Saturday, May 25, 2013

Detroit and the Myopia of Nonprofit Arts Organizations

In its Arts, Briefly section today, The New York Times reported on news that Detroit's emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, is contemplating selling some of the Detroit Institute of the Arts's collection to cover the city's $15 million debt. Metropolitan Museum president and CEO Thomas P. Campbell predicted that the "disheartening reports out of Detroit today will undoubtedly shock and outrage the city's residents."

Let's look at some data that Campbell probably didn't consider before making his comment:

Campbell's words speak to the myopia that non-profit arts organizations suffer from when it comes to the constituencies they purport to serve. For most arts managers "the city" constitutes a small number of well-heeled donors that give thousands--millions, even--in exchange for decision making power and access; the job of the arts manager is to keep these people happy. Membership holders and ticket buyers fortunate enough to bask in the glow of reflected wealth are barely within the field of vision. Others without money are considered only occasionally, mostly through "outreach" programs. 

In a crumbling city with overwhelming economic problems affecting a huge number of its residents, it's worth asking whose needs an arts organization is really serving and whether resources should be used differently. Many arts managers don't have the bravery to ask these questions. The hope is that, in Detroit and elsewhere, someone will have the vision to come up with honest answers.