#TBT: Thinning the Herd? You Go First

Photo Credit: "Pemrokeshire Herd," © 2013 Annerley Johnson, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license.

Photo Credit: “Pemrokeshire Herd,” © 2013 Annerley Johnson, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license.

Happy #TBT. To celebrate, we’re sharing an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: Thinning the Herd? You Go First.

Lately [November 2010], there’s been some talk about this idea that “arts” (define that how you want) are oversupplied, and that is the root of the problem for the business model of so many organizations. Although it’s a perfectly legitimate discussion, I find some of the conclusions to be absurd and, naturally, I have some questions.

My first question here is this: What do you mean oversupplied — oversupplied for whom?

Here’s what I think is great about, well, a free capitalistic society really. If I wanted to, and I had the talent and ability to do so, I could sit down today and over the course of a few months, write the greatest play ever written. (OK, I couldn’t, but someone could.) Cost in terms of capital? Pretty darn close to zero.

I could also go to the art supply store, buy a couple hundred dollars worth of materials, and if I were a brilliant genius who could speak for the age visually, I could paint something that generated both economic and artistic value for centuries to come.

Sure, it’s much more likely to be average, but so what? There it is.

The point about supply is this: If someone wants to put the time and resources into producing “art,” then they do it. If that includes raising funds from others to help make that happen, and those people want to contribute that money to see that “art” appear, oversupply is an irrelevant concept. For the people involved in making it, the “supply” equation looks like this:

Right now, there are zero of the thing we want to make. We want a supply of one. We are currently undersupplied.

But if no one wants to make said thing, the current supply of zero is exactly right.

I know this is a macro issue in that some feel that there’s “oversupply” and, therefore, donor resources are being stretched too thin, making it hard for organizations to sustain themselves. But for people who think this, the point is being missed. If the donors wanted to direct their money to those fewer organizations who, presumably, are better, they could do that, but they choose not to.

Because the things they are investing in are, from their point of view, undersupplied.

And talk of “thinning the herd” is, for the arts marketing community, potentially suicidal. You need to be talking about adding to the herd, both in terms of money, participants and creators. It’s called prosperity, and it looks like getting bigger, not dwindling.

(Of course, I also think organizations should build business models that don’t rely on donors for more than a small percentage of their income anyway, but that’s just me saying something crazy that also happens to make sense and have the potential to make an arts organization a permanent, unstoppable juggernaut.)

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