By Jim McCarthy May 23, 2011 1 comment

Powerlessness Corrupts

I read that in a book by Elizabeth Moss Canter about what happens when people in an organization begin to feel that they have no ability to influence events, or when they feel that the destiny of themselves or their organization are out of their control.  (It’s also nicely summarized in this EMC article too.)

That’s what I thought of when I read the collection of pieces that Thomas Cott mailed out today about government funding.  His collection of stories detailed the ups and downs in places as divergent as London, Atlanta, and New York: government funding is cut; it’s restored; it’s cut but only partly.  Up, down, yes, no, maybe.

I hold a couple of opinions on this topic that make me unpopular with just about everyone.  First, even though I have a pretty wide libertarian streak, I can’t exactly get excited about cutting these programs because they’re so small.  Financially, they’re irrelevant, so why bother? If you’re talking about this as a source of reducing the scope of government or balancing budgets, you’re wasting your time. Besides, as government spending goes, this is probably one of the higher impact places, and it’s certainly visible in its payoff.

The second unpopular opinion I hold is that any self-respecting organization in the live arts or entertainment business should be working actively to avoid taking any government money because of the distortions it causes.  The need for government funding is an indicator that any organization that takes it is not creating sufficient value to sustain itself.  As a transitory state or in start-up mode, that’s ok, sorta, but as a way of life, it’s poison.

An organization doesn’t have to be a for-profit for it to matter if they can pay their own bills.  It matters because it’s the powerlessness and dependency that Canter was talking about that sets in.  Entitlement, anger, infighting, insularity.  These are things you’re more likely to find in an organization where the power resides outside the organization (with those funding it, especially when it’s the government) than within it or its base of supporters.

My view is this: design your organization so that it delivers enough value to pay for itself.  This happens by both increasing the value delivered and contemplating how to use fewer resources.  I’m not talking about penny-pinching.  I’m talking about re-thinking needs altogether.  Traditional arts organizations strike me as being heavy in fixed, long term investments like buildings, permanent salaries and gear.

So my argument is not that the government shouldn’t fund this stuff or that arts organizations need to prepare for the reality of this stuff not being funded, both of which are highly debatable.  It’s that live entertainment and arts organizations should work very hard not to need this money because it’s bad for them in the long term, and maybe sooner.

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    1 Comment

    • Tim

      One of the most influential moments of my arts education was hearing Uta Hagen extol this exact same argument, and she would have added that it’s much harder to make “art” under these conditions since there are political considerations to not offending your backers – i.e. every single citizen of the United States. Not exactly a great environment to strive to make art in.