Mission Considered

By Bolt, Gigi | American Theatre, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Mission Considered


Bolt, Gigi, American Theatre


In his groundbreaking 1963 essay, theatre visionary and first Ford Foundation director of arts and culture W. McNeil (Mac) Lowry put forward 10 arguments for the importance of the arts in the U.S. that became in effect the unofficial mission statement for the not-for-profit theatre field. He championed the arts in part as:

* a means of communication and consequently of understanding between this country and others;

* an expression of national purpose;

* an important influence in the liberal education of the individual;

* an important key to an American's understanding of himself, his times and his destiny.

Forty-three years later, the James Irvine Foundation has published a thoughtful working paper entitled Critical Issues Facing the Arts in California, calling for a reexamination of the context, if not the fundamental working assumptions, of the field today. The paper identifies five critical issues challenging the cultural sector in California in the wake of major demographic, economic, technological and social changes. Its authors suggest that the arts fields have been slow to react to shifts in the cultural ecosystem. They assert the need for an energetic field response based on "the evolving dynamics of cultural provision and consumption." The report cautions against assuming that nonprofit arts and culture will continue to be "the primary delivery mechanism for the cultural experience."

Under the title "Access," Critical Issues considers the impact of evolving technologies that have resulted in an explosion of cultural content, the personalization of the cultural experience (in the words of former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Bill Ivey, "the curatorial me"), and niche marketing as exemplified by Amazon and Netflix. The impact of demographics is also discussed--not only in terms of ethnicity but also in terms of the relative age variance within groups. In addition, the report notes the blurring of lines between the commercial and amateur as well as between for-profit and not-for-profit. The issues raised have been on my mind since reading the report. I'm grateful to its researchers and writers for a penetrating analysis that will no doubt elicit lively debate in the coming months.

Few would deny that environmental and structural shifts are affecting our field or argue the need to respond purposefully and effectively. But do these changes call into question the assumptions upon which the field has been built? Is there a need to revise our collective mission statement? What does it mean to be a not-for-profit theatre today?

The mission of for-profit theatre is embodied in its name. The value and purpose of the not-for-profit field accrues from the meaning we invest in it. …

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