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Think Big, Act Small

After thirty years in the alternative art business, my husband/collaborator Steven Durland and I have come up with the perfect insurance against recessions and meltdowns: stay as small as possible.

Steven and I co-direct a nonprofit organization called Art in the Public Interest (API), the only project of which is a huge web site, the Community Arts Network. It’s a portal into the world of community-based arts—artists and communities collaborating together, sometimes for “social change.” After the experience of creating four nonprofits (founding, respectively, a magazine, an arts complex, a performance space and a Web site), we now find ourselves with the smallest board (four) and the smallest staff (two) in our history. Sailing into our golden years, we have few material goods to show for it, but we did what we wanted to do and we are proud to say it.

Like many of our peers, we spent the last thirty years trying to think outside the box while learning on the fly how the box actually works. That meant putting aside writing and art making and learning a perfunctory version of arts administration, business management and development. While we accomplished a great deal, we were, as they say, making the road by walking. There were a lot of peak experiences, but they came with large helpings of bewilderment, anxiety and sleep deprivation. When it came down to creating API and CAN, our most recent manifestation, in 1999, we decided to design our jobs around our strengths instead of challenging ourselves to learn a raft of new skills.

For CAN, we wear hats so numerous they are uncountable, but I am essentially the wordmaster and Steve is the webmaster. We’ve managed, in the last ten years, to help build an emerging field and stuff the CAN site with more than 10,000 pages of news, critical writing, profiles, case studies, dialogues, field reports and interactivity—all on $100,000 a year. And we were even able to pay freelance writers, something that is rare in the arts and on the web. This was only possible if we left California and its ludicrously sky-high cost of living, and moved to North Carolina, where we inhabit in a cozy singlewide mobile home and a yurt on twenty-eight wild and glorious acres of woodland with wireless broadband. We brought with us connections to a diverse, global network of people who are still grinding away out there, stretching the envelope, brainstorming outside the box, teetering on the cutting edge and staying in touch with us. When it’s necessary or desirable to see what’s up, we fly the redeye out of RDU, thirty-five minutes away. What we have is not much, but it’s all paid off.

CAN receives up to 70,000 visits a month, about ten times the number of people we were ever able to reach in the past. We know from an outside assessment that CAN is being widely used as a reference tool, a source of news and a treasure trove for curriculum builders. Yes, it needs constant gardening, and yes, it always needs a technical upgrade, and no, there’s no earned income. So it’s not perfect and it doesn’t run by itself. But we can do it, partly because “stay small” is in our mission statement. We just have to resist the opportunity to “build capacity.”

For advice, I leave you with two bromides: Follow Your Bliss (that means pay attention to what gives you healthy energy) and Do Better What You Do Best (my father’s family motto). And don’t let the bastards get you down.

Linda Frye Burnham is a writer who founded High Performance magazine and traded editing stints with visual artist Steven Durland throughout the magazine’s history (1978-1998). She co-founded the 18th Street Arts Complex and Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, Calif. in the ‘80s; Art in the Public Interest in North Carolina in the ‘90s; and the Community Arts Network on the WWW. She and Durland were wed in 1994. They live in Saxapahaw, N.C.

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