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During the recent Association of Arts Administration Educators conference here in Madison, the increasing proficiency and professionalism around our collective conversation was both a source of pride, and a cause for pause. As a field of educators, researching and teaching cultural management and leadership, we’re clearly growing in reflection, connections, and success. But what if we’re doing so at a time when the profession, as we’ve defined it, is changing rapidly? What if we’re all getting increasingly proficient at a decreasingly relevant part of the ecosystem?

Consider, for example, the three-word phrase that often crops up at such conferences: ”professional arts organization.” This phrase captures, in shorthand, the specific category of cultural endeavor we tend to be discussing. Professional arts organizations require professional management, aesthetic integrity, curatorial control, and stable but responsive structures to hold them together while moving their mission forward. These are the standards that drive our teaching and learning about the field.
But each of those three words — ”professional,” ”arts,” and ”organization” — is in radical flux at the moment. That suggests that a phrase (and an assumption) combining all three could mean less and less in shorthand form.

This concern may come from my current reading matter, Clay Shirky’s new book Here Comes Everybody, about the increasing opportunities for collective action without traditional organizational structures — think Flickr or Wikipedia or iStockPhoto. But there’s something rumbling in the world that questions our basic assumptions about arts and cultural management. Let’s take a look at each word in the phrase, in reverse order:

· Organization
The formal organization (social, commercial, political, etc.) evolved in response to a set of structural barriers to collective action. Work that required more than one or a few people to complete — highway systems, national defense, mass-produced goods, save-the-spotted-owl initiatives, performing arts touring networks, museums — created large problems of coordination, alignment of resources (enough money in one place under one decision system), and high transaction costs (everyone having to agree every time…exhausting). The organization resolved these challenges through formalized decision structures, consolidated resources, and persistent identity (for example, a corporation lives separately from its founders, and is endowed with many/most of the rights of an individual). There was a cost to this structure, to be sure. A significant portion of any organization’s energy is consumed by self-maintenance rather than delivering on its purpose. Since the option was to not do the thing at all, we figured the costs were acceptable and necessary.

With the evolution of digital communications networks and software, however, many of the original challenges that required an organization are gone or significantly reduced. Collective action is increasingly available to distributed groups who don’t even know each other by name, and may convene around a cause only to disburse thereafter. The cost of production and distribution has dropped to almost zero for many goods and services. Organizations are still necessary and essential parts of the mix, but they’re not the only (or even the optimal) solution to every question, as they once were.

· Arts
There’s little need to go on about this particular word, which we all would agree is a fast-moving, increasingly amorphous creature. When we talk about ”arts” in the context of ”arts management” or ”arts organizations,” we still generally mean predominantly Western forms of expression, with an assumed emphasis on technical or aesthetic excellence. We don’t always mean this, of course. But if you nudge most conversations by professionals, you’ll find this assumption just beneath the surface. Evidence comes from the fact that we still add qualifiers to the word when we mean something other than the above: ”community arts,” ”amateur arts.”

· Professional
Specialized organizations in specialized industries require specialized professionals — trained in the task by formal process or apprenticeship. Professionals earn the term when they are paid for their specialized work and when the nature and frame of their efforts are defined and evaluated by their peers rather than by their customers. Professional writers define what professional writers do. Professional doctors and realtors define the parameters and certifications for their peers.
But, again, what happens to the word ”professional” when works of comparable quality and skill can be conceived, produced, and distributed without expensive or centralized means of production? Flickr has millions of exceptional images, many shot by individuals with no formal training, expecting no pay, and unfiltered by a traditional gatekeeper (curator, publisher, agent).

Says Shirky:

When reproduction, distribution, and categorization were all difficult, as they were for the last five hundred years, we needed professionals to undertake those jobs, and we properly venerated those people for the service they performed. Now those tasks are simpler, and the earlier roles have in many cases become optional, and are sometimes obstacles to direct access, often putting the providers of the older service at odds with their erstwhile patrons.

So, am I suggesting that we abandon our foundational phrase ”professional arts organization”? Of course not. As long as there are complex processes, specialized physical requirements of expression (theaters, museums, even on-line forums), and a recognition of the value of extraordinary skill, vision, and voice, we will need organizations, professionals, and filtering systems to find, foster, and connect expressive works to the world.

But we may want to recalibrate our underlying assumptions as an industry (and as educators who hope to advance that industry and its goals) about the specific role of what we now call ”professional arts organizations.” These are a subset of a massive ecology available to us to achieve our larger purpose. If we stick too rigidly to our terms, we may become obstacles to the missions we claim to have.

Andrew Taylor
The Artful Manager

The following comment by Dary appeared on Taylor’s posting and is a worthwhile continuation of the argument:

I actually just saw this guy speak at a… ahem… super-dorky “Web 2.0” Conference in San Francisco. He was really, really engaging and had some pretty cool viewpoints. One of his hypotheses is that our society as a whole is coming out of an age of collective intellectual inebriation much like society did prior to the Industrial Revolution. He told a story about how rampant gin was in 19th-century England – to the point where there were gin pushcarts like our current-day ice cream carts – and how society as a whole was just drunk and lazy for decades. And then it went out of fashion, people starting doing stuff, and we got the Industrial Revolution.

He makes the analogy of that gin-soaked drunkeness to the TV-soaked stupor of the past 50 years or so. He says now people are watching less television (which I haven’t checked the numbers on) and are spending more time applying actual brain power to such things as updating Wikipedia articles, tagging sites on and ma.gnolia, writing blogs, and twittering (brain power optional on that one).

His views are, of course, open to debate and there’s some intriguing counter-arguments to the seemingly pristine virtues of collective intelligence.

Anyway, in terms of how Shirky’s theories and the new communal web apply to Professional Arts Organizations, I’m not exactly sure what exactly you’re getting at. With “Organizations” the web makes it easier to schedule things and get in touch with people. Of course. You don’t really redefine anything with “Arts” in terms of this new landscape except to touch on the fact that Professionals think Amateurs are lame. And with “Professional”, you argue Web 2.0 makes it easier for non-professional artists to have their material discovered? Yes, of course, again. I dunno.

What’s more interesting to me is how a larger pool of available pieces of media changes society’s collective agreement on what is worthwhile and valuable in the arts and in general. Colbert jokes about “truthiness”, but it’s actual a valid point of philosophical debate within this new worldwide, social move to open up human knowledge. It’s especially pertinent to music I think, not just in terms of what a society consumes, but how they consume it. And I go back-and-forth between whether these new aspects are wonderful and free or troubling and insulting.

Ask someone how many concerts they’ve been to vs. how many YouTube videos of concerts/pieces they’ve watched in the past year- my ratio is deplorable! And the idea that it’s now easy to create music – for $500 you can build a moderately decent home studio and create recordings of moderately decent quality – so professionals aren’t as necessary anymore is worrisome.

It’s all happened so fast I don’t think people in general have really stopped to think about what this means for our society’s appreciation of the arts and value system for judging works.

So I’m thinking out loud, but clearly this is a contentious point for me. Thoughts?