Becoming Indispensable

By    May 15, 2013

20130514_173928Editor’s note:  As part of our online discussion around The Summit at Sundance, we have invited participants in The Chief Executive Program to frame each of our problems to solve. Here, Basma El Husseiny takes on the problem: Maximize the cultural field’s value in the eyes of the public/society.

While articulating the value of what arts organizations offer to society in specific quantitative terms is necessary and important, most people will not be able to see the connection between these terms and the change they would like to happen to their lives. If an arts organization is seeking support and recognition from a large segment of society, then the articulation of its mission and objectives has to be meaningful to this segment, and preferably to society as a whole.

The problem may not be in the articulation, it may be in the credo of the organization itself.  In many cases, arts organizations are not aware of the role they can play in the society, yet are dissatisfied that the society sees them as dispensable.   A theatre company that is suffering from shrinking audiences and reduced public or donor funding would probably attribute this to a problem in communicating their value, but in many cases the problem would be that the value is diminishing, or that they have become less aware of their value.

In societies where social and political changes are high on the public agenda, the arts offer two necessary tools to enact change: imagination and expression.  There, the value of arts organizations is estimated against how well and effective these tools are shared and used in the society.  For me, this is the intrinsic value of the arts; their ability to empower people through imagination and expression.  The articulation of the value of arts organizations in such contexts should certainly go beyond the numeric and quantitative.  In the Arab region, the ongoing volatile change process is a real challenge for arts organizations as the needs for their work and services is rising to a level they can hardly meet.  The challenge is not only how to be able to cope with these demands but is also, and more importantly, how they can, in this hectic rush to organize events and produce new work, still maintain reasonable artistic standards.

In advanced societies, the arts field is totally professionalized.  This of course has many advantages, but one of the big disadvantages is the absence of the spirit of activism; the belief that the arts can and should change what needs to be changed in the society: injustice, oppression, discrimination, destruction of the natural environment, etc.  How can this be applied to a major museum in New York, London or Paris?  I don’t really know but my simple and superficial observation is that most of these big arts organizations are not engaged in civic discourses about social issues and are therefore unaware of the value they could provide.


More thoughts from the field


“As leaders working in the arts and cultural field, we need to shift the frame from “Please value the work we do” to “Our organization builds the economy, builds respectful cities and neighborhoods, and educates the future workforce of our community.” Align this work with others who care about these issues. Find opportunities to collaborate across sectors. You will know success when others begin delivering your message.”

— Danielle Brazell (Executive Director, Arts for LA)

“Value is, of course, in the eyes and pocketbooks of the beholder. For example, I find the work of intelligent film critics to be highly valuable: I learn about the context of a film, its relationship to film history or literature, the fine moments of cinematography in the film, what to look for, etc. But others care no more than to have a score number–a meaningless quantification–from critics.

The value of art or culture has been quantified in more and in less meaningful ways. In our own case the experts find we generate something like 12 Million USD to our community. Sounds good to me, until you see that they impute overnight stays in our town as coming from our events/screenings. Not likely. Maybe so in center city, but doubtful in the suburbs. So what? I can brag about our economic value.

But the real value is in quality of life, in the enrichment our patrons experience by coming to thoughtful films, film courses, discussion groups. They are smarter and feel better afterwards. They have something to talk about. And have fun in the process.

The foundations/governments who demand quantification of film’s value may like the fact that 5 new businesses and restaurants have opened near us in the past year. But that is a derivative value, even though it is part of our mission statement. I don’t get up in the morning eager to add to the economic life of the community; rather, eager to bring more interesting films to our neighborhood.”

— Juliet Goodfriend (President, Bryn Mawr Film Institute)

How would you solve this problem? Add your ideas below!