One thing you hear about the current economic mess is that some banks and companies are “too big to fail.” This is the idea that if a mega-corporation like AIG goes down, the repercussions are so enormous that other companies will fall in its wake and the whole financial system might fall apart. Thus an argument for tax-payer bailouts.

That got me thinking about the culture of failure. Science is built on failure. Make observations, posit solutions, try them out, fail, learn from your failure and try again until you find a solution. Scientific breakthroughs wouldn’t be possible without failure. Funding for research is predicated on extremely high rates of failure. Ask a successful person what they learned on the way up and they’ll likely talk about how they dealt with their failures, not their success.

The hippest, most interesting and successful arts programmer I ever knew told me once that the secret to his success was failure. “If more than 10 percent of the things I do are successful (he was, after all, a programmer of new work), I feel like I’m not doing my job,” he said. What he meant was that without trying many things that didn’t work, he couldn’t be open to the possibility of greatness. It was only his willingness to learn from mistakes and embrace failure that produced transcendent success.

Yet why does it so often seem that the goal of arts organizations is to neutralize failure or deny it? If AIG was “too big to fail” maybe it stopped learning from failure and found itself in trouble only after it was too late. In the 90s the arts economy expanded and many arts organizations got bigger and more institutional. With growth and soaring expenses, the cost of failing [read: the capacity to fail safely] often got priced out. And how many arts organizations, when they do do something that fails, rush to deny that it failed? Like admitting failure is a bad thing.

Arts funders have tended to want more and more assurances that the things they fund are successes. One manifestation of this trend is the way so much arts funding has become project-based. Funders prefer to have projects they can point to for tangible, measurable results.So it’s much easier to raise money for a new building than it is for operational support to keep the doors open. And it’s much easier to fund programs in multiculturalism or arts education than it is a new play or symphony.

As a result, we have a system set up to reward expansion of buildings and the building of infrastructure [a real estate bubble?] which then must be sustained in ways that make failure not an option. That is: guess wrong and you might put your organization in danger, so don’t guess wrong. And so we have arts organizations who are thought to be “too big to fail” even as they 1. get safer and safer in the artistic choices they make. and/or 2. get into bigger and bigger trouble because they can’t afford the little failures along the way that they could learn from.

The situation in the arts then, would seem to be exactly opposite of what we understand to be best practice in science. Funding for science is at a whole different level than funding for the arts, and yet, it seems to me that being good at funding the right kinds of failures in the arts might lead to a much healthier arts community.

Douglas McClellan