What If We Are Doing It All Wrong

I started this commentary on arts management years ago and then fell silent.  Partly due to family deaths (3 = too many) and partly due to a less-compromising work load for a time.  However, I reached a tipping point in 2017.  Perhaps the return to this enterprise is simply a redirection of frustration from greater issues in the globe. More likely it is that I have reached a tipping point in my frustration with the field and its 20 year slide against the grain of success.  Definitely seeing a nonprofit annual campaign actually put in bold “we cannot cut it to sustainability,” fueled my fire.  Really? We’re going to ask people to give money to our business that we can’t figure out how to run?

So, you see, I need to bring up the fact that the Emperor has no clothes.  Why? We need to own it honestly and begin sewing for the future.

What do I mean by that?  For the last 20 years (ie the course of my career) I have watched the arts lose traction in society. And I mean effective business operations and audiences. Since I entered the field a brash 20 something, the “powers that be” in the arts have said the problem is that our audiences are dying off and we need to attract new audiences.  Well, twenty years later the same story is true.  So, we didn’t succeed 20 years ago OR a lot of other issues have arisen in the meantime (or both).

The epoch of the glory of the nonprofit performing arts movement seemed to lose steam in the 1990s. YES, the 1990s into the 2000s felt like a continuation of the boom.  We built buildings like they were lego sets. New nonprofit performing arts organizations were popping up like  popcorn.

richard_b-_fisher_center_for_the_performing_arts_-_img_8014

Yet, once built, we often realized the demand wasn’t as robust as originally observed.  Audiences and contributed income were increasingly difficult to come by in a consistent manner. Today we face, according to NEA statistics, a 20 year continual drop in most traditional art form consumption by USA citizens, a shrinking share of the contributed income pie, our artists are turning to for-profit creative enterprises to ground their careers, and foundations like the James Irvine Foundation who are turning to more pressing matters like poverty.

This intro is not meant to be a downer but a revelation for those who are still convinced of the beauty of the Emperor’s clothes.

In the next few weeks and months, I plan to articulate the systemic forces and individual choices that have created this path.  I will also offer solutions and hope to create a vibrant, not just sustainable, future. There is not just one. We are not a monolithic sector.  There are many paths to vibrant success.   I think that Doug Borwick, Nina Simon, Alan Brown, and others are fellow crusaders in this fight.  I am, however, attacking this problem from a slightly different angle:

a) History — What were the forces and assumptions embeded in the Ford Foundation funded Baumol and Bowen “Cost Disease” report that moved the performing arts into the not-for-profit business?

b) Expected Programming — How that has changed since the performing arts joined the ‘nonprofit’ family and what it has created in our institutions.

c) Basic Economics — NONPROFIT economics (not for-profit).  We can no longer continue as  Jekyll and Hyde enterprise.  One personality engaged in a for-profit, dynamic pricing, wring it out market facing product and our other personality pretending that our market facing activities are supporting our usually more minor community and education oriented activities.  We cannot be both at once.  In fact, the data shows us EXACTLY how COMMUNITY (not our board)  audiences want to engage with us if we just run our data. But more data analysis in the future.

Our job as not-for-profit arts institutions is simple.  We connect the artists and their art to the audiences for the benefit derived from that connection.  We need the best artists, the least barriers, and the most dynamic programming to do it. Let’s go!

IMAGE: Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, USA. Architect Frank Gehry. By Daderot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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