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Public radio’s Marketplace program had a segment on yet another social networking and collective action web site that promises to change the way we interact and organize. This one has significant implications for some of the core functions of arts organizations.
The Point seeks to solve a vexing challenge for group action: confirming the critical mass to do something or buy something before you do it or buy it. For example, a social service organization might want to buy a new refrigerator, but wouldn’t want to do so until they’re sure they’ve got the contributions to pay for it. And prospective donors don’t want to give money unless they’re assured the refrigerator will actually get bought. Or, a group would like to threaten a boycott of some company, but has no leverage until they prove that they have lots of consumers on board — there’s no action without a large collective commitment, and there’s no collective without the action.
There are two ways around this classic problem. One is to act through a formal institution, which brings its own budget and staff to float the cost and absorb the risk. The other is to get some binding conditional commitment from enough people to accomplish the goal once the threshold is reached.
The Point works to solve the problem the second way (its name is a reference to the ”Tipping Point”). Anyone can start a campaign (for a boycott, a collective purchase, a fundraiser, and so on), and then individuals can conditionally commit to that campaign: ”if you reach your threshold of people or money, I’m in.”
It may not sound transformative for the professional arts, but it most certainly could be. Consider this: What if you wanted to bring a professional performing artist to town for a show? A year ago, you’d need a performing arts presenter to find them, contract them, commit to paying them, and then drum up the ticket sales and contributions to make it viable. If the presenter falls short, they eat the difference, and hope that another show earns above its budget.
Now consider the entirely different organizing model for touring professional performances offered by The Point. An individual or informal group could propose bringing Ani DiFranco, or Royal Shakespeare Company, or Hubbard Street Dance to town on a certain day in a certain venue, and post the idea as a campaign on-line. Those who would buy a ticket or contribute to the performance could enter their credit card on-line. If enough people signed on with enough money, the contract would close and their cards would be charged. If not, the show wouldn’t come.
It’s a modern-day version of the old Community Concerts model, where a community group would sell season subscriptions, and book the artists after they knew how many tickets they sold. But it happens without the board and staff required of the original model.
Institutions exist, in part, to resolve the complexity of collective action, to bridge the distance between an idea and its completion, and to mediate the many transaction costs and risks along the way. Systems like The Point provide one less reason we need institutions to do the things they do now…arts institutions included.
The Artful Manager
The Pritzker Prize, which this year was awarded to French architect Jean Nouvel, is often referred to as the Nobel Prize of architecture. It is an inaccurate analogy. Nobel Prizes, whether in literature, chemistry, or physics, are given to individuals for individual work; buildings are the result of teamwork. Sometimes Nobels are awarded to small teams of scientists, and researchers do have assistants, but not 140 of them, which is the size of Ateliers Jean Nouvel, whose head office is in Paris but which maintains site offices in London, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, and Minneapolis.
This is not to take anything away from Nouvel, an imaginative if sometimes heavy-handed architect. He deserves credit for assembling—and leading—the talented teams that get his designs built. But teams they are. One of the most striking features of the bullet-shaped Agbar Tower in Barcelona, designed in association with the firm b720 Arquitectos, is its shimmering exterior glass screen. The screen was fabricated by the Italian firm Permasteelisa, one of the leading curtain-wall manufacturers in the world, responsible for some of the most striking walls of recent times—including that of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Norman Foster’s Hearst Building in New York, and Coop Himmelblau’s BMW Welt in Munich.
The Pritzker Prize promotes the fiction that buildings spring from the imagination of an individual architect—the master builder. This wasn’t true in the Middle Ages, when there were real master builders, and it isn’t true today. The modern architect works with scores of specialists, first and foremost structural engineers, without whom most architects today would be lost. Armies of consultants are responsible for everything from acoustics and lighting to energy conservation and security. Fabricators like Permasteelisa manufacture—and influence the design of—specialized building components, and contractors put the whole thing together.
Construction has become so complex that responsibility for design and building is commonly split between design architects and so-called executive architects, who oversee the preparation of construction documents and supervise the building process. The international nature of high-profile architectural practices—Ateliers Jean Nouvel is currently building 40 projects in 13 countries—means that local associate firms like b720 Arquitectos also play a key role in the process. Given the messy and unpredictable nature of construction, it is often the person on the building site who makes critical design decisions.
The other crucial ingredient for a successful building is the client, not only because he pays for it—though that is no mean contribution, since building costs are notoriously difficult to estimate. It is often said that good buildings require good clients, and great buildings demand great clients—who will support the architect but also challenge him. It is surely no coincidence, as John Silber points out in Architecture of the Absurd, that Gehry’s IAC headquarters building in New York, designed for Barry Diller, is the best work the architect has done in years.
The fact that architecture is a team sport is what makes buildings so interesting. Art is often chiefly the reflection of an individual sensibility, but architecture tells us something about the society that produced it, its technology, its values, its taste. In that sense, building buildings is more like making movies than creating personal works of art. The Academy Awards recognize that the auteur theory of filmmaking has little relevance to making major movies; that’s why Oscars are awarded in all those categories—art direction, sound mixing, makeup—and why the best-picture prize is given to the producers, not the director, writer, or actors. Perhaps the Pritzker should be given to the “best building.” The prize would be picked up by the architect, the engineer, the builder, and, oh yes, the client.