In Search of the NEW Normal

By Guest Columnist JOE BANKOFF;
president of the Woodruff Arts Center

guest_photo8People sometimes politely wonder why I would leave the law practice to work in a large not-for-profit arts organization like the Woodruff Arts Center. Me included. If timing is everything – then (with apologies to Charles Dickens) it is both the worst of times and the best of times.

The events of September 2008 are having even greater impact on our society than those of September 2001. In 2001 we had an instantaneous shock and a common foreign enemy. Today we are living with a series of “after shocks” that are getting more – not less – intense. There is also no discrete enemy to hold responsible and to help unite us. The truth is – as Pogo would say – the enemy is us.

We all largely benefited from the rise in consumer spending resulting from tax cuts, easy credit and deferred infrastructure maintenance. We have collectively tolerated poor schools and political bickering focused more on the next election than on the long term needs of our children. We have gotten what we have paid for (or failed to pay for) and the bill has now come due with a vengeance.

What is ending with a “bang” is our Age of Entitlement. Good students at good schools are no longer entitled to good jobs. Workers at sub-economic factories are no longer entitled to job security. Investment bankers, brokers, lawyers and others are no longer entitled to large salaries and bonuses. People who prepared for their retirement with care are no longer entitled to be secure.

Jobs and wages of productive people are being lost and reduced at rates not seen in 50 years.

It seems clear that this is not going to change soon or quickly. Our global economy is highly interdependent and currently in near free fall. The issue is not “how” we can weather this storm. The issue is what will be the “new normal” when things stabilize. Our challenge and opportunity is to plan now and prepare for the “new normal.”

The Woodruff Arts Center is certainly not immune. While we provide the largest support of any institution for injecting arts into Georgia’s K-12 education – we receive less than 3 percent of our budget from public funding. Our necessary reliance on private contributions makes us particularly vulnerable in this economy. So we are going to have to make adjustments – but at the same time we are planning now how we will be able to serve our communities in the new normal to follow.

In these times I believe we should stop looking just for things we “can cut.” Instead we need to focus on what is “core” or “fundamental” that we must preserve. It’s a different mind set – one that looks past how do we “adjust” and focuses on what we and our children will need to thrive in the world as it is becoming.

The key here is seeing that we are each a part of the solution. In our separate fields of work and expertise we need to prioritize what we believe must endure – and then plan and take the necessary steps to protect it. We should focus on what will have value to our children – rather than our own sense of personal loss or sacrifice.

We probably won’t get it perfectly right. But we will come closer if we accept that we share both the obligation and the opportunity to direct our talents and energy to creating the future we want. Waiting for others to do it for us has never proven useful in a timely way.

Since “hope” is not a plan, planning now for the “new normal” should be our priority. The Woodruff Center is now planning what will be needed to sustain both art and education in the future. It has never been truer that the best way to predict the future – is to create it.

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