Not simply to survive

by Jini Stolk

“Our mandate as an arts organization is not simply to survive, but to create. Its function in society is to create. The only thing that justifies the money that we get is putting out work that counts.”

With this profound statement, and a public letter filled with gratitude to the artists, staff and board members he’s worked with over the past 35 years, La La La Human Steps’ founder and choreographer Édouard Lock announced the company’s closing.

La La La’s artistic impact was huge. Its financial model, however, which rested on international partnerships, extensive touring, and an unyielding commitment to new work, hit the wall of economic downturn – and its founder’s unwillingness to restructure or compromise. There were no ifs, ands or buts at the end: “My letter of resignation has been sent to the funders and a resolution dissolving the company has been signed by the board. LHS is no more. It’s time to say goodbye and to give thanks.”

I found this stark message exceedingly touching in its dignity. I also found it to be illuminating of some essential differences between arts organizations and other nonprofits and charities. Could a women’s shelter, a refugee settlement house, a food bank, or a freshwater environmental group ever have closed in this way? The primacy of an arts organization’s artistic vision in its reason for being demands a different understanding of its approach to sustainability.

Perhaps, as Alan Harrison argues, resilience for an arts organization is not the goal: impact is. Many companies of great impact (such as Alameda Theatre, which developed more than 25 works by Latin American writers across Canada before closing last year) have opted to end on an artistic high note. Others, I think you’ll agree, have diminished their early success by hanging on too long.

Andrew Taylor says that sustainability should be seen less as an organizational strategy (focusing on the survival of individual organizations) than an ecological strategy (sustaining our community’s access to a broad range of creative experiences.)

These ideas have fascinating implications for governance in the arts. What exactly are an organization’s and its board’s “legal and moral obligations to its constituencies” if its primary responsibility is to create “work that counts”? There are subtle differences that we have to be aware of here. I would never argue against an arts board’s responsibility to guard its organization’s mission, relevance and financial continuity – but always in service to the art.

Things get more complex, of course, when an arts organization becomes the institutional steward of a building or other assets, employs a significant staff, and contributes in unique ways to its neighbourhood and community.

Many people have noted that arts organizations resemble entrepreneurial enterprises more than typical non-profits – and that one-size-fits-all governance may not be what’s needed when a unique vision is paramount. (It you want to delve deeper into these differences and similarities, you might find these “top 10 startup founder blogs every entrepreneur should follow” interesting.)

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that arts organizations have to carefully consider their real governance needs and obligations – perhaps taking a more creative approach to stewardship than found in most board manuals.

Here’s an example of a non-profit that filed for bankruptcy at the start of this year, but whose beautifully crafted goodbye proudly asserts that its mission is far from ending.

 

 

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