In her new Jumper post published just this morning, “Are we a sector defined by our permanently failing organizations?” Diane Ragsdale considers the internal dynamics of institutional existence and persistence as a symptom of the sclerotic artistic institution. Her thoughts jump off from this comment by Corey Fischer of the recently-closed Traveling Jewish Theatre:
The sad part is that in the years leading up to our decision to finally close down, it seemed as if we were being punished for our commitment to be a home for artists. Some foundations and consultants implied and sometimes said straight out that to attempt to have artists at the center of the company and pay them a living wage was frivolous, unrealistic and irresponsible. Perhaps. But as economic conditions forced us to change that basic aspect of our identity, it became harder and harder for us to accomplish our mission of creating and presenting original work. When we recognized that the only way to even have a chance of surviving was to become one more theater producing plays that could just as easily be done by a host of other companies, we saw no reason to continue.
Ms. Ragsdale points to characteristics of “permanently failing organizations” as a fatal obstacle in the effort to define new models or missions:
[O]rganizations reach a so-called “permanently failing” state when those who are “dependent” on the institution (primarily but not exclusively, managers who depend on the institution for a paycheck and who, therefore, often value maintenance of the organization over other performance goals) begin to amass power, which they then use to keep the organization alive, but in a low performance state. … Perhaps we perceive the arts sector itself as being in the doldrums not because there are no innovators in our midst (there are plenty), but because we have, for too long, held up our permanently failing organizations as leaders and, by doing so, have permitted them to define our sector’s goals and its performance.
It is interesting to muse briefly about just which institutions have been “held up” as leaders, who has been doing the holding-up, and whether these latter folk are just as culpable for the state of these institutions and the art they purport to present. But Mr. Fischer’s comment also suggests that all we need to do to find the origin of this dysfunction is to follow the money. Not only do foundations and consultants dissuade theatres from permanent acting ensembles or resident dramatists (that road considered “frivolous, unrealistic and irresponsible”); board members (often major donors to these theatres whose board membership is contingent upon large gifts) do so as well, and probably for much the same reason — there is little bang-for-the-buck in supporting process rather than product. It also reveals these donors’ conception of the arts as frivolous ornamentation to a culture rather than part of the lifeblood of that culture. That said, I can’t agree with Ms. Ragsdale that the TJT’s decision was “laudable.” Noble, perhaps, but only as some suicides are noble — a Pyrrhic victory at best.
A few weeks ago I published Harold Clurman’s “complete critic’s qualifications.” By way of contrast, I point you towards New York Times‘ critic Ben Brantley’s similar list, which he outlined in an interview with Dave Begel of OnMilwaukee.com last week. My favorite exchange is this one:
OMC: Does a good reviewer need to have experience in the theater to be credible?
BB: I think it helps to know how theater works, of course, and to have had at least some first-hand experience. But I think what makes any artist good — which is a particular, passionate and idiosyncratic point of view — is not what makes a good critic.
Funny — I would have thought a particular, passionate, and idiosyncratic point of view is precisely what makes a good critic. No, strike that — it makes a great one. But Mr. Brantley’s perspective certainly explains 90% of the Times‘ arts and cultural coverage.