Day 7: Arts non-profits and a general sense of unease

Today I attended an event at the Women's Center for Creative Work. The event was called How We Organize: A Critical Reading & Discussion Group on Non-Profit Arts Organizing. It basically checked all conceivable boxes for me (not really, but like 80% of them). Arts? Organziations? Cynical critique of the non-profit system? At a feminist space?


Anyway, I didn't really think about the fact that there would be homework (the aforementioned "reading") until 8 am today, so I only read a few pages. Just enough to set my teeth a little on edge and to get me excited about what might come out of it.

Why on edge?

As I've moved into the entrepreneurship community, I've begun feeling like an actually empowered person. I didn't really realize how sad and pathetic I was in the full-bore arts non-profit world, but I was like there should always be somebody there to take care of whatever need I was worried about. Minnesota has such a strong granting and foundation economy that mostly I just counted my lucky stars and pitied everybody else. When I met out-of-towners they mostly reinforced this belief, if not explicitly then implicitly as they wiped drool from their mouths as I described what was available to us.

Anyway, I couldn't have articulated this earlier, when my teeth were on edge, but I've begun to feel anxious around non-profit types, which is weird because they are also my client base. There is an age-old feud between Dark Evil Nasty Capitalists and Pure Good Well-Meaning Nonprofits, and frankly, I think about business models too often for the liking of your average Non-Profit Bear. I think about them in all kinds of contexts--how could my blog support me? How could Mad King Thomas get funding from a diverse set of sources? How can I work with artists who can't afford my full-on consultation rates? How can I make a business that empowers marginalized communities? How can I build a business that more efficiently spreads my beliefs? (That last one is is maybe how Henry Ford thought, but I'm pretttttty sure I'm less of a fascist than he was.) I have learned more about service and contribution as a business owner than I ever did as an artist. They feed each other, now, but I definitely get the best ideas about finding people to share your work with from the business world. About making an impact. All that good stuff.

ANYWAY. I went with terror in my heart that I'd end up defending business and make dozens of very nice enemies, but lo, the conflict I imagined did not come to pass!

Things we talked about that I found interesting or digestible enough to write down:

Funding and organizational lifecycle
A theory was proposed: With grassroots/community funding, the community itself dictates the lifecycle of a non-profit. If you're not serving your audience, they won't fund you and then you *poof* move to a higher plane or existence.

As I type this now, I wonder how that concept applies to the arts--a lot of what we discussed was actually social justice oriented rather than arts focused.

A woman in the room admitted that she used to say, "My job is to put myself out of a job," but she had stopped saying that at some point. I remembered that Mad King Thomas used to say this, too. The job of our dances was to create a world where we had nothing to get mad about and make dances about. I don't remember the last time I said or even thought that way.

Anyway, with the implication that a lack of community financial support might indicate the end of an organization's lifecycle, we meet a curious knot: As an artist I want to keep making work! Even if nobody likes it. I also want to be able to pay my bills and eat! I want to keep investigating and experimenting and indeed someday that may not be popular. I also am open to the idea that unpopular work can be a sign of bad work, just as it can be a sign of original thinking. It is a tough knot! As someone who fundraises directly with the people who consume my work, when we have a bad fundraising season, it starts to feel as though, yes, we are in fact evaporating. When you make dance, you are always evaporating anyway, so encouragement in that direction just makes me depressed and afraid of community fundraising.

I then wondered what a world without non-profits would even look like. Is there a universe in which social services are never needed? Where community groups don't exist? I don't think so. I think there are two kinds of non-profits: those who should be putting themselves out of business (fixing a problem permanently) and those who exist to move forward. Say, a library.

Anyway, this hypothetical world seems to be to overlap with a utopia where there are no potholes either, which speaks to a conflation (in my mind if nowhere else) of non-profits and civic services and all kinds of things. Would all artists make a living with art? Would they be happy with their other job and art as a parallel career? What happens to a brilliant genius ahead of her time? I assume the non-profit-free world is also a starving-artist-free world.

ANYWAY. It's hard to even understand that world, but then I struggle with utopian thinking.

Business Model Club
One person discussed business models and how we must get better at them. I want to start a Business Model Club for Radical Thinkers. I want to get white boards and people and ideas together. I want to whiteboard out people's ideas and brainstorm with them ways to serve their communities while also supporting themselves/their organization. Does anybody want to come to that club? Send me a message through my contact form because I seriously want to do this.

Community vs. clique
"Clique" came up when someone talked about funders funding individuals they liked over strong programs from people they don't know. I wonder about the difference between "community" and "clique". I also know about "nepotism" and other nefarious things. I mean, I can define them, nobody needs to jump in on that level. But where does an obsession with community become cliquishness? Sometimes I feel like it's community when we're part of it, and cliquishness when we're not. In the non-profit world, I fear we say No when we could say Yes, but, or Yes, and (taking inspiration here from a supernerdy article on theatrical theory and role-playing). We say No, that doesn't feel right. No, this is screwed up. No, you shouldn't fund this person because you know them. It's a negative mindset, a zero-sum attitude. How can we ask for both? How can we get the money AND get our way? How can we insist on funding that fits our needs, rather than creating needs to please a funder? How can we take a situation we don't like and add to it our own and better approach?

The Open-Source Question
So anyway, I've set up this weird dichotomy between business and non-profithood, but I exist in another gray area. An extremely gray area if gray can be extreme. Like a gray fog on gray water area: the open-source world. I've recently re-engaged with the Drupal community after a tumultuous year of doubt and agony. And I am amazed, again, as always, at open source as an ethos, as an organizing principle AND as an actual method of producing viable software, which is one of the hardest things I've ever tried to do. It is co-opetition. It is profoundly strange and I think it is and will revolutionize the way we think in groups--although it is difficult to understand until you understand it, which is a tricky selling proposition. Still, people not in open-source get excited about it, and I get excited about it, and I think good things will come of it. It's an invaluable set of soft skills to have and I am excited that it's happening.

Anyway, it's late. I could write on this for hours. I haven't even mentioned the articles we read or anything they say. I'm not sure this overall musing makes a ton of sense. Have I mentioned I'm still sad about Prince? I'm still sad about Prince. I'm also happy to meet people engaged in the very weird question of what exactly is wrong with the non-profit system and what comes next.

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