment into my writing here, other than brief references to it in the around the horn posts, mostly because I didn’t feel like I had any brilliant answers. Yeah, it sucks that no one has any money and everybody’s cutting back. No, we don’t really have a lot of control over the situation. So why talk about it? But at the AFTA Convention last month, I started to realize that there’s a very palpable need out there to look for answers, even if we’re not sure where (or whether) we’ll find them. So in the spirit of Web 2.0, here’s what I’m going to propose: let’s crowdsource this thing. Let’s get all the information we have, collectively, on the table, and start thinking about what we can do as a field and as individuals to turn this ship around. If you have something to contribute, do so in the comments and I will respond to selected ones in future posts in order to keep the conversation going and shine a light on your ideas.

Though it’s tempting to start by thinking about this from the perspective of an individual organization or person, I want to urge everyone at the beginning to take a very broad view of the situation, thinking about the pressures and opportunities that the current environment is creating. Once we have a good handle on that, our thoughts about individual situations will be much better informed because we can place them in context.

So, without further ado, here are some thoughts on the big picture to get us started. These are in no particular order.

This recession is much bigger than any of us or all of us put together.
The biggest thing to keep in mind about the recession, I think, is that we didn’t cause it, so therefore we can’t really fix it by ourselves. (By ourselves, I mean as an arts field.) However, that doesn’t mean we don’t have any power. We can help ourselves by becoming much more involved at a political level and working to support policies that will help everyone, not just artists, much as many artists got involved at the Obama campaign last year. Follow what’s going on in Congress. There are some pretty sweeping changes under consideration that could have big implications for the future, the most obvious being health care reform, the energy bill, and consideration of a second stimulus package. The outcome of those discussions could very easily mean far more for the arts than the next food fight over the NEA budget or Kal Penn’s new role at the White House.

There’s going to be some contraction.
If economies can grow, they can also shrink, and this one is shrinking. With the total number of nonprofits continuing to increase, there is inevitably going to be some attrition. From a system perspective, if this is inevitable, we want to make sure that this happens in the way that makes the best sense for everyone. To do this, we need to ask ourselves who the arts are really for. Is it the artists? Is it wealthy, educated audiences? At-risk kids? Everyone? Well-traveled international orchestra conductors and executive-level administrators? Following the money, you would think it’s the last group.

Most observers seem to agree that it’s the mid-level organizations that are going to be hit the hardest. I don’t know whether that’s accurate, but let’s assume that is for the sake of argument. Does this mean that mid-level organizations are overcapitalized? Do there need to be as many of them as they are? Or does it mean that small and large organizations are (or will be) overvalued?

We all know what the pressures are. Where are the opportunities?
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do markets. Let’s take a look at where the opportunities lie in this recession.

  1. This is a GREAT time to hire. A lot of people are out of work right now, but that doesn’t mean there’s any less talent or experience in the labor force than there was before. You have access to quite a few people in this market who wouldn’t have been available in a different time.
  2. This is a great time to SPEND MONEY. If you’re one of the lucky few to actually have money to burn in this economy, don’t sit on it! Everything is cheap right now, from real estate to services to stuff you buy at the mall. There’s not likely to be another opportunity again anytime soon when your dollar can buy so much, and as a bonus you’ll be doing your patriotic duty. And by the way, this goes for foundations too: buying impact is no less cheap for them. So consider dipping into those endowments, or even spending them down: trust, there will be plenty of people ready to carry on the legacy once things improve.
  3. This is a great time to START SOMETHING NEW. Again, there’s a lot of talent, a lot of time, and a lot of energy floating around out there that wasn’t out there before. That lends itself well to entrepreneurship, new ideas, new collaborations, new possibilities. Things will be tough at first, but you’ll also be facing a lot less competition now than you would in a more prosperous time.

Another opportunity is to make more intensive use of resources that are available to you at no marginal cost. (Meaning free, to the non-economically inclined.) Because there’s not as much cash floating around, and (some) people have more time, those resources become more valuable to you. I’m thinking about things like the Internet in general, social media, blogs, free events or workshops, and so forth.

That should be a decent start, but I’m sure I haven’t captured everything. What other large-scale implications can we think of for the recession?

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  • Anonymous

    Krista Pilot's brief presentation addresses the question "what opportunities might be present for arts orgs in this economy?" Pilot encourages broad thinking about the role that arts can serve.
    http://tinyurl.com/m44v7p