What Are We Doing?

You can take this question a couple of ways. Literally: what is the action? Consequentially: what is the result of my action? Purposefully: why am I doing this? None of them addresses the how, and none of them addresses the Law of Unintended Consequences.

What are we doing?

I’m asking this question right now in the wake of the Arts Advocacy Breakfast on Friday morning in Milwaukee, which I missed, being en route to San Francisco (nice city – lots of hills and fog). I’m also in the middle of Anne Basting’s Forget Memory, which is about people with dementia and how using art can reach them in a different way. I’ve just begun reading John Carey’s What Good are the Arts, which is very interesting, and it’s great to have Anne’s thoughts as a counter to his. While I was in Prague I read Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics, so these are the books that are informing my language and my ideas at the moment.

Advocacy: here, influencing behavior, making a change. Levitt and Dubner’s point of attack is incentive. We have an incentive – we want to make the world a better place. That’s a nice and innocuous phrasing. More concretely: we want to make the Skylight a better place – that’s no longer nice or innocuous. It’s concrete, and the subtext if not overt phrasing includes (for many people) getting rid of Eric Dillner and the Executive Committee. Okay, past innocuous, right into contentious.

Who can make this decision? Well, Mr. Dillner and the Executive Committee can choose to step down. The other possibility is that the rest of the board bands together to force them to step down. Let me know if I’m missing anyone here, but it seems to me that those two options are all that are on the table. And that brings me back to Levitt and Dubner: what’s their incentive?

They seem to be calculating that “the rancor” will pass. Personally, I think they're making a solid bet. They don’t hold all of the cards, but they’ve got a lot of them. The challenge of the grassroots organization is wielding power. “Grassroots” suggests that we’re all ordinary people, we don’t have special influence – and influence is exactly what advocacy needs if it’s going to be anything but making noise. The board’s job – precisely – is to take care of the institution. They are responsible to no one but themselves (as far as I know). This suggests that the incentive necessary to encourage them to change their collective approach is to threaten the institution. Gather people to pull subscriptions; gather donors to pull money. Make the board see that their continuing actions are so displeasing so as to cause their community to withdraw its support. Do we really want to do this?

See: Pyrrhic Victory; also, “cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face.”

What are we doing?

Another option, suggested to me and a couple of others by Jessica St. John (formerly of Milwaukee, now of New York City) is to go ahead and start another company – this one with Bill Thiesen, Jamie Johns, and for all I know Diane, Kelley, Jason, and Ralph. I have to think that Bill and Jamie have good rolodexes. Isn’t this part of the community’s concern, that these people (good people and good artists) aren’t working anymore?

To the statement, “we shouldn’t have to do this,” I answer: maybe we shouldn’t. So what? Maybe we have to.

One of the other questions that’s embedded in “what are we doing” is “what do we want.” What a lot of people want is for things to Go Back to the Way Things Were – with Bill at the helm, with Jamie at the piano, with the Skylight the way “we’ve always known it.” That’s not going to happen. Even if Eric steps down and Bill steps up, all of this has happened. Nothing is going to be the same. We are never going back to the way things were.

Okay, now someone is going to tell me that all of this was productively covered at the breakfast that I missed. Oops.

And incidentally, while Jamie Johns has been vocal about his position, what about Bill Thiesen? I’ve seen him quoted (or paraphrased) as considering coming back next year, but otherwise he’s keeping a low profile. And that’s his business, of course – I don’t mean to drag him where he doesn’t want to be. I do mean to ask about all of this advocacy on his-and-the-Skylight’s behalf. Does he want to go back – now? With this Board of Directors? Just a thought.

1 comment:

  1. "We are never going back to the way things were."

    True, but if the Skylight changes course, or if outed Skylight artists create a new company which competes with (and defeats) Eric's Skylight, then things can become BETTER than they were.

    Theatre in general cannot go back to the way it was. The non-profit model and regional theatre system are in serious trouble. Stability is not an option. There are two options:

    1. Eric's way: cut the artists out, turn theatre into a fundraising machine that produces "status: art supporter" for it's donors and "community enrichment and education" projects with little or no artistic merit or intentions, like Herman the Horse. Eventually you have arts organizations that produce no real art and collapse under their own worthlessness.

    2. Mike Daisey's way: make the artists an integral part of the staff and organization. Teach artists business and infuse their creativity and their personalities into fundraising and promotional projects. This saves money, improves those processes, and makes them art-driven, which allows the arts organization to flourish as an arts organization.

    I'm banking on option 2 to be the long term champ, if it can overcome some short term challenges.