Monday, April 16, 2012

Whither the Non-Profit Arts Sector?

 A recent post by Brooklyn Philharmonic CEO Richard Dare set the nonprofit arts world all abuzz.  It gave a lot of statistics about the number of orchestras that are failing and the general fragility of the non-profit art sector—in short, the kind of alarm-ringing I, for one, have heard since the early 1970s when I began my career in the arts.

The interesting thing is that Dare is right.  He’s right if you define the arts as they are traditionally considered: those art forms handed down to us from, mostly, Europe.  Classical music, fine arts, theater, dance—these are the art forms that many of us have labored for years to sustain, to bring to the farthest corners of our nation, to extol as the epitome of creativity.  And to a large degree, we have generally accomplished our goals.  Orchestras, opera companies, theaters, museums and galleries no longer exist just in large major metropolitan areas.  They are everywhere.  Maybe, just maybe, we have been too successful…

Seventy-three percent, according to Dare, of all orchestras are running deficits, 18 percent are barely breaking even, and less than 10% are showing small net incomes.  It certainly looks like a sector at risk.  Dare uses the right statistics but I think he misses a few important points.  First, looking at the growth of this classical artistic sector in the past 40 years one has to wonder, what has taken so long for there to be a shake-out?  Second, Dare goes on to suggest that, based on these statistics, the problem with our sector must be the very model on which it is based (the non-profit business model).  Good grief.  A sector has some massive issues, therefore the problem is with the business model?  Really?  Would he apply the same logic to the for-profit sector when, say, a tech bubble or a real estate bubble bursts and sends the entire economy into a tail-spin for four or five years?  Jeez…should we ditch capitalism?

I don’t think so.

From what I have observed (so my view is not at all scientific), the solution for the arts sector involves actively exploring four paths:  Expanding the definition of what we mean by “art;” Being real to your community; Embracing change; and Serving a greater good.

Expanding the definition of art
Politically speaking, most discussions about art are about the marginal utility of supporting “the arts” and they frequently result in a diatribe against the “elitism” that pervades the arts.  Why should anyone with a ton of money get a tax deduction for supporting something that only his or her equally well-heeled friends get to enjoy?  The fact is that since the 1960s the arts ESPECIALLY in this country have evolved very quickly away from this Euro-centric view, and continually embrace the creative expressions of many other cultures.  Whether it is a blending of expressions (hip-hop/modern dance) or totally new expressions (new, that is, to someone brought up in a western classical tradition), the non-profit sector has found room for all of it.  And those that are really embracing the new art forms seem to be holding or even increasing audience share.  At least as far as I can tell…

Being real to your community
I once got a call from someone who wanted to open up a new ballet studio in a small town (pop. 12,000-ish) that already had two working dance studios, a dynamic cultural scene (theaters, galleries, etc.) and an even more robust outdoor recreation program for its school-aged children.  When I asked if she had done any kind of market analysis to see what the barriers might be to her desire to open up a studio, she said it didn’t matter.  No one was teaching the kind of dance she intended to teach.

I tried to advise her to start with one of the already-existing dance studios, to offer a few classes to build a reputation, and only THEN to establish a separate corporate identity.  She wouldn’t listen.  Her naiveté points out the importance of context.  Her community is a real place with real people and real limitations for what she wanted to achieve. 

We don’t expect a village like Island Pond (in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom) to mount a production with anywhere near the same values as one might find in Burlington or Montreal.  But does that mean the artistic experience for a performance in Island Pond, especially for the audience, is of any less value than that of an audience in Burlington?  No, not at all.

Not all organizations can be Mass MoCA.  But now that Mass MoCA exists, plenty of other communities want to imitate it.  But they can’t.  Their expectations are, “all we need is your money, and we can take care of the rest.”  But they don’t understand that the roots of Mass MoCA were put in place nearly 15 years before it opened; more if you consider Mass MoCA’s operating environment to include the entire brand identity of the Berkshires.

The point is, the minute a non-profit arts organization stops behaving like a crucial piece of its own local community, it starts to become irrelevant.  The real trick is to make sure you know who your community is.

Embracing change
I read that the Metropolitan Opera’s annual budget last year was close to $400 million.  More startling than the sheer magnitude of that dollar figure was learning that what had put them into the black for the year was not a particular donation or sponsorship, but the “profit” they made on their digital broadcasts to theaters all over the country.  As one venerable member of the Vermont Arts Council’s board said, “I’ve been to the opera all my life and I love it.  But until I went to one of these digital broadcasts, I had NEVER felt like I was onstage with the performers.  It was stunning; a whole new experience.”

Hey, if the Metropolitan Opera can do it, so can the rest of us.  No, I’m not talking about digital broadcasts, I’m talking about embracing change.  I remember the fights the opera world had in the 1980s when the New York City Opera used supertitles for the first time. (“Sacrilege!” they all cried.)  I still hear the debates between respected artists over whether the public should support only “absolute artistic excellence” or “relative artistic excellence.”  What a load of b.s.  Seriously.

Everyone agrees that William Shakespeare is still the greatest playwright that ever lived.  But does a theater company ALWAYS have to resort to putting up “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when money gets tight?  Do ballet companies ALWAYS have to perform the “Nutcracker” at Christmas?    I’m a huge believer in Michael Kaiser’s exhortations to embrace new productions and market and promote them well.  Change is good for the brain and for the soul.  Done right, it is also very good for the bottom line…

Serving a greater good
“But we’re artists.  We don’t do things that way.”  How often do communities hear this from their cultural leaders?  I have been arguing for years that one of the best indicators of the well-being of a community is the degree to which its artistic community is engaged, not (just) in art-making, but in serving on school boards, planning commissions, select boards, mayors’ advisory councils.

Most arts organizations have long since learned that today’s student-matinee attendees are tomorrow’s audiences.  But how many have taken that a step further and looked for ways to participate in or create programs that reduce recidivism, or improve the quality of life for PTSD or brain-injured patients at the local VA hospital?  How many of established outposts in the poorest neighborhoods to bring a ray of light and hope to some of the most underserved of our citizens? 

The answer is, actually, quite a few.  From the Bronx to Chicago’s West Side, to the Barrios of LA, there are dozens of arts-based organizations inviting people of all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds to share their cultural expressions.  No, they don’t pretend to be the Met.  They don’t have to.  They are providing meaningful connections and bridges between and among people who are in desperate need of a creative outlet and nurturing.  Trust me, even if the rest of the nonprofit world dies off, these organizations will thrive.

So, what’s going to happen next?

I think we are seeing a huge shake-out in the nonprofit sector.  It’s been a long time coming.  There will be winners and losers.  There will be mergers and acquisitions.  There will be bruised egos and probably a few “pewter parachutes” (not enough money for gold!).  But the model itself is quite strong.  It’s what we do with it that matters.  Just like in the for-profit sector.