Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Aesthetics, ethics & economics in cultural

El suplicio de Cuauhtémoc, 1892. Óleo sobre tela, 294.5 x 454 cm. Museo Nacional de Arte. Available on Wikimedia Commons.

Diane Ragsdale, On Aesthetics, Ethics, Economics, and Consequential Decisions of Cultural Leaders in the Long Now, 29 September 2020

A little over a year ago I had the great pleasure to be a guest on Erik Gensler’s podcast, CI to EYE (a program of Capacity Interactive, of which Gensler is the founder). We delved into a handful of topics including beauty and ethics, the relationship between the commercial and nonprofit theater, cultural leadership, and the costs of “permanently failing organizations.” (The episode can be accessed here.) Gensler ends his episodes by asking his guests what advice they have for the sector and he asked if I would pose mine in the form of a question. My question: What’s holding your feet to the fire?

I elaborated on this question, with the following reflections:

Missions are squishy; and buildings and bottom lines are not. And judgments about art are subjective. And human beings are often self-interested. And the nonprofit form lends itself to manipulation and to serving the interests of a few rather than the general public. […]

I think that arts organizations need to be aware of these dynamics and can’t hang their hats [on], or trust, or lean into mission statements and values statements as enough to keep them moored to their purposes. […] [W]e need non-negotiable principles or policies that … hold our feet to the fire so that when these forces are in play we are compelled to constrain ourselves from certain behaviors and actions that might otherwise lead us to—program an entire season that is white, western and womanless, for instance 

I worry that boards and leaders sometimes stop short of setting those policies and instead want to trust themselves to make the rights decisions—but can then get edged off of doing the right thing when the bills need to be paid.

This blog post is about the relationship between the aesthetics, economics and ethics of cultural institutions and asserts that arts organizations need ethical and aesthetic guardrails that are as clear and firm as their financial ones, particularly in times like the present when truly consequential decisions are being made.

Part 1: On Aesthetic, Economic, & Ethical Judgments, Values, & Limits

Much of my work the past several years has been underpinned by an abiding concern with the relationship between ethics, aesthetics, and economics. My interest in these three forms of value and valuation began when I was working on my dissertation (examining the relationship between the commercial and nonprofit theater) and additionally teaching a class on beauty to business majors. My journey along this path has been greatly aided by discovering the work of scholar of finance, John Dobson, author of the Aesthetic Manager, who participated in an academic symposium I put together back in 2015.***

To begin, I would propose the following as essential questions asked from the perspective of each of these three forms of judgment / valuation.

  • An aesthetic judgment asks: “Is it beautiful, excellent, or interesting?”
  • An economic judgment asks: “Is it profitable, valuable, or useful?”
  • An ethical judgment asks: “Is it morally right or wrong? Who benefits and who is harmed from this action?”

I tend to think of these as setting key boundaries on the dominant logic (the mutually interdependent structures, practices, processes, conventions, rules, and beliefs) of any given cultural institution.

Economic value is often calculated as exchange value and economic limits can come from both internal and external constraints. For arts nonprofits, such constraints may include, among others: net assets and liquidity; costs of inputs (e.g. content, people, and technologies); whether or not there are a significant number of competitors locally or nationally for content, talent, audiences, or contributions; local and federal laws, including tax laws; the strength of the local and national economy, including unemployment; local population size (and whether growing or declining), socio-economic demographics, and values; and whether or not there are foundations, civic leaders, and government agencies interested to invest in having a robust arts and culture sector.

Almost invariably arts organizations in the US are established as 501c3 nonprofits, which are prohibited from distributing their profits to individuals (so they have neither owners nor shareholders). Importantly, cultural nonprofits in the US have historically tended to be praised and rewarded (by foundations, government agencies, boards, and other influential gatekeepers) for economic growth including facility expansion. For much of the twentieth century these were generally assumed to be an unqualified good thing–along with professionalism (in artists and in the realm of administrative capacity building) and permanence. The high value placed on these led to choices made decades ago that are still influencing the economics (and therefore aesthetics and ethics) of arts organizations today.**

Aesthetic values are broad ranging and can include such sensory attributes of excellence as: simplicity/complexity; dark/light; local/global; coherent/chaotic; conventional/disruptive; individual/ensemble; scripted/devised/improvised; aural/visual; fast/slow; formal/informal; passive/participatory; intimate/distant; and resourcefulness/extravagance. Aesthetic limits could be thought of as the constraints that make an entity an art firm rather than a church, hospital, widget factory or any other kind of firm. Arts institutions are, among others, outlets for artists and are key gatekeepers who make judgments about which cultural artifacts and experiences to preserve, protect, produce, curate, and present–and which to disregard. Through that process they advance a set of aesthetic values that are shaped by and shape the world around them. Put another way, they are influenced by and influence collective, taken-for-granted norms and beliefs concerning what is beautiful/excellent/interesting, and what is not.

Many establishment cultural institutions in the US were formed at a time when the democratization of high culture was an assumed social good; and cultural policy therefore often included initiatives aimed at providing opportunities for “everyone” to experience and appreciate the touchstone of white, Western European culture. Organizations trading in such culture were (and still are) often classified as the “benchmark” arts. Because of this, despite appealing to a narrow demographic, the purposes and aesthetics of symphony orchestras, e.g., were not categorized as being culturally specific (that is, of/by/for predominantly white, educated, upper middle class people) in the same manner as those of e.g. Black or LatinX theater companies. (H/T to Jamie Bennett, the first person I heard articulate this.)

One result of this privileging is that predominantly white institutions systematically received exponentially greater financial support and were therefore better able to grow their operations, expand their influence, and increase their power over time relative to organizations that were identified as culturally specific or community-based. One present-day challenge is to increase understanding and appreciation in the sector for a much broader range of aesthetic values than those advanced by the so-called “benchmark” arts. An excellent resource if you want to further engage this premise, is this Animating Democracy framework, Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Art for Change.

Ethical values include such things as trustworthiness, fairness, respect, caring, and responsibility. Ethical (or social) limits to a great extent come to the fore when we think about the kinds of behaviors that we imagine could (or should) distinguish cultural nonprofits from commercial entertainment industries. For example:

  • Pricing models: we might assume that in nonprofits something other than what the market will bear will guide this decision;
  • How much to pay artists and whether or not to retain rights to their work: again, we might assume that nonprofits would strive to maximize income to artists, and avoid extractive or exploitative practices;
  • Pay ratios: we expect corporate CEOs to pay themselves handsomely while others in their firms are struggling, however, we might not expect nonprofit executives to do so;
  • Whether and how to distribute decision-making authority: not only might we expect nonprofits to embrace self-organizing or collective organizing over command-and-control hierarchical cultures/structures, we might expect leaders to take the time to listen to external stakeholders before taking key decisions about the institution;
  • Whether and how to reinvest profits: while a for-profit firm might redistribute profits to shareholders or increase pay/bonuses to top executives, we might expect nonprofits to reinvest surpluses into core programs so that they can better serve their missions;
  • Whether to accept contributions from those with opposing values: we might expect nonprofits to be discriminating in whose money they accept if they are serious about advancing values like climate consciousnessfreedom of expressionpeace, or social justice; and
  • Whether to adopt policies aimed at ensuring an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, non-hostile, climate-conscious, disability friendly working environment: we might expect nonprofits to care about harms against people and earth more than those in the corporate sector.

Part 2: Which of these is in the driver’s seat? Which should be?

Which way do the arrows run in your institution? Which way would you like them to run?

Within the context of an organization’s dominant logic (or business model if you prefer), I conceptualize these three elements as mutually interdependent. That is, a shift in practice/belief made in one area will influence the other two. The 2020 pandemic is an interesting case in this. The exogenous shock of prohibitions on gathering (and therefore live attendance at cultural institutions) forced many organizations to change their conventional practice of producing live performances. In place of live performances, many began to produce or distribute digital performances. In doing so, many also began to articulate beliefs that digital performances are valuable (even if they had historically upheld “liveness” as an aesthetic value and had long eschewed such practices).

Regardless of the motivations for the shift, this is a decision that has now, in many cases, shifted the aesthetics of the firm and with it, we see the other two areas are now effected. For example, economically, this shift has altered such things as: the complexity, scale, and costs of production and distribution; the types of skills and knowledge needed to bring a production to the market; the number of people and geographic locations that can be reached by a work; the prices that can be charged; the shelf life of content; and the nature and number of competitors/substitutes (if markets now shift from local to global and the product shifts from live to online).

Likewise, ethically, this shift has raised such questions as:

  • Do existing artist contracts (including rights & royalties) adequately and fairly deal with the sudden and dramatic shift from the hitherto presumed standard of live performance of concerts, plays, musicals and dance performances to the presumed standard of digital distribution of these through the Internet?
  • When the pandemic is over should we return to international touring practices that consumed scads of jet fuel, or are we beholden to find more climate conscious ways of engaging in cultural exchange?
  • Are digital educational experiences potentially more harmful than beneficial to the goals of learning and meaning-making?
  • Is there a vital role for artists in this moment and should we therefore be investing our resources to support that work, even if it’s not historically part of our mission?
  • Are digital forms crowding out something vital that can only be achieved with human bodies gathered in person?
  • Do nonprofit cultural institutions now have an ongoing obligation to try to provide free or low-cost digital access to experiences that are otherwise inaccessible to those without the means or ability to access them?
  • Do we need to revisit our policies regarding who is allowed to telecommute and who is not? Do we need to compensate employees for their costs of working from home and ensure they have the supplies and resources they need to do their work effectively?

I would assert that, for most cultural nonprofits, economic values have long been crowding out ethical and aesthetic ones–and not only because buildings and bottom lines are firm and many missions are squishy. For one, in the words of one of my musical icons, Cyndi Lauper, money changes everything. More to the point of this post, however, economics is and has been in the driver’s seat primarily because it is and has been what gets the most attention from institutional leaders.

Most boards have finance and audit committees and dedicate time at each meeting to understanding the financial position of the organization. Boards are equipped and comfortable setting limits on, e.g. how far over budget or into debt an arts organization may go. They may set targets for reserves or endowment. They may fail to approve a budget that is not balanced and may ask executive leaders to make cuts if income is falling short. They may implement give or get policies and recruit board members with high capacity to contribute to ensure that the organization is able to reach its income targets each year.

On the other hand, how many cultural nonprofits have explicit, sophisticated, depth conversations at the board level in order to understand or come to agreement on the organization’s aesthetic values or ethical principles? Even more pointedly, how many organizations hold their feet to the fire by establishing measurable policies to operationalize these—the kinds of policies that might enable or compel board members to ask awkward questions when, for example, the season is announced and there are zero writers or composers of color in the lineup. Or when a pandemic hits and the decision is made to lay off all the teaching artists but hold onto the majority of marketing and development staff for the time being.

Arguably, a nonprofit cultural institution should be distinguished from a for-profit entertainment company. And one of the ways we might expect it to be distinguished is in ensuring that economic decisions are made in service of (or within the limits and full consideration of) a clear set of guiding aesthetic and ethical principles or policies. Without such constraints economic exigencies hold sway and loosely defined aesthetic and ethical values are stretched to make economics work.

Part 3: On the necessity of discourse and debate, particularly in these times

As with the 2008 financial crisis, many nonprofit cultural institutions have fixed their attention first and foremost on surviving economically. There are practical reasons for this. Without cash, any business (even one with a great mission) can become dead in the water. But also, quite often the line between solvent and not solvent is much clearer to see than the line between “fulfilling our mission” or not.

Nonprofit goals like “quality” and “excellence” are perceived to be difficult to assess —however, I would argue that this is the case largely to the extent that one has failed to define them for oneself and one’s institution. Vague mission and values statements are common in the sector and seem to be intentionally designed to allow for maximum freedom and flexibility, rather than to provide a crystal clear North Star. Notably, these first arose out of the corporate sector.

Before arts organizations began writing corporate mission statements many were founded with manifestos or their equivalent. One reason manifestos are so valuable is that they often include a clear articulation of the ways in which values will be interpreted or operationalized. (BTW, my friend, UK-based consultant Andrew McIntyre with MHM Consulting has been leading cultural nonprofits through the process of writing manifestos from the ground up for the past several years.)

Even without a manifesto, however, it is possible to do this work if one is willing to engage in a process aimed at clarifying values and setting policies that will constrain interpretations of these values. With a hat tip to Deborah Fisher, the executive director of the arts organization A Blade of Grass for the analogy, this process is not dissimilar to the interpretation of the constitution.* While the constitution is grounded in values, much of the law is about making value judgments, a process that requires ongoing discourse and deliberation. Also similar to the constitution, though it tries, a mission statement can’t predict all future events that might necessitate its re-interpretation; therefore, from time-to-time organizations may need to amend their policies. This last point is an important one. As I heard a speaker say at a workshop last week: Don’t lose sight of the philosophy behind the policy or practice!

Here’s a quite straightforward illustration: In 1947 when Margo Jones founded the first recognized nonprofit-professional resident theater in Dallas, Texas she adopted the principle of three weeks of rehearsal for every play. At the time, three weeks was significantly more than the amount of rehearsal (typically one week) customary in summer stock companies. Quality was a core value of Jones and the philosophy behind Jones’s principle was: “Let’s rehearse long enough to make sure we can produce a high-quality show.” Fast forward and the US regional theaters have an international reputation for being among the most efficient in the world. Why? In part because theater leaders following Jones held onto the practice of a pre-determined number of rehearsal weeks, however, they lost sight of the value and philosophy behind it. Much to the frustration of some artists, a standard in many theaters was adopted and maintained, regardless of the scale or complexity of a production, or level of completion of the text. If the value to be upheld was “quality” then arguably the policy should have been revised once it became clear that the number of weeks of rehearsal was inadequate to achieving that goal.


Some concluding thoughts.

Cultural nonprofits are being challenged on multiple fronts and are being forced to make some truly consequential decisions. At all times, but particularly under duress, I believe that institutions are at high risk of undermining their distinctive purposes (as ‘Art Firms’ and as ‘Nonprofits’) if they have not engaged in necessary discourse and debate (up-down-and-across the organization, with key external stakeholders, and at the board level) aimed at defining, debating, or shoring up ethical and aesthetic guardrails that are as powerful as present economic urgencies.

This is an extraordinary moment in which to deeply examine the economics, ethics, and aesthetics of cultural institutions; to ask which of these three areas is driving the decisions being made; and to debate and discuss questions like these:

  • Should we keep going?
  • What do we mean by keep going. (Does maintaining a building and a core group of administrators constitute quality of life for a cultural institution?)
  • Is it better to hibernate and preserve cash or continue to pay people and create value even if that means we may run out of cash at some point?
  • Who should be involved in making that decision–or any significant decisions made at this time?
  • What (values, people, practices, processes, structures, beliefs) must be held onto at all costs and what would we be wise to drop?
  • Are we sure we’ve articulated the right problem to be solved at this moment?
  • Who are we if we cannot produce shows/exhibitions in a live venue?
  • How does this moment change our understanding of the nature of certain art forms and their role in society?
  • What does art need to be at this moment and for the foreseeable future?
  • Who stands to be harmed by the outcomes of our decisions and who stands to benefit most from them?

If economics is in the driver’s seat as decisions are taken in the Long Now, and if ethics and aesthetics are therefore merely riding along, arts organizations may emerge on the other side of this pandemic with buildings, leaders, and cash in the bank; but may find they have lost the people, principles, and purposes that were far more essential.

Thanks for reading. Those struggling to keep cultural institutions afloat and those unemployed and struggling to find a way forward outside of institutions equally have my admiration, respect, and gratitude.


* A Blade of Grass is a phenomenal arts organization and they publish some extraordinary articles, films, and other content on their website. The current theme is Artists Organizing for Racial Justice. Check it out.

**If you are interested in the topic of permanence and the question of “when to stop” you might find value in reading my essay, “To What End Permanence?”(which you can read here), penned for the book A Moment on the Clock of the World. Here is also a blog post with further reflections on the essay and its lessons for the moment.

*** John Dobson conceives of three universes (the technical universe, the moral universe, and the aesthetic universe) and asserts that while humans ‘naturally’ gravitate to a mode of decision making that embraces each of these that modernism tended to push managers to exclude the aesthetic. He argues that in post-modernity aesthetics is being restored and thus managers will increasingly have the ability and necessity to embrace the aesthetic, as well as the moral and economic, to lead in the 21st century. His name for this expanded ability (drawing on Heidegger) is “dwelling poetically.” While I have gone in a different direction with my own research inquiry – seeking to understand how these three areas become mutually interdependent in business models – I continue to be inspired by John’s ideas and contributions.

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