A Courageous Conversation about the Future

This post is based on a message shared today with the members & stakeholders of Alliance for Audience – the independent service organization to Arizona’s arts & cultural community (of which I am the founder & Executive Director.)

The “need” that led to the formation of Alliance for Audience (and to similar associations nationally that focus on the cause of ”audience development”) was grounded in shared, long-standing frustrations regarding the under-utilization of arts & cultural assets stemming from reasons both “external” (i.e. changing demographics, heightened competition and diminished arts & cultural education) as well as “internal” (i.e. technological advancements, budgetary pressures).

The under-utilization challenge is historic, profound and long term.

But that challenge has been trumped by a new priority whose challenges are historic, profound and immediate.

Today, arts & cultural organizations in Arizona and elsewhere are suffering from the onslaught of a devastating financial drought.  The immediate challenge is one of under-capitalization – a situation made critical by the simultaneous experience of withdrawn corporate sponsorships, shrinking government allocations, downgraded philanthropic support, diminished earnings on invested assets and weakened audience participation (which itself diminishes earnings capacity and individual philanthropy.)

Just this week, I heard one organization’s CEO state the challenge succinctly:  “Companies that used to consider generously contributing to or sponsoring our activities now tell us that they no longer consider arts & culture to be “essential” community services.”

This is not just an Arizona challenge.  The under-capitalization of the arts & cultural sector has emerged as nationally significant issue, as noted in Nonprofit Finance Funds’ recently published Case for Change Capital in the Arts and the Kresge Foundation’s focus area on Arts & Culture Institutional Capitalization(Thank you Alan Brown for identifying these for me.  I continue to welcome suggestions & links to other resources on this topic!)

To be clear, the under-utilization challenge has not been solved nor gone away.  But that challenge can no longer be addressed without also confronting the concurrent challenge of under-capitalization.

Alliance for Audience (and other organizations like it around the country) were founded to help individual arts & cultural organizations organizations work together to achieve goals that are impossible to attain on their own. 

Thus, now is the appropriate time to ask how such entities might re-deploy their assets, position, experience and momentum to address these dual challenges in service to Arizona’s arts & cultural sector.

This is the START of a very important conversation that deserves to be discussed honestly, openly & candidly.

I am very interested in connecting with people in Arizona and nationally who are interested in engaging in a discussion on this topic.

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  1. Carlo says

    People are willing to pay for rock concerts, broadway shows on tour, and other expensive entertainments. I just bought discount broadway show tickets for $79, and opera tickets for $85. but the local symphony orchestra charges $60 for good seats and $44 for the cheapest seats. I wait until discount tickets are available because I don’t feel that the symphony offers a good value for the money charged.

    I am just one individual, but many people feel the same way about the symphony. The administrators, conductors, and solists are paid too much. Lower the costs, lower the prices, and expand the audience.

    • says

      Carlo – Thanks for your post. I don’t have a problem with your basic assertion that the symphony (or any organization) must offer the audience good value for the money charged. But I strenuously disagree with your claim that the artists and administrators are overpaid. In my experience, the people who work at presenting and producing arts & cultural endeavors (at least, those I know here in Arizona) do so out of a deep personal passion – which is necessary to make up for the fact that they are generally paid well UNDER market standards. There is more to the dynamic of supply & demand in the field of arts & culture than just cost & ticket price. Look for a post on that subject in the very near future. – Matt

      • Carlo says

        I don’t believe that most artists are overpaid. But many orchestra conductors and administrators are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars or more while the musicians make much less. How is it that symphony boards of directors agree to pay part-time conductors million dollar salaries while the poor musicians (who are the orchestra) need to become unionized in order to receive decent salaries and benefits?

        And then the orchestra managements plead poverty.

  2. Habeas says

    I’m less interested in undercapitalization because of ticket revenues than I am in the topic of philanthropic organizations and corporations simultaneously moving away from funding artistic excellence.

    The move toward a new emphasis (within the last five years) on funding access to the arts, largely in the form of funding arts education within K-12 underserved populations, appears to be having the unintended consequence of reducing or eliminating funding for arts organizations for adults. Is this becoming a zero-sum game, and what are the assumptions and dangers underlying this shift?

  3. Laurie Dean Torrell says

    Thank you for this great post. You really hit the nail on the head: that with increasing financial strain we now hear from not only corporate supporters, but also governmental funders that “they no longer consider arts & culture to be “essential” community services.” We have faced this issue head on in Buffalo, NY, and I believe the key to responding courageously and effectively lies with unprecedented collaborative organizing and advocacy. Two years ago a grass-roots group of 12 arts & cultural organizations came together to form the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance. I share our mission and vision below, should they be helpful to others. Our vision was to be proactive – to not wait until the next funding crisis to act . . . but soon enough we were thrown into a battle with a county executive who did not value arts & culture and zeroed out funding to 37 organizations, supporting only the handful he believed provided tourism benefits . . . For the first time, we were able to mobilize en masse; show that participation and support for our arts & cultural organizations was widespread throughout EVERY legislative district; and, we without question played a role in this county executive losing his re-election race, and the new county executive coming in strong from day one in support of cultural funding. This is only one piece of the puzzle, but an important one for every community. There is strength in numbers and the time to pull together and organize is NOW.

    The Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance envisions a community that values arts and culture and the integral role they will play in our region’s future.

    The mission of the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance is to harness the aggregate resources of our cultural organizations to position arts, culture and creativity as critical community assets and priority areas for public and private investment and engagement.

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