Sometimes There’s a Pretty Good Reason to Swim Upstream

For nonprofit arts organizations, the choice to use the art as a final product is the easiest way to swim downstream.

Unfortunately, there are times when swimming with the current can be fatal. Like now. (Photo by Sergey Pesterev on

Oh, before I forget.

If June 30 is a special date for your company and you need/want/are being forced to raise a bunch of money before then with a big campaign, here’s an email to print out and show your various bosses:

email fiscal year photo

Don’t force people to give early to meet some arbitrary date (it’s arbitrary to them, which is all that matters) and your company’s donation goals. It’ll only hurt you next year. And it will piss off your donors. Or at least make them lose their trust in you.

Anyway. Back to the column.

I just received sales reports on my new book, Scene Change: Why Today’s Nonprofit Arts Organizations Have to Stop Producing Art and Start Producing Impact, and got conflicting data. On the one hand, the reviews have been fantastic, at least the few that have been published or left on online websites. People in the business – especially those who are young in their leadership roles (which is who I had in mind when I wrote the book) – have contacted me directly to discuss the book, its purpose, and try to figure out how they can “swim upstream” to change the minds of the people currently in charge of their organizations. Others have written to say that they wish they could have said the things in the book, but feared that they’d lose their jobs by “swimming against the tide” of art-for-art’s-sake.

Upstream. Against the tide. Maybe they’re getting that subliminally by the story in the preface:

Do you remember a 1972 disaster movie called The Poseidon Adventure? An enormous, obsolete cruise ship gets flipped upside-down by a tidal wave. A small, courageous, but ordinary band of passengers recognizes that to escape, they have to travel upward, toward the hull. A priest (Gene Hackman) leads them, both physically and spiritually.

There was a scene in the movie early on where our plucky gang of travelers came across a large group of passengers led by crew members downwards, toward what they believed was the only exit from the ship, the deck. The crew members only knew one way to behave in this situation, and that was to get the passengers to the upper decks, which were submerged under hundreds of feet and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water.

Hackman pleaded with those lemmings to join their group and move upward, but the lemmings continued downward to their certain, violent, drowning demise.

“You’re going the wrong way, dammit!” yelled the priest.

Think of this book as Gene Hackman.

The easier path—the path to produce art for its own sake, for acclaim, or for vanity—is to travel downward. It is a well-worn path to panic-ridden discussions of institutional survival (never a goal), financial ruin, and taking money from an increasing number of toxic donors, all of which will be discussed.

The harder path upward is the one that can lead to success— producing art as a tool of community impact in order to help people. It is to remember that of the words, “Nonprofit,” “Arts,” and “Organization,” the word “Nonprofit” is far more important than the other two.

If, after reading this, you insist on traveling the “art” path instead of the “nonprofit” path, all I can say is this:

You’re going the wrong way, dammit!

Or maybe not so subliminally.

Not the Poseidon Adventure

The sales of Scene Change, which were quite high in the launch month of February (it rose to #2 on Amazon’s bestseller list of new books on art), dropped to a trickle in March. And although they’ve picked up again in April (I have no May figures yet), they still don’t reveal that the movement toward better choices among nonprofit arts organizations has taken hold.

In that vein, a good friend and a fan of the book recently wrote me. “You are pushing upstream. Against an entire industry that wants to call miniscule iteration a ‘tectonic shift.’ Even DEI has become a feeding trough exploited by folks who want to ‘get theirs.’ People are paranoid and terrified that their livelihoods are going to be taken away by the economy and by calls for change…. Frankly, I think many of these people have never been challenged and are terrified they cannot keep up.”

Pushing upstream is tiring. One doesn’t choose to swim upstream unless one is caught in a riptide, undertow, or a deadly current that inevitably leads to, say, a fatal waterfall. Swimming upstream is neither profitable nor all that popular, at least for me. I never wrote the book to make money (although not losing money might be a nice thing). I just wanted people to know how to fix the problem. I didn’t realize just how many people’s egos (and, presumably, livelihoods) are tied to continuing the elitism issues in the nonprofit arts.

And these columns come not out of spite or ill will toward the hundreds of wonderful people with whom I’ve worked in New York, California, Alabama, Washington, Michigan, or Pennsylvania. Amazing people, for the most part. An honor to have worked with them. And the ones who know that, know that.

I write these columns for the leaders who have become tired of producing art for the wrong reasons – among them: vainglory, peer acclaim, résumé building, and strictly personal satisfaction. I wrote the book for the leaders who want to find a path toward a terrific future for their communities. People who float from job to job, from city to city — as I myself had done in the past — are participants in a system that rewards childlessness, independent wealth, and 168-hour weekly availability among its leaders.

That’s not limited to arts organizations, of course, but it’s a problem with the nonprofit workers who want a better community. The pandemic shutdown proved that family time is more important than work time. Abusive jobs and caustic workplaces where employees are asked to donate 20 hours or more per week back to the company – and don’t even get a tax break for doing so – have become anathema to most Americans.

That’s why unionization is up and the National Labor Relations Board is being sued by Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. And those companies might win in a business-lackey Supreme Court, setting workers’ rights back 100 years. Companies have been trained to drain every last drop out of its workers in order to serve the shareholders.

Is that the kind of nonprofit arts industry you want? This is not a plea to buy the book. Although, to be honest, you should buy the book. See for yourself. And finally, consider that the blaring noise you hear from unenlightened nonprofit arts organizations (the endless begging) — despite the obvious failings of a half-century system of art-for-art’s-sake hogwash — are sending the industry over the falls.

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