On Missions and Paradoxes

Tuesday, April 14, 2009 Leave a Comment

I've been enjoying the blog Mission Paradox by Adam Thurman for some time now. Adam is the Director of Marketing at Court Theatre, and in general his posts give a positive, warm-spirited take on the institutional theatre experience. However, in this recent post, "Your Future (Perhaps)", he talks about the life span of artist-run theatre in what feels to me like a dangerously general, almost patronizing, way. As Flux is an artist run company, I thought I'd try posting a response. First, give his post a read here.

His sketch of the life span of an artist run company is funny in the way stereotypes are - by sending up the way things often are, humor is generated by flattening the complexity of the way things actually are. And the moral of the story, that theatres should talk about the long-term meaning of their short term actions, is clearly well-intended.

But what really rubbed me the wrong way is the scorn he has for the idea that the 'real' mission statement of an artist-run organization is to showcase the artists involved (his word, definitely not mine). He describes this as the fatal flaw of a failed artist run organization.

To make a potentially hazardous analogy, a Mission Statement is the Declaration of Independence for a theatre company, NOT the Constitution, and certainly not the Democracy itself. "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" sound good, but aren't a whole lot more specific than "enlighten, challenge and inspire". And the idea that "all mean are created equal" may be in our country's mission statement, but we're a few hundred years in, and still trying to make that mission manifest. It is the Constitution - the WAY in which this country works - that is infinitely more important than the Declaration.

The fatal flaw is not having a bad Declaration - the fatal flaw may be having a bad Constitution.

Flux has operated for some three years now with a mission statement as flawed as those Adam describes in his post. And every year, at our annual retreat, we dig back down and try to find a better way to articulate why we work together.

But the majority of our time is spent discussing HOW we work together - not only in terms of structure, but in terms of values, aesthetic and otherwise. And those discussions of how we work together extend outwards to our audience. This discussion is as tumultuous and full of contrary opinions as any opt-in democracy, and we certainly still have a LONG way to go (may we always have a long way to go). But a Mission Statement is at best a compass - it isn't the boat, it isn't the wind, it isn't the hands on deck. And if it points you towards the rocks, turn the other way.

That's where the most insidious ideas of the post live. Court Theatre produces plays and so does Flux. The work of artists is 'showcased' in both examples. So why is it all right for an institution to produce the work of artists, but not artists to produce the work themselves?

According to this post, it's because artists sleep with each other and set designers want six packs - in other words, artists are children who need administrators and institutions to protect them from themselves. And why are artists children? Because they want to showcase their art.

And art alone is not enough. The art must have a mission, because without one, it's existence cannot be justified. It must increase test scores, or help local businesses, or make people nicer to each other. It needs after show discussions, and buildings with comfortable lobbies, and well-researched program notes. And of course it needs ever larger administrative wings to pay for the lobbies and programs, and gate keepers who can explain the importance of it all to the audience, and protect the artists from themselves.

The mission of any real work of art is nothing more or less than the experience of it. If that experience could be put into a statement, you could just read the statement, and skip the play.

A theatre company should exist because the beauty of the artists' work combined exceeds what they could create alone. A theatre company should exist because of a unique alchemy and shared language that develops over time between the artists and the audience. A theatre company proves its value by creating an aesthetic experience that becomes essential to how its audience knows the world.

For me, the worst statement from Adam lives in his comment section, where he says:

I have an issue with people forming 501(c)3 and claiming they serve the "public". Of course if they were honest about it, then I don't know if the nonprofit model would be right for them.
Who exactly is this "public"? Are the theatregoers of Chicago who don't attend the Court somehow not the "public"? How big does your audience have to be before it becomes the "public"? Is it the theatre's longevity that gives their 501(c)3 it's worth, or did the Court prove their enduring value anew with their recent production of Wait Until Dark? The Court's Artistic Director has directed over 30 productions in the Court's history. Does that make the theatre just a showcase for him?

Of course not, and I hate the sarcastic tone I just used. The truth is, I'm grateful for the Court, the same way I'm grateful for any theatre that manages to keep its doors open, for however long they are able to do so. I'm grateful for the 50 year institutional theatres, and I'm grateful for the scrappy artist run companies that burn themselves out in 5 years making great work.

But the idea that a theatre company exists to serve a mission is corrosive. A theatre company exists to empower artists to engage audiences with their work. That can happen institutionally, and it can happen independently. It happens best when a theatre company explores HOW to work together.

But the WHY...the WHY is either on the stage, or it isn't there at all.

Ah, well, perhaps the lady doth protest too much. Obviously, Adam struck a chord of truth or I wouldn't have posted at such length about it. But The Lord Chamberlin's Men didn't have a mission statement, nor Moliere's troupe, though perhaps the Theatre of Dionysus did and it was lost in the burning Library of Alexandria...

Anyway. Onward!


  • Tony Adams said:  

    A company doesn't have to be 501c3, however, a charitable organization does need to exist for the public good--it's part of the 501c3 designation.

  • Adam said:  

    I responded:



  • August Schulenburg said:  


    I definitely agree that a 501(c)3 company by definition does exist to serve the public good - my concerns were basically threefold: 1.)the idea that an artist-run organization is somehow less qualified to serve the public good than a more traditional institution; 2.) that a mission statement is the most important factor in the long term health of a theatre company (though I do think it is useful, I would not give it that primacy); and 3.)that art needs a "mission" in order to serve the public good.

    Additionally, I was unhappy with a theatre leader of Adam's stature saying that the kind of smaller, younger companies he described were not serving the public good, but only serving themselves. Younger companies need a hand up the ladder, not the ladder pulled away from us because we're not worthy. Though I do not think that was your intention, Adam, as you post your insights for free, and they are clearly valuable to me, or I wouldn't read your blog daily!

  • RostockRose said:  

    I chimed in on this, but it was a bit long so I put it on my blog.


  • Tony Adams said:  

    I don't think art needs a mission.

    I think an organization needs a reason to exist, and that is it's mission.

    There is no problem with an artist-run organization. But I think it becomes a problem when artists think the organization is there to serve them.
    Down the road this becomes a huge problem, when artists think the board and staff are there to serve the artists.

    Who the organization actually intends to serve is a difficult thing to be honest about.

  • Tony Adams said:   This comment has been removed by the author.
  • August Schulenburg said:  


    I don't think a mission statement and a reason to exist are the same thing for a theatre company.

    The reason any theatre company exists is to share the theatre created by the company with the audience. Having an administrative middle-man between the audience and artists doesn't change that fact, though it seems it gives the effort the aura of respectability.

    A mission statement can be a useful tool in identifying what kind of theatre and company and audience. It can help frame the theatre in a persuasive context within a community.

    But if the work the theatre company is creating doesn't find an audience, it's probably not because of the mission statement. It is far more likely that failure comes from how that organization treats its artists, or its audience, both of which must be equal partners for a company to work.