Arts Management, the parts, and the whole
There is a persistent (and often productive) belief that to understand something you need to disassemble it.
Put a finger to my wrist or my temple
and feel it: I am magic. Life
and all its good and bad and ugly things,
scary things which I would like to forget,
beautiful things which I would like to remember
—the whole messy lovely true story of myself
pulses within me.
Eve L. Ewing, from "Affirmation"*
There is a persistent (and often productive) belief that to understand something you need to disassemble it. Discover and describe the component parts and how they function, and you will know the whole. Accounting works this way – sorting financial items and actions into categories, clustering categories into types. Finance builds on the logic of accounting to do the same.
Accounting and finance teach us to organize financial bundles and flows by source and by use, to separate direct expenses that relate to a particular product or service from indirect expenses that do not, and to count things that have discernable economic value – ignoring things that don't.
When we follow these teachings, important stories are revealed to us – stories of expense and revenue, capacity and constraint, surplus and deficit, profit and loss. But if we only follow these teachings, other important stories are left unseen and unsaid – stories of purpose and meaning, effort and energy, resilience and entrenchment.
Which is why successful practice in Arts Management requires a portfolio of approaches – reductionism among them, but not alone. As philosopher Mary Midgley puts it:
…we need to use many different ways of thinking, and this is why we need to use many different disciplines. They are tools adapted to resolve distinct problems, not rival monarchs competing for a single throne. In fact, this isn’t a monarchy at all, but a republic.
Any thriving arts initiative demands a deep and disciplined understanding of the value it creates and the costs it incurs. These have financial aspects, of course, where reductionism can play a powerful role. But “true value” and “true cost” in human endeavors are also integral and entangled in ways that cannot be divided. That’s where subjective, social, aesthetic, empathetic, and ecological forms of inquiry are necessary.
The true crime of reductionist true costs is that they dismantle a system into parts. That certainly helps us understand its function. But it can blind us to “the whole messy lovely true story” of its life.
*POEM SOURCE: Ewing, Eve L. Electric Arches. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2017. https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/1129-electric-arches.
From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: Finance
Finance involves designing, maintaining, and sustaining systems of money and stuff.
Framework of the Week: Core Mission Support
Nonprofits are often evaluated (harshly) around their proportion of “overhead” costs – the portions of their budget that doesn’t connect directly to particular programs or services. Reframing “overhead” or “indirect costs” as “core mission support” can help tell a more compelling (and correct) story about how your organization works.