Essay #5: When best is no longer good enough.

Following a recipe is a great way to recreate something exactly.  2 tablespoons not teaspoons. Make sure to rinse the starch off first. Thoroughly dry before mixing. The recipe tells us where we are headed, and how to get there. Then the phone dings. Your honoured guest forgot to mention that they are deathly allergic to most foods that begin with the letter “A”. It’s so ridiculous that you laugh. It can’t be. You send back a funny emoji. And you keep following the recipe. Your phone dings. “Sorry, not joking. Not all “A” foods but most.” WTF? Do you cancel, do you insist on the arugula salad or debase your culinary skills by offering bread and olives? Tough choices! Is there an app (or best practice) for this? What recipe do you use now? With the ding of a text, the problem and the context have completely shifted.

In Ralph Douglas Stacey’s Stacey Matrix, complexity is neatly explained as the distance from agreement and certainty. The more agreement and certainty, the simpler the solutions – just do the right thing that everyone agrees is right. The less agreement and certainty, the more complex the problem, the further the distance – and there may be no solution at all. Now what?

At least since the 1950s – in the wake of the post-World War Two nation-state building frenzy – our not-for-profit arts sector seems to have been designed for agreement. Whether by consent or coercion, there appears to have been a shared POV that the past was nowhere near as good as the future. Yet, like most agreements, a shared belief on this point dissipated even as the ink was drying. “Before the Canada Council was founded, there were clearer ways to get funding!” some cried,  “In the 1970s you could just roll over and there would be money for your show!” grunge artists of the 90s lamented, “There used to be only one (fill in the blank) company, now there are hundreds!” exhausted creators of the 2000s said. And “the world is ending, what are we doing?”, pretty much everyone in the middle of a 2023 night. Yet, the sector still seems to be operating with infrastructure, with a kind of best practice that supports a strange agreement that the future will be brighter.  If you just keep going the allergy to A foods will soften. I think food manufacturers believed the same thing about that strange gluten intolerance movement… And yet.

Change has been happening. In fact, it can’t be stopped. How we respond to it is what fascinates. “Excellence” has been removed from general criteria used to describe artistic creation and the artists who make it in the not-for-profit sector. Its removal came about as a response to the barriers, hidden and not, stopping people from contributing to the performing arts world. The word was deemed exclusionary. And it is. On the surface, this was an excellent move. It felt like a good ingredient-rebalancing…

The word has been excised from polite progressive discourse, but the world keeps showing us that it is still valued and valorized. And like most awards for “the best”, excellence rarely has much to do with skill and more to do with the ability to be in fashion (artistic or otherwise). And yet, there have been, throughout our history breakthrough performances that have completely changed the game. But – of course – “breakthrough” has the barrier built right in. We still want what we want. The shiny thing that outshines all others. A rose, as it goes- 

Since we can’t employ the word “excellent”, we look for other ways to access it (excellence). Best practices seem tied to this… The perfect meal. The blockbuster season. The subscription series. The board of directors. Endowments. Strategic plans. Best practices are linked to a belief that there is a traceable set of ingredients. The cultural sector appears to analyze these practices in order to emulate not inquire. Answers are needed. Best practices provide them.

There are too many restaurants that appear to enter a decline when they publish their recipe books. It’s as though the mystery as to how they made those delectable choices was lost once the archive, the best practice, came to be. Best practices are about past practice. Not best. The past, like our youth, is a country we cannot travel to.

Quiz: Is the following statement true?

A recipe for a consequential Canadian city is an opera, a symphony, a ballet, and a regional theatre.  

If so, why? And if not, why not?

When was this tacit agreement about cultural consequences made? Is a plan, that was rolled out in 1951, still meritorious of our unexamined regard? When you look around your city, who among you truthfully thinks: what this city needs is a ballet and thank god we have one?  Is the recipe for culture creation in Canada still serving Canadians? Does this best practice set us up for a better future or has it become a mediocre emblem of “that’s just the way we have always done it”? This is not an assault on those forms. Those forms are great! But a case for their vitality and relevance in every city is one that truly must be made. In 2023. Humans have short memories and develop habits quite quickly. Together we are likely to maintain ossifying approaches because we believe them to be fixed. They are not. And most especially so when the context has changed. As it demonstrably has now. 

Our contention is that best practice is based on addition and innovation is based on subtraction. In this moment, we believe that innovation is key. But the way forward is unknown. We can’t bank on it, precisely because it is not like it was. We can’t pull out the Joy of Cooking to guide us. But we can still find joy in making a meal. Bread and olives sound pretty good and arugula wilts fast and tends towards bitter. And we say this as two people who love arugula.

Quiz: Is the following statement true?

Operating funding is the most sacred pillar of our public funding system.

If so, why? And if not, why not?

For most companies, it can’t provide a living wage to any of its key employees and it limits access to some of the other quicker possibilities for funding. In some ways, it is not unlike subscription models. They too are no longer able to float a company. Both operating funding and subscriptions offer some ‘cash-in-the-bank-certainty” but they also impose huge parameters on an arts organization’s ability to grow in different directions, to respond to the unforeseen, to improvise. What if operating funding and subscriptions, a former undisputed set of best practices, are now truly mediocre at best and damaging at worst?

Let’s be clear. We would love unlimited supplies of guaranteed money. But that’s not what we have now. From the Fringe to the National Ballet to ImagiNative – no one has enough operating funding to actually survive on it alone. And strangely we don’t question this. Why? Just because there doesn’t appear to be enough money doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question how funds are disbursed. Why shouldn’t a preeminent organization be able to work and thrive solely on operating funds? The question seems ludicrous. “Everyone knows the answer!”, we exclaim.  But do we? The history of public funding for the arts was based on the premise that arts organizations would receive 85% from the government and take care of the other 15% through their own resources (Dolgoy, 2007). With a few exceptions, most operating funding is now the inverse or worse. At what point is it no longer meaningful to call it “operating” or “core”?

Right now, just to survive, everyone needs to raise a lot more money, and sell a lot more tickets, just to prove that they are a viable company to receive operating funding. Countless hours spent upholding a building and bureaucratic structures designed around a mythical model of stability that we simply don’t have today, and are very unlikely to get any time soon. It smacks of a shell game. There is not enough, there won’t be enough, so let’s move some stuff around, and keep the game going. It’s like a gumbo on the stovetop, you have to keep it on simmer until, well until, shrimp season opens and because of  – “oh shit, it’s evaporated, desiccated and the pot is ruined”

We believe that we are more likely to let the dish burn than improvise or change the recipe. Why? Loss aversion. In the linked study, it appears clear that we are far more reticent to lose stuff than we are desirous of gaining stuff. This is a huge problem for the performing arts. There is a lot of stuff that needs to go for a lot of great new stuff to come up. The meal we were going to make before learning about the honoured guest’s allergies was actually nowhere near as tasty as the bread, olives, beer and brownies that the new meal became. The first meal plan was perfect for last week’s honoured guest but not tonight’s. And while we are already excited to serve this again next week, we have just learned that the incoming honouree can’t handle anything starting with A or B.

Uh Oh.

There is not a lot we can count on. Embracing this true complexity, this reflection of the uncertainty of the world we are in today might begin to open up our imagination for what we’re in for. We have to abandon the nostalgic calls that constantly compare everything to “2019 numbers” and start to ask ourselves what we want 2029 to look like. We realize the contradiction here. On the one hand, we’re arguing that we don’t know what the future holds and we need to be much more honest about that. On the other, we’re asking ourselves to really use our imaginations. We need to make some bets, even in vain. But the best chance we have of seeing the opportunities with clarity is starting by letting go of the assumptions we are holding onto.

When the problem and context are familiar and understood, please for the love of all that is good, use a best practice. We would. But that’s not the moment we are in. 

“Run from what’s comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. I have tried prudent planning long enough. From now on I’ll be mad.”

― Rumi


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One response to “Essay #5: When best is no longer good enough.”

  1. John Aldrich Avatar
    John Aldrich

    “In Ralph Douglas Stacey’s Stacey Matrix, complexity is neatly explained as the distance from agreement and certainty. The more agreement and certainty, the simpler the solutions – just do the right thing that everyone agrees is right.”
    With any endeavour, first define the goal.
    The goal of any art form is to make magic.
    We want–we need–magic in our lives. People are swamped with the harsh and bitter realities of the world created by berserk capitalism (but THAT is another tale, for another time). Artists in any genre show the possibilities of another, better world, or another perspective on the evils of this world. Every one of us has a memory of a performance, a poem, a painting–something that changed us in some way. We liked that feeling; we want more of it.
    So Stacey is right: we can agree, we are certain. Find a way to make the magic appear. Simple, ain’t it?

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