Would YOU call these “Tough Times”?

tough timesI’m not, by nature, a pessimist.

So I was struck by the reply of a respected colleague to an e-mail I sent that included the sentence, “As you well know, these are very tough times for the arts & cultural sector.”

She replied, “Interesting you say these are tough times.  I don’t hear that very much.”

Wow.  Let’s take a moment to take stock of where we are, shall we?  I invite you, dear ArtsJournal blog readers, to respond:  Would YOU call these “tough times”?

  • Corporate philanthropy has pretty much evaporated.
  • Fewer Foundations are making arts & culture a priority against so many other community needs.
  • Earned revenue is strained as organizations face increasingly tougher challenges in attracting audience attention.
  • Arts journalism is (nearly) an oxymoron.
  • Newspaper readership – and, thus the value of print-based PR – is on a downward trajectory.
  • For all the benefits of social media, there is no clear “best practice” for arts & cultural organizations to attract or sustain audiences in an increasingly on-line world.
  • Research by TRG Arts (and others) reveals surprisingly painful truths about audience attendance behaviors.
  • Municipal budgets are still strained – which means cuts in operating support of publicly owned facilities (and – as far as I’m aware – few if any new projects on the horizon.)
  • The very principle of public funding of arts & culture seems to groan under the stress of Federal, state and local budgets,
  • Stakeholders are demanding that non-profit arts & cultural organizations “be more entrepreneurial” – which is, too often, code for, “figure out a way to operate in which you don’t have to keep asking us for money.”  

So, what do YOU conclude?  Are these tough times or not?

And if not – what points would you present in rebuttal?

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  1. paul morris says

    Certainly these are challenging times for the arts. I’m interested in the decline in arts journalism on a local level. The local newspapers no longer have reviews of concerts or museum and gallery shows. Dance performances and theater are rarely noted. (I do see occasional articles about upcoming shows based on interviews with performers but these are in the voice of the performer, allowing little room for the reporter’s ideas about the art form.) I have to think the editorial assumption is that the arts are of marginal interest to their readership.

    Is it any surprise that arts groups are reducing their advertising investments in the local papers? The movies are the only art form reviewed and considered in the local papers. (Consider the sizable investment in movie advertising.) What’s a chamber music series or a theater group do to get noticed? The newspaper is no longer a smart media investment in promoting the arts.

  2. Ann Morrow says

    To say it isn’t a struggle would be wrong. But if an organization is going to succeed they have to push past all the negative numbers, press and general feeling that there is no hope. Each organization must analyze it strengths and its most valuable donors and sources of funds. They must work closely with them to find the way forward. They must be ready to cast aside the way they have always worked and find new ways. Look for the opportunities. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Take your organization and its assets to the audience if you can’t get them to come to you. It is always easier to settle for a scaled back organization than the struggle to move forward, to risk and to meet new challenges. Don’t we owe it to the people serve to keep trying and to make our organization something they will treasure and fight for along with us?

    • says

      I work for a modest visual arts organization and state craft center in Vermont and I can attest to this being true for our world as well. I’ve pretty much given up on newspaper advertising except for our small local paper. Most won’t print press releases unless you are running regular display ads and that is just not possible in today’s economy. We get the word out via Facebook postings, and believe it or not, old fashioned posters have worked surprisingly well (for our fundraisers). We’re conducting a market survey and so far 98% of our visitors (in March/April) were recommended by a friend or family member. We are next door to a restaurant accounting for the other 2%. Fine art sales have not recovered since 2008. Crafts sales are keeping pace but we sell a lot of smalls, not many big ticket items, since 2008. Fortunately for us were never dependent on grant funding before 2008 (although it helped), and that has actually worked in our favor post 2008. The local music & performance-based organization disbanded completely. But thankfully a group of younger people are meeting to try and fill this need (and there definitely is one). It is my gut feeling that some of these older established groups got burned out, organizations really have to take care and pass the torch off to those with fresh and new ideas. I’ve seen more than one organization falter due to “founders syndrome” or a great fear of new ideas. Perhaps “be more innovative” would be a better phrase than “be more entrepreneurial”? Sometimes you have to really change things up to get good results, or to attract a broader audience. Stretch your brain, shake things up, create excitement!

  3. cgeye says

    One idea:

    Each organization must analyze it strengths and its most valuable donors and sources of funds. They must work closely with them to find the way forward.

    Contradicts the other:

    They must be ready to cast aside the way they have always worked and find new ways.

    Aren’t most organizations trying to survive this downturn already embracing their most reliable donors, and doubling down on playing it safe, to please those donors?

  4. says

    Respectfully, that’s not what ““be more entrepreneurial” means. And Matt, I feel your frustration. Indeed, your frustration is not unwarranted. But equally so, we’re not operating in an elegant and perfect black-and-white world. For each example you provide, I can think off the top of my head of an example that flies in the face of it. Maybe it chiefly depends on the source — on knowing the difference between those who blithely blurt out “be more entrepreneurial” because they want people to go away and those who say “be more entrepreneurial” because, well, they really do mean “be more entrepreneurial.” The cold, nasty, unfortunate, maddening and infuriating truth, Matt, is that far too many nonprofit leaders and thinkers and doers think “entrepreneurial” is a dirty word. Well, it’s not. It wasn’t a dirty word yesterday and it’s not a dirty word today and it still won’t be a dirty word tomorrow.

  5. says

    These are times of tremendous change. For arts organizations who are the big dogs in their respective markets, change equals tough. The tactics they used to develop their audience up to this point are losing effectiveness. It forces them to get hungry with their marketing at a time when they had probably assumed they would be able to coast a little.

    For the up and coming groups that are still trying to carve out market share, all of these changes are the best possible thing that could happen. The playing field is level. Since it’s becoming less certain what promotional tactics are most effective for cultivating an audience, the larger resources available to existing organizations isn’t such an overwhelming advantage. It’s a great time for new and small organizations to make a splash.

  6. says

    I don’t personally buy into the “tough times” philosophy; it’s a way to place blame on others instead of accepting our own responsibility. We need to be innovative. We need to realize our own faults. We need to find new partners. We need to make better cases for ourselves. We need to succeed. “Tough times” are simply a way to wash our hands and say failure is someone else’s fault.