20Under40 is a collection of essays about the future of the nonprofit arts sector and its next generation of leaders. Editor Edward P. Clapp assembled the collection to understand “why a career in the arts seems to be particularly challenging for younger professionals.”
The 20 essays are all by writers under age 40. Some are practicing artists, others are arts administrators; there are essays by academics, management consultants, bloggers, screenwriters, educators, and, in one case, an MIT-trained physicist who hosts the Discovery Channel show Time Warp. Clapp wants to disseminate these viewpoints because he believes that the arts sector is in crisis—that it “suffers from an insecurity complex and operates from a position of fear.”
The most compelling essays are those that call for reform in how arts organizations are run, are supported, and engage artists and audiences. Some authors criticize arts programmers for their insularity, funders for their cautiousness, marketers for their conventionality, and arts educators for their dogmatism. Others write about the mismatch between abundant arts programming and a shrinking audience.
In the first essay, Brian Newman, former CEO of the Tribeca Film Institute, declares that the nonprofit arts sector is grossly overbuilt and woefully undercapitalized. As a result, it is incapable of coping with the way technology has altered how individuals create, share, and participate in arts experiences. His bitter medicine for the sector is to admit that more arts groups need to merge and “many more organizations need to be shut down entirely.”
In her essay “Please Don’t Start a Theater Company!” Rebecca Novick encourages artists to “operate as bands do—coming together to play a few gigs, then dissolving as people’s interests diverge.” Novick implores established arts organizations to invite younger artists to bring innovations to their institutions, and she warns funders to “stop advising young artists to replicate the standard nonprofi tmodel.” David McGraw, a professor of arts entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa, also criticizes foundations that reward arts organizations for longevity rather than creativity. Like Novick, he suggests that more support go to artists who create multiyear projects.
The potential for philanthropists to be heroes or villains is a clear theme here. In an essay co-authored by Ian Moss and Daniel Reed, an arts blogger and a management consultant, technology is hailed as a 21st-century arts funder’s best friend. They argue that a “guided crowdsourcing” approach to arts funding would vastly expand the number of artists and the amount of artistic product that could be evaluated. If grantmakers harness the wisdom of crowds, they argue, philanthropists may be able to make funding decisions that are not only more informed, but more equitable as well.
Although some of the 20Under40 authors believe that dysfunction in the traditional nonprofit arts sector can be remedied, others are ready to abandon the nonprofit paradigm altogether. Elizabeth Lamb, a curator in Portland, Ore., presents a case study of successful online art stores and a gallery and apparel shop that have taken a customer-centric approach to their programming.
Reinventing the arts and arts education is not just about new business models. In the collection, there are punchy essays about the way art school students are graded, why contemporary dance is losing its expressive power, and why 21st-century arts educators should teach computer programming.
Of the 20 selections, several cover old ground in predictable ways: testing in schools means less time for arts classes; preschoolers need art too. Although much of the book is dedicated to expressing frustration with the status quo, there is a high level of optimism about the future. That optimism is grounded in a faith that technology can be used much more creatively; that nonprofit and for-profit business models can be successful; and that Gen Xers and Millennials are going to get their art fix with or without established arts organizations.
Although the anthology showcases a rising generation of arts leaders, two established leaders make cameos. Diane Ragsdale, a former arts program officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, laments that “what’s killing this field is that people are beginning to leave it. People make it into large institutions and get stuck in middle management jobs with no access to power and no opportunity to try new things.” This critique is echoed by arts consultant Eric Booth: “We talk a good game about collaboration and openness to new ideas in the arts, but the input from our younger professionals is neither sought nor honored as regular practice.”
20Under40 puts new ideas from younger professionals on the table. Now the question is: Who will pick them up?
Marc Vogl is a program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation managing grants to San Francisco Bay Area arts organizations and developing strategies to promote next generation arts leadership. Vogl served on the Obama Campaign’s Arts Policy Committee, and was the 2010 recipient of the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leader Award.