Flag on the Play: Unnecessary Arrogance

I’m calling a flag on the play.

This is the NFL signal for Unsportsmanlike Conduct.

Normally, I’d be among the first to say, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

I’ve spent the last 18 years as a champion of Arizona’s offerings of theatre, music, dance, art, festivals, culinary, science/technology and cultural attractions.  I continue to be a vigorous organizer of collaborative audience development efforts among arts & cultural organizations and around the country.

Politics and in-fighting don’t advance the cause of arts and cultural participation.

But, as potentially uncomfortable as this is, I am not going to sit idly by while the leader of one company proposes actions that reek of arrogance and hypocrisy – even when that organization is one of the largest performing arts groups in my hometown.

Here’s the situation:

On December 27 the Arizona Republic published an insightful year-end reflection column by arts writer Kerry Lengel that begins, “The story of the year in the arts, unfortunately, is the same as it was in 2011: the continuing toll from the Great Recession.”  The article notes the closure of several Phoenix-area non-profit organizations during the past year,  including Alliance for Audience/ShowUp.com, the service organization dedicated to collaborative audience development that I founded and led since 2003.


call shenanigans on the comments of Mr. Jim Ward, CEO of The Phoenix Symphony.

Three points deserve blunt rebuttal:

  • First, Mr. Ward argues that as a matter of policy, public subsidies should be focused exclusively on a select few “marquee organizations.”

As I wrote in my New Year’s Day post, “The value of arts & culture derives not from the success of any single genre, organization or venue - but from the nurturing of a multi-layered ECOSYSTEM that offers many people many different ways to achieve personally-meaningful connections.”

What Mr. Ward proposes is precisely the opposite.  His call is to “double down” on a select few organizations whose chief merit is size, rather than any ambition to build a sector that is stronger, broader and more inclusive than the one we have today.  This is not just the WRONG DIRECTION for public policy.  It is an incredibly DANGEROUS DIRECTION as well.

Frankly, there is also reason to be suspicious of his ultimate goal.

As a self-professed “Tea Party Republican” and former candidate for Congress, Mr. Ward must surely recognize (if not agree with) the agenda that would eliminate ALL public funding for arts & culture under the banner to “reduce the size and scope of government.”

While public funding levels in Arizona have never been particularly abundant, those amounts have been, nonetheless, reduced substantially in recent years.  That the sector has been able to preserve anything must be credited to the efforts of MANY arts and cultural organizations (and their government affairs advocates) and countless efforts to educate and mobilize audiences and stakeholders so that city and state-level public officials hear the message that their diverse constituents VALUE what public support of arts & cultural does for them.

A policy that reduces public funding to just The Phoenix Symphony and perhaps a few other “marquee” institutions (a designation of vague and questionable merit, by the way) not only appears hypocritical and self-serving – but it reinforces antiquated and counter-productive stereotypes of arts & cultural elitism.

In response to my posting of the original article on Facebook, a friend posted this insightful additional point with which I also agree: “What, Matt, you don’t believe in trickle-down arts funding?  Yes, “too big to fail” is a hypocritical notion, for sure. If anything, the arts will be reborn from the bottom up. I look to small organizations to reinvigorate the arts scene and to make people want the arts again.”


  • Second, Mr. Ward decries the number of non-profits that are “vying for the teat of the funders.”

I’d observe that the choice of metaphor reveals a somewhat disrespectful attitude to funders and peers alike, but it’s the meaning of his comments to which I object most strenuously.

While undeniably true that the number of non-profits has increased along with competition among them for limited charitable resources, a businessman like Mr. Ward should appreciate that the realm of charitable support is a marketplace in its own right.  Competition for limited funding drives applicants to innovate and affords funders the ability to make purposeful decisions over time about where and how their support should be invested.

The growth of the non-profit sector about which Mr. Ward complains is actually a celebration-worthy demonstration that beyond the capacity of the free market system there exist the substantial efforts of strong and caring people who are willing to dedicate themselves to important causes.

Undoubtedly, there are severe strains to the system and we would all welcome greater efforts to increase levels of philanthropy.  But at the end of the day, it’s healthy to consider the decisions of those funders as a form of economic truth serum.  Sometimes, the judgement of the jury is harsh.

If the Phoenix Symphony – or any other organization – is feeling “crowded out” of funding opportunities, then that’s a pretty clear sign that it is time to re-assess the fundamentals of its own relevance to its audiences, stakeholders and community.


  • Third, Mr. Ward isn’t just advocating for the viability of his organization.  He’s asking for that public and/or charitable support AT THE DIRECT EXPENSE OF OTHER ARTS & CULTURAL ORGANIZATIONS.

Hey, I understand that the CEO of a non-profit is expected to work vigorously and creatively to help the organization survive and thrive.  But the people who lead the largest organizations in town (as well as their Boards of Directors) also carry a leadership responsibility for the whole of the arts & cultural sector.

To turn on smaller organizations – and, in particular, to undermine the community spirit that unites the cause of arts & cultural engagement – is to become a self-serving bully in an abusive relationship.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

What Mr. Ward is advocating leads to only one of two ends – and they are both highly undesirable:

  • At best, his Darwin-esqe “survival of the largest” philosophy saves a few large institutions but offers no connection to a long-term objective of nurturing a vibrant arts and cultural sector where a multitude of audiences feel deep connection to a diverse group of organizations of many different sizes, missions and backgrounds.
  • At worst, his “my organization’s survival at any cost” strategy throws much of the rest of the arts & cultural community under the bus and most likely leads to the final solution that destroys the wide base of support for public funding of arts and culture once and for all.

Clearly, this is a matter of high-stakes with serious long-term implications.

The leaders of large arts & cultural organizations have a responsibility to LEAD the sector’s advancement on this critically issue and not to start a self-destructive civil war.

And the leaders of ALL arts & cultural organizations have a responsibility to UNITE in pursuit of objectives that are beyond the capacity of any to achieve individually.

That effort begins by eliminating the word “marquee” from our vocabulary and by focusing on what really matters:  relevance, meaning and community impact.


  • QUICK ADDITION:  I am delighted to note this just-published letter to the editor from the Executive Director of Arizona Citizens for the Arts, Arizona’s statewide arts advocacy association.

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  1. says

    Well said, Matt. Certainly here in Prescott our leadership understands that the arts and culture sector of our community supports our tourism efforts. All small entities combine to provide activities and events on nearly every weekend.

  2. says

    Matt, this is a brilliant statement and one that deserves a long, hard look from all arts institutions across Arizona, large and small. Mr. Ward will find that his raft, ‘marquee’ and all, will be lonely floating in a sea of nothing. I encourage the symphony Board to reevaluate their leadership through the lens of what is best for Arizona.

  3. says

    I really enjoyed this post, Matt. It’s inspiring and refreshing! I hope, whole-heartedly, that the ideas you have presented here become the norm. I shared some of your comments on Twitter and hope that others will take this mindset into consideration. :) Many thanks for highlighting such important factors in arts advancement and audience development!

    – Catherine (@CStarek)

  4. says

    Matt, I so appreciate your love for all arts organizations and the value they bring to communities. The arts are having enough of a struggle to survive without having to worry about organizations trying to undermine one another.

  5. Joel Rinsema says

    I’d be interested in hearing the definition of “Marquee” organization. If size=marquee…then many of Arizona’s “marquee” organizations have significantly hurt funding for all arts organizations every time they have cried “wolf” over the past 15 years due to fiscal mismanagement/over spending etc. It is truly a shame that several smaller but quality “niche” organizations and advocacy groups have had to close their doors because potential funders have been busy bailing out these “marquee” orgs. It is also unfortunate that public (city/state) funding sources continue to reward mediocre artistic organizations with substantially more support only because of larger budgets.

  6. Donna Reiner says

    I passed this well stated post along to key members of the Phoenix Arts & Culture Commission. I’ve said some similar things, but not as eloquently.

  7. says

    From my experience trying to raise funds, the Marquee or Signature organizations will receive support ,no matter what, from certain funding sources.I believe that funders will get more bang for the buck from small organizations because of their flexibility,efficiency,innovation and willingness to adapt.I stand behind the artistic quality of our musicians and will continue to develop relationship with funders that are not invested in “Marquee” organizations.

  8. MWnyc says

    See, when I read the CEO of the Phoenix Symphony saying that Arizona state arts funding should go only to a few “marquee organizations,” I just think, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” and ignore him.

    I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who would react that way. Are his remarks actually being taken seriously anywhere?

  9. Sherry Lenich says

    Thank you to Matt for continuing to champion arts organizations of all sizes. The fabric of each one will make the tapestry of our arts sector strong and vital. This is the voice of a leader, which we need to hear in our local, state and federal governments. . . and our arts organizations.

  10. says

    Interesting – funny? – to see someone loudly claiming to favor “small government” – meaning less public support for the arts – also favor privileged access to public funding.

  11. says

    I am so glad to hear/read you speak up about Ward’s comments. I could barely see straight when I read them. According to their form990, in 2010, Phoenix symphony received $217K in government grants representing less than 2.5% of their almost $9M budget. The symphony could lose its public funding tomorrow and survive. Small arts organizations, by contrast, which do not have the deep pocket donor base of the symphony may have 10% or more of their budget derived from public sources, while having a deeper impact in our communities. For Ward to suggest that large orgs have more right to public money than smaller ones is not only morally reprehensible, it defies financial logic.

  12. says

    A former Tea Party Republican is all I need to know about Mr. Ward to dismiss his self-serving grab for the goodies he would deny all other artists who do not meet his marquee standards. Looking at the Phoenix Symphony website, one can see it is not representative of the state as a whole, it is in truth part of that famous 1% which seems to look out for itself and to hell with everyone else. Now, I love Symphony Orchestras, and when I was with the Boston Symphony realized that it gobbled up close to 75% of all available donations and funding. They are expensive organizations to operate with so many players to be paid. And their audiences are declining all across the country as they age and are not replaced by younger people, or a more diverse cross section of the population. It appears to me that the solution to their problems is not demanding tribute from the funders as a marquee arts group, but a failure to keep up with the times and expand their reach into the real world.

    From one audience development practitioner to another, the answer is earned income, not contributory bullying.

    Thanks for calling them out. They should be ashamed of themselves for taking such a low class tactic to improve their bottom line.

  13. Linda says

    MATT, Gracias for “Telling it Like it Is,” I absolutely agree with you; we don’t need the attitude of arrogance & hypocrisy in the AZ arts community. Among, Latinos~Xicanos~Indigenous arts groups we’re proud to have small non-profits that contribute significantly to the vibrant culture, traditions & history in AZ. THANK YOU for your dedicated leadership for our communities!

  14. Nicole Olson says

    Thank you, Matt, for bringing this to our attention. I believe many will be reposting and sending to many, many others. Your words resonate within the arts community here in Phoenix.

  15. Ed Sengstack says

    Taking on arrogance with class and facts. What a concept!!! Brilliant, as always, Matt!!!

  16. dick bowers says

    Well done! As always, an articulate voice to raise the quality of the conversation, push back where needed, and gather the thoughts of those provoked by the situation. Thank you.

  17. says

    Dear Matt,

    Thank you for your insightful article on the limited thinking of Mr. Ward et al. When I first came to Phoenix about 22 years ago I thought “What a cultural one horse town!” We had one professional symphony, one professional theater, one professional ballet, one professional opera, and one major art museum. There are many fine community groups here, but we lack the financial backing for them to advance to level II and III organizations. There are about 450 arts organizations in Arizona. Yet, Arizona spends per capita less than almost any of the other states in the union on arts. It is exactly Mr. Wards mentality that has held the arts back in Arizona. We need to view the arts as a pyramid where the many community groups and organizations form a solid foundation that will help to build the arts from the bottom up. The arts are the thermometer of a healthy business community. Many corporations look to the health of the arts in a city before they build their headquarters in that city. Why? Because it shows that the business community is thriving and donating at the highest levels to that city. The smaller arts groups help to build audiences for the larger groups not take money or audience members away. It is a process of education. Many people go to a community arts presentation because they know someone in the group. Then they get a taste for how much fun it is and decide to explore other arts groups. The pyramid just keeps getting higher if the foundation is strong. No arts group is an island. Four Seasons Orchestra has spent 21 years giving concerts at the grass roots level. There are many years when we have introduced classical music to 5,000 to 10,000 new audience members (not all from the under 12 set either). We break the ice for people and their eyes and ears light up. Phoenix Symphony may have a few of our happy converts on their subscription list. It is not just about the Phoenix Five. Giving to the arts is about building the future of our beautiful city. One small organization at a time. There is an explosion of new orchestras in the north part of Phoenix. Instead of throwing bricks at them I have been helping all of them. Why? Because I know that this will build a love of the arts in my area, not the reverse. The glass is half full in my opinion.

  18. says

    Matt, here’s my contributed thread from Lengels article to your multiplatform resonsessent, and fellow creatives’ replies, that I sent out via e-mail earlier this week.

    “Something’s Happenin’ Here…” The continuing arts toll from the Great Recession.
    Weaving together multiple conversations from arts advocates on thriving this New Year.
    From: Kim Moody, Director of Alwun House, a 42 year old non-profit contemporary arts organization.

    Instigator: Kerry Lengel, “The Story of the Year in the arts” in the Republic (12/26/12), unintentionally initiated a year-end brouhaha over the struggle to thrive by Arizona’s performing arts. This lively multi-platform dialogue continues to grow with other contributors – who see broader cultural/arts aggregate survival issues for us beyond this Great Recession.

    Initial Participants:
    Catherine Foley, Exec Dir, Arizona Citizens for the Arts, Interviewee and My Turn contributor.
    Daniel Schay, Exec Dir, Theatre Works.
    Matt Lehrman, interviewee and Facebook reply; Formerly ShowUp.com cultural arts calendar, currently Audience Avenue Development.

    Lengel’s original article addressed only performing arts survival: Valley Theatre, dance companies, Phoenix Symphony and Museums. Observing that Old Guard Philanthropic support from corporations and charitable foundations doesn’t appear to be coming back as the markets rebound.

    In her “My Turn” reply, interviewee Catherine Foley (Exec. Dir. Arizona Citizens Action for the Arts), broadened her definition of impacted arts to include every other medium of arts and culture in Arizona, with an aggregate economic impact in excess of a half-billion dollars. Instead of reciprocal financial support in return, our creative community’s is forced to downsize, orchestras, theaters, dance companies and museums, even small cultural centers across the country face a moment of truth when they are being forced to redefine and limit their role in 21st-century culture.

    “The arts have always depended on who has little pools of excess capital lying around, whether that’s Andrew Carnegie or Lorenzo de’ Medici (or overnight High-Tech Multimillionaires), or Mobil Oil,” Daniel Schay, executive director of Theater Works in Peoria. “In the contemporary world, there was a kind of compact that corporations and governments should provide a base of support for the arts. I think that compact has broken down.”

    Lengel’s story continues; “It’s a value proposition,” replied interviewee Matt Lehrman, former director of ShowUp.com, the non-profit website promoting non-profits cultural events, until it closed, another victim of the shrinking philanthropic pie. “Everyone says it’s important to have an arts community, but who should be paying for it?” he says. “Everyone’s playing hot potato with that question.”

    Phoenix Symphony CEO, Jim Ward a lifelong businessman who ran for Congress as a “tea party” Republican in 2010, says government subsidies should be targeted just to just the big “marquee organizations” – like his. Upon reading CEO Ward’s blatant elitist Symphonic snobbery* Matt Lehrman’s Facebook response directly charged Mr Ward of arrogance and hypocrisy.

    Lengel sees no single answer to the financial troubles in the arts. At the same time that companies are examining their business practices, they are also looking for new sources of revenue, ranging from small donations by individuals to beer and wine sales at performances. Yet, beyond the fiscal nitty-gritty, the central challenge they face is making sure that the art they create is relevant and meaningful in a rapidly changing society.

    I see brittle old guard Symphony and Museum Boards of Directors desperately grasping at superficial relevancy, such as increasingly incorporating burlesque, trapeze acts and hi-def NASA IMAX film with all the bells and whistles, Traditional arts organizations are struggling with their aging audiences, and they’re going to have to bottom-up renovate to survive.

    In summary, Lengel quotes Rusty Foley, director of Arizona Citizens Action for the Arts, a non-profit advocacy group, “The fact is some of those old-school art forms are off-putting to some people. Traditional arts organizations are struggling with their aging audiences, and they’re going to have to innovate to survive.” All the while, the “marquee” Ballet, Opera and Museums (BOM), all have performance venues, back building and utilities subsidized.

    In a triumphant final thought on innovation as the key to survival, Republic arts writer Lengel, brings in Douglas McLennan, editor of ArtsJournal.com, who agrees that the key in surviving to thrive, is embracing the new digital culture.“ There’s this turn toward an interactive, participatory culture that’s really quite exciting, and I definitely think there’s a role for theater artists and musicians to have in that,” he says.

    “If you redefine what audience engagement is, it’s not just call and response, it’s bringing multiple perspectives to something where the interaction isn’t just two-way, it’s multiple ways. We want to think about art not as a product but as a process that happens around an idea. And we want the audience to engage with that long before they come into the theater.”

    To reach this story’s initiating reporter; kerry.lengel@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4896.