A conversation with Marc Goldring, who retires this year after three decades as a consultant.
How did you get started in your career as a consultant?
It was 1983, and after years of living in rural New Hampshire, I was making a transition. It started by moving from my small, hand-built house in the woods to an old center-chimney cape in a nearby village. From there my craft studio flourished. I got a Fulbright lectureship to New Zealand, taught at several prestigious craft schools like Haystack and Arrowmont, and did freelance administrative work for the National Crafts Planning Project, funded by the crafts program of a then-robust National Endowment for the Arts.
Somewhere along the way, I worked with Dr. Thomas Wolf, the founding Executive Director of the New England Foundation for the Arts who had left to start a consulting business, The Wolf Organization. My skills aligned with his needs and he offered me a job in Cambridge. With a daughter ready for middle school, it was a temptation impossible to resist. My career as a consultant was under way.
That was 31 years ago, and from then to now is a complicated story, both personally and for our field.
What has changed over the past 31 years in our field?
When I began consulting, the culture wars were just heating up as social conservatives took aim at Federal support for art that they viewed as at best controversial and at worst blasphemous. At the same time, and in part caused by this, state and local funding for the arts was also being curtailed and in some cases eliminated. My consulting assignments in the 80s and 90s took me to many smaller and mid-sized urban centers. I saw a comparatively limited range of cultural opportunities that struggled for visibility and funding. The very definition of “arts and culture” was often narrow and, in many cases, appeared to be elitist.
Fast-forward to the present, and it’s clear that times have changed. And, in some ways, those times held the seed of today’s robust cultural sectors in cities and towns of all sizes. Here, in no particular order, is my impressionistic view of the most significant changes in our field:
- As local arts agencies engaged in community planning initiatives, there was a tendency to focus on a broader range of arts and cultural activities. This helped make the case for the value of arts and culture more broadly and fostered a stronger focus on individual, active participation in this more broadly defined range of activities.
- The rise of national, regional, and local service organizations that focused on making the case for the instrumental benefits of arts and culture, in particular their economic benefit, brought a new cadre of business and government supporters to the table.
- The proliferation of academic training programs in arts administration, as well as a greater emphasis on artist training in business skills, meant that many organizations — and the field as a whole — had the benefit of a new stream of creative and talented leaders.
- And let’s not forget perhaps the most significant shift, both for arts and culture and our society as a whole: the transformation resulting from computers, the Internet in general, and social media in particular.
I doubt these observations come as a surprise to readers (who can find more details on WolfBrown’s website), but I did find it surprising when I looked back and noticed how much our field has changed in only the past 35 years of my consulting career. On a personal note, I’ll miss my connections with so many friends and colleagues across the country. But I’m pleased that at the end of this journey, I find the field in such capable hands.
Thinking back over the course of your career, do you have a favorite memory you’d like to share?
It was in about 1989 and I was conducting an interview for a community cultural plan in a mid-sized mid-western community. My interviewee was the vice president of a locally-based bank and he had been reluctant to meet with me. Throughout the session, I would ask basic questions about arts and cultural offerings in the region and he seemed to preface each answer with a comment like, “Well, I don’t really know much about the arts…” From the brevity of his responses, he seemed to have a point!
After about twenty minutes of talking about the local business climate, prospects for job growth, and almost anything except arts and culture — my main topic of concern, I ended the session, to my interviewee’s apparent relief.
As I was leaving, I noticed a framed picture on the wall of four middle-aged men in tuxedos, smiling broadly, one of whom resembled my interviewee. “Are you in a barbershop quartet?” I asked, surprised. He allowed as how he was. I was thunderstruck! It turned out that he had founded the quartet over a decade before and went to statewide and regional meetings to perform, winning several competitions. This was his passion. It just never occurred to him that what he enjoyed had anything to do with “art.”
What a strong disconnect and what a powerful lesson for me. I saw how important it was to define art as broadly as possible to counter the strong, elitist tinge that word had, especially 25 years ago. As my practice matured, I learned to use a dramatically more inclusive definition of art and, thanks to Alan Brown, to pay more attention to creativity and participation. And that interview with a bank vice president laid the groundwork for that evolution.