Culture in Crisis: Deploying Metaphor in Defense of Art

Terence E. McDonnell and Steven J. Tepper

This article was adapted from an article originally published in Poetics in 2014.

The former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Rocco Landsman was asked about the health of the nonprofit arts sector in America. “Look,” he explained, “You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase. So it is time to think about decreasing supply.” This sentiment, that we have overbuilt the nonprofit arts sector, has become a frequent refrain among cultural policy leaders. Bill Ivey, Landsman’s predecessor at the NEA, delivered the sobering news to arts philanthropists as early 2004, stating, “Our policy model is forty years old. Our primary partnering strategy of matching grants to nonprofits has matured, and for the past ten years, our nonprofit refined arts have presented striking indicators of an overbuilt industry — depressed wages, lack of capital, defensive, conservative business practices. To paraphrase Oklahoma, ‘We’ve gone about as far as we can go.’”

Declarations of crisis and imminent danger are not just hype and hyperbole. High-profile closings or threatened bankruptcies have increased recently. Explanations for the crisis facing cultural nonprofits abound: competition from other forms of entertainment and media, technological change, shifting demographics, economic recession, decreased government funding, shifts in philanthropy, overbuilt facilities with high overhead costs, and the rising cost of artistic labor. Apart from explaining the social and economic forces bearing down upon the nonprofit arts sector, we need to pay greater attention to what these moments of crisis reveal about the value and relevance of certain cultural institutions in our lives and our communities.

We argue that the arguments, stories, value statements, justifications, and language deployed by supporters and critics reveal important, often hidden assumptions about the value and relevance of art for citizens, cities, and art forms. This is particularly important because high-culture nonprofits were historically characterized by dueling conceptions and competing missions. On the one hand they support the elevation of fine art as sacred and distinctive and appeal to sophisticated and enlightened patrons, while on the other hand they promote access to the arts, community service, and education. Cultural nonprofits have variously positioned themselves as both of the people and above the people. This leads us to ask the following questions: When cultural organizations face extinction, do they emphasize their broad public missions, or do they fall back on notions of distinction and elevation? Additionally, are there important differences between how people defend high-culture nonprofits compared to popular-culture or commercial organizations?

Our evidence comes from an analysis of the news coverage of cultural organizations on the verge of closure. We sampled cases of cultural organizations in crisis across the dimensions of high culture/popular culture and commercial/nonprofit. Our sample includes cases as wide ranging as ballet companies, art museums, symphonic orchestras, jazz clubs, art-house theaters, commercial galleries, fairs, libraries, bookstores, record stores, and amusement parks. Using media coverage of these cases, we located instances when supporters’ public statements used metaphorical language. Deductively we sought to identify whether advocates’ metaphors depict these organizations and the cultural forms they support as hierarchical or egalitarian, and fragile or robust. Inductively, we looked for coherent patterns in metaphorical rhetoric across organizations within each quadrant of the cultural field: High-Culture Nonprofits (HCNPs), High-Culture Commercial (HCCs), Popular-Culture Nonprofits (PCNPs), and Popular-Culture Commercial (PCCs). The rhetoric from each quadrant can be summarized with a specific metaphor: the crown, the soul, the heart, and memory.

Ultimately, we find that when HCNPs face crisis, their supporters fall back upon metaphors and frames that position the fine arts as distinctive, fragile, exceptional, and deserving of high status despite decades expressing commitment to democratic participation. While leaders of national arts associations, foundation officers, and cultural policy scholars call on nonprofits to adopt more inclusive and diverse approaches to engaging communities, HCNPs under threat enact the old model even as they admit it is unsustainable. We argue that this failure to embrace a new model of cultural production and engagement is the result, in part, of relying on old metaphors. By falling back on elite metaphors in the short term, HCNPs undermine their capacity to change to more democratic frames in the long term. This inability to commit to alternative metaphors ultimately fuels a broader crisis of legitimacy by reinforcing a belief that art and culture are not for all communities.

The Crown: High-Culture Nonprofits

How successful have high-culture nonprofit organizations, and their supporters, been at moving discourse away from discussions of their elite status to a focus on their contributions to community? Said differently, have they shifted the “frame” by which they articulate value? Our results suggest that despite their efforts to appear more democratic and inclusive, high-culture nonprofits cling to old metaphors of hierarchy and fragility in moments of crisis. Defenders of HCNPs made hierarchical claims about twice as often as egalitarian claims, suggesting their organization deserved to exist because it encourages excellence, talent, genius, or professionalism in the arts. They also described their organizations as fragile two and a half times more often than they claimed their art was robust, arguing that their organization is necessary to protect cultural tradition and heritage and that their cultural form is under threat. These claims are consistent with arts advocates and policymakers’ long-standing support of the “best that is thought and known,” and habitual casting of “their” arts as threatened and in need of protection.

Despite the efforts of arts advocacy groups to articulate the value of symphonies and museums to the community, and the community-oriented policies these organizations embrace, when advocates argue for the value of HCNPs in the face of crisis, rhetoric falls back on metaphors of wealth and elite status. More than any other metaphor, “jewel” was used to describe symphonies, ballets, playhouses, and art museums. The Philadelphia Orchestra is a “treasure,” the “solid gold Cadillac of orchestras,” and a “cultural jewel.” Ballet Florida is “one of the jewels of the city.” The Rose Museum at Brandeis is a “gem of a museum,” a “crown jewel,” and the “jewel of Brandeis.” Advocates communicate status through this discourse: “crowns” evoke royalty, “Cadillacs” suggest wealth. The discourse around our cases of HCNPs privileged wealth, status, and cultural excellence.

In making a case for why HCNPs need to survive, people often argued that these institutions serve as symbols of a community’s standing and status. For instance, the Syracuse Symphony was described as “a jewel in the crown of Central New York’s cultural establishment.” Foremost among examples of organizations serving as status symbols of a community was the Philadelphia Orchestra, which was twice described as a global cultural “ambassador,” and once labeled a “gift to the nation.” In this way, the Philadelphia Orchestra functions as a symbol for national and international audiences more so than for local residents. Images of gifts and ambassadors suggest that HCNPs stand apart from everyday life, privileging ceremony and distinction over engagement and connection.

If HCNPs are a positive symbol of a city or region, then the demise of a cultural organization casts a shadow on the reputation of that city. For instance, many felt that the bankruptcy of the Philadelphia Orchestra undermined the city’s status. As one article states, “An orchestra is a symbol of opulence and musical excellence. The Philadelphia Orchestra, these days, has become a symbol for bankruptcy and a threatened future.” Another argues that “the ‘Fabulous Philadelphians,’ as the orchestra became known… is the first of the traditional ‘big five’ orchestras to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.” In this sense, the loss of the Philadelphia Orchestra marks a loss of the city’s status as a “big five” city and points to an uncertain future for Philadelphia as a whole.

Arguments for how to save HCNPs boil down to the traditional strategy of securing elite donors, as opposed to generating support from the broader community. This fixation on saviors is captured by the claim that “what the Pasadena Playhouse needs is a financial white knight, a Lancelot who can swiftly rise to its rescue.” If only organizations could find that one big donor, all the problems would be solved. But communities are limited in the numbers of big donors available to rally to their cause. For instance, the Syracuse Symphony faced a “breaking point, where you exhaust your donors, the big ones — that’s like turning off the machine when someone’s on life support.” Even with the limitations of relying on big donors for the operating budget, one article argued against making community-based arguments because of how it alienates the “art lovers” who frequented the Bellevue Art Museum: “promoting a museum as a community gathering place can leave out some of the art lovers who often pay to get in and donate to the museum.” The message here is that financial support from big donors is more important than, and inimical to, community support.

In addition to these elite metaphors, we found evidence that HCNP defenders deploy metaphors of fragility. The loss of ballet symbolizes “the fragile state of culture.” Theaters are like princesses who need “white knights” to protect them. One advocate suggested that classical music is so fragile that even great performances could not save it: “One of my favorite tropes is that excellent music-making will prevail. But this concert represented a sober warning. This Tchaikovsky Fifth was as good as orchestra playing gets. Yet even this caliber of performance may not be enough to save the Philadelphia Orchestra.” Advocates argue that as storehouses of culture, these fragile organizations need support in order to continue to have art, classical music, ballet, or theater. Embedded in the fragility discourse are notions of culture wars — that embattled organizations need defense, for without them our society would fall into a cultural “void.” These fears imply that entire artistic traditions could be lost with the collapse of HCNPs. The Rose Museum at Brandeis was “cannibalizing itself.” As one article argued, “you don’t sell the timpani to save the orchestra.”

HCNPs are cast as fragile but precious assets. When HCNPs face crisis, advocates argue for their elite status and pursuit of excellence. They look to wealthy donors for survival and are oriented toward maintaining their reputation for external audiences rather than concerning themselves with their failure to meet the needs of the community. In the end, we find the metaphor of the “crown” to be most apt, suggesting that high-culture nonprofits rest upon the heads of our communities, rather than being part of communities; they signal status and ceremony, and they are precious and need protection.

The Soul: High-Culture Commercial

When for-profit organizations like art galleries, jazz clubs, Broadway theater, and art-house movie theaters were threatened, the language of jewels, gems, and treasure rarely appeared in the discourse. Whereas defenders of HCNPs evoked the separateness of elite wealth, defenders of HCC organizations sought to frame these institutions as authentic spaces. Rather than producing “excellence,” the value of HCCs derived from their capacity to create authentic experiences and spaces set apart from mainstream — often corporate — taste. For instance, the Biograph Theatre in Washington, D.C., offered films that were “difficult, not commercial, not accessible,” “off beat,” “eccentric,” and “marginal.” One article argued that it wanted “coming generations to feel that authentic space.” New York’s Smalls Jazz club “had a completely different taste.” Defenders of these cultural organizations evoked imagery of “real places,” using words like “authentic,” “atmosphere,” “independent,” “dirty,” and “smoky.” This discourse lacks the language of eliteness that pervades the defense of high-culture nonprofit organizations. Rather than some culture being better than others, this culture is distinct from (though not necessarily better than) mass commercialized culture. These sites are not resting atop like a pristine crown; rather they embrace authenticity. Specifically, advocates reference the idea of the soul — as opposed to the crown. These institutions do not get their status from being highly visible jewels; rather they represent the ineffable and “true” character of a place.

Discussions of HCCs in crisis did not express fear that the loss of these organizations meant the loss of the cultural form, especially when compared to discussions of symphonies or ballets. When Dowe’s on 9th, a jazz venue in Pittsburgh, closed, one article stated, “I don’t think it reflects the end of jazz, that the jazz audience is withering and going away.” Advocates of for-profit high-culture forms seemed to view them as less fragile than their nonprofit counterparts. While people might “mourn the loss,” or feel a “need to console people for the loss in the family,” defenders did not see the closing of these organizations as creating a cultural “void,” as indicative of broader “crisis,” or as evidence that the “arts are under attack,” as appeared in the discourse around HCNPs.

While the survival of HCCs depends on the market, people try to make them distinct by claiming they are not sites of “profit” but of “magic.” The metaphor of magic evokes a sense that HCCs are outside the everyday, above and beyond other consumption opportunities available in the market. Additionally, more than for ballets and orchestras, advocates use religious imagery to discuss theaters and jazz clubs, like “soul,” “chapel,” and “sanctuary.” Some claimed they were on a “crusade.” The soul metaphor suggests that HCCs share sacred, authentic experiences distinct from the everyday. By marking commercial spaces like jazz clubs and art-house theaters as sites for the “soul,” people differentiate HCCs from structurally similar, but profane, sites of popular culture. Unlike symphony orchestras, commercial fine arts resemble popular-culture sites economically and structurally. As such, defenders of HCCs aggressively distinguish them from more popular forms of commercial culture. Authenticity is crucial to this differentiation. Aligning authentic cultural tastes with the sacredness and nourishment of the soul is a common practice with a long history.

The Heart: Popular-Culture Nonprofits

Defenders tended to describe PCNPs as public centers of community activity and vitality. The Salinas Library was called the “hub” and the “heart” of the community. In other respects, these venues were seen as sources of life and health for the community and its citizens. The Aurora Library was a “vital system” and “barometer for the community’s health.” When speaking of the end of the Hollywood Christmas parade, one person said, “when that last float went down the street last year, half my life went with it.” Of the Belle Isle Aquarium, one article quoted a citizen arguing that the aquarium closure was symbolic of the health of Detroit: “what’s the point of living near a city that’s being culturally degraded?”

When PCNPs ultimately fold, people “mourn” for the life these organizations brought to the community. Not only do people mourn the death of the venue, but they mourn the death of community. For instance, when speaking of the closure of the KUSF radio station, people described it as “heartbreaking” and likened it to a “funeral,” and one article suggested it was a “social death.” What was important was not the content of the cultural form, but the way the form brought people together. Not only is the life of the community at stake but so are democratic values. Discourse around these institutions was rife with the language of democracy: “voters,” “public,” “good,” “civic.” One person described the closing of the Steinbeck Library as the “death knell of democracy.” When a PCNP venue is threatened, that is one thing. But the failure of the community to vote to protect these organizations is indicative of the state of democracy in these communities. Significantly, the “heart” is a pervasive metaphorical image. Like hearts, PCNPs represent the lifelines of the community; people and culture flow through them, and they promote health and vitality.

The metaphor of the “heart” reflects the history of popular nonprofit cultural organizations as gathering places and centers for community life. With rising industrialization and fears of social breakdown, reformers more than one hundred years ago heralded these public sites of leisure and education as critical for civic engagement and community vitality. While they were also seen as spaces for personal education and enlightenment, their role as gathering sites and anchors for cities and communities was celebrated from the very beginning. The metaphor of the heart is consistent with the idea that the civic, social, and cultural life of the community flowed through these public centers.

Memory: Popular-Culture Commercial

In the commercial popular-culture field, more than in any other field, the thought of losing these venues elicited nostalgic rhetoric around place. Some of that nostalgia centered around the uniquely American quality of the cultural form. For instance, an article about Hull’s Drive-In stated that “the experience of going to a drive-in is completely undefinable. They’re just cool. After 26 years I finally feel completely American.” Similarly, the Grandview Drive-In is an “American staple” and “American Icon,” and its loss is a “symbol of America’s changing value system.” Other nostalgia linked the venue to the history of the locale. Describing the Scribner bookstore, one article stated that the closing “drew people who still feel affection for the elegant, vanished New York that Scribner epitomizes.” Defenders repeatedly used the language of history and place: “landmark,” “destination,” “mecca.” This nostalgia seems less about the content of the cultural form and more about how these places were somehow “out of time”: the memory and feelings evoked were more powerful than the movies or the books inside them. Because advocates frequently evoke nostalgia, we describe the metaphors in this fourth quadrant as “memory.” These institutions are valuable precisely because they help us remember a receding, but celebrated, way of life.

These popular commercial entities are victims of disruptive technological and economic change. Baseball parks, roller-skating rinks, amusement parks, and drive-in theaters are intimately tied up with images of a simpler past, and for many, these sites of amusement are connected to memories of childhood. This nostalgia is not wrapped up in the unique, virtuoso experiences of high culture but in the everyday ways of life of yesteryear. As people confront unsettling technological and cultural change, they long for an imagined past — a past symbolized by those institutions and spaces that call forth memories of childhood.


In spite of the “democratic turn” in cultural policy, HCNPs view themselves and their value to society in terms of old metaphors of wealth, excellence, and distinction. Advocates for these organizations defend their arts through metaphors of hierarchy and fragility, especially compared to popular and commercial cultural organizations. When cultural advocates fall back upon metaphors of elitism and fragility, they fail to mobilize broad support and demonstrate public relevance. They treat their arts institutions as entitled to support by virtue of their traditions, their claim to excellence, and their perceived high status. These claims embrace a “culture war” mentality by viewing culture as fragile and in need of protection from its enemies and from the market. They perceive the world as hostile to their values, feeling embattled and misunderstood. This defensive posture does not facilitate the forging of new relationships and new types of cultural engagement in their communities. We believe these metaphors block the road to organizational change and innovation.

The metaphors arts advocates use have consequences for public policy and public support. Different metaphors might serve the nonprofit high-culture community better. Cultural policymakers may need to shed old, dead metaphors. What if we saw our cultural institutions as robust and egalitarian? What if we viewed the death and birth of organizations as part of a natural and dynamic process? What if we valued and considered community voices as much as we do the opinions of cultural elites? Would such a robust ecological view of the arts discourage arts leaders from investing disproportionate resources keeping organizations on life support? Would it focus attention on creating healthy systems rather than viable organizations? Would this view support more high-risk projects or embrace amateur artists and alternative venues? Would robust and egalitarian metaphors help us support immigrant art, flash mobs, community art centers, and independent record labels and publishers?

When we talk about a robust ecology, we are not suggesting a neoliberal, market-driven model of cultural policy where only the “fittest” organizations (i.e., those with market value) survive. We recognize that government policy, both through regulation and subsidy, is a critical part of a healthy arts sector. We do, however, support more innovative policy interventions, which means considering new institutional forms, new types of enterprises, new forms of art, and new ways of connecting to communities. Existing metaphors limit our ability to imagine and consider alternative ways to support the arts, ultimately constraining the way people talk about their value.

More than at any other time, moments of crisis attract public attention and offer arts leaders an opportunity to speak to people about the value of the arts. When under this spotlight, arts advocates appear elitist, pander to wealthy donors, and suggest the death of a specific organization will be the death of art. Such moments affirm for a skeptical public that community-based initiatives are more for show than for the community. How can the arts become central to public life? Things might change when HCNPs begin by talking about themselves less as jeweled “crowns” and more as the “soul,” “heart,” and “memory” of a community. Metaphorically speaking, it is time to dig for new metaphors.