Perhaps we need to rethink which nonprofit arts groups are considered leaders in their fields?

Many have written in the past week on the pending and proposed eliminations of the Kansas, Texas, and South Carolina state arts agencies (among others). For a roundup of the news on this front I recommend this post on Createquity. Some see these attacks as yet another sign that the country is filled with philistines, some see them as symbolic or purely political, and others as the reasonable end of decades of disregard by arts organizations of their communities-at-large.

The arts (which in the minds of most people equates with ‘the fine arts’) are clearly not everyone’s cup of tea (and no amount of rhetoric will probably change this); having said this, it would be shortsighted to dismiss current attacks as being driven primarily by barbarians. Many politicians evidently perceive that they can safely target the arts for cuts on the basis of their being exclusive, elitist, extravagant, or wealthy (and suggest that taxes and subsidies would be better directed elsewhere) because the arts often serve and are defended by a relatively small percentage of their constituencies. Furthermore, and rather unfortunately,these arguments against the arts are not just political rhethoric; they are reasonable accusations that can be plausibly lobbed at more than a few so-called ‘flagship’ nonprofit arts groups.

Candidly, I find it increasingly difficult to defend why a nonprofit theater company (even, and especially, outside of NYC) needs to charge $100+ for its tickets, or why a nonprofit opera company needs to charge nearly twice as much, if not more. I’ll save for another day my thoughts on the downsides of coupling the price of admission and the value of the arts experience in the minds of consumers, but for now suffice it to say I agree with those who have expressed the opinion that lowering ticket prices (or otherwise reducing financial barriers) is the number one change that many flagship, fine arts groups need to make–both to demonstrate that they are earnest about being ‘inclusive’ and to increase attendance.

Secondly, for decade upon decade, many arts organizations have essentially paid lipservice to their educational missions, despite the fact that many people do not have meaningful exposure to the arts growing up and there is research that suggests that such exposure is linked to adult participation. (It seems that it would be in the best interest of arts groups to take their educational missions more seriously.) Nonetheless, I recognize that, in particular, hands-on participation activities are not (today) a core competency of many arts groups (although one might posit that over the next 10 years they will need to become so).

Given research demonstrating a link between hands-on participation and attendance, what if (over the next five years) 30 percent of all nonprofit arts organizations were (voluntarily) re-engineered as arts education hybrids, specifically designed to provide sustained adult and youth arts participation activities as their primary, if not exclusive, purpose? Perhaps doing so would (1) be a more effective method (than current practices by arts groups) for broadening and deepening engagement with the arts; (2) eventually lead to an increase in attendance and enjoyment by people at traditional organizations whose primary purpose is to produce or present great exhibitions and performances; and (3) in the short term, bring new revenues into the sector and reduce competition for audiences and resources?

Finally, at a time when many Americans do not have jobs, cannot pay their mortgages, and cannot afford other essentials it’s easy to pin adjectives like extravagant and wealthy on the arts when they continue to show up in the news under headlines such as these: (1) leading organization needs bailout (again); (2) leading organization breaks ground on fancy new building despite recession; (3) leading arts group unable to afford fancy new building built five years ago; (4) leading organization announces high-priced, celebrity-studded show or gala that is guaranteed to sell out; (5) executive of leading arts group making in the ‘high six figures’ takes 10 percent cut in pay due to recession; (6) leading arts group closes its doors after years of accumulated deficits, mounting debts, financial mismanagement, overspending, and poor board oversight. Headlines like these corroborate the perception that arts organizations do not merit subsidies because they are already wealthy or spend more than is necessary, wise, or justifiable.

The large majority of organizations are not exclusive, elitist, extravagant, and wealthy; but those that are, particularly when they are heralded as ‘leaders’, give the nonprofit arts sector a bad rap. Perhaps organizations that would prefer to target and price their performances exclusively to the upper middle class, who believe that the arts primarily exist to serve the highly educated cultural elite, who are not interested in fulfilling their educational and charitable missions, or who lack the will or discipline to exercise fiscal moderation, should be restructured as private, for-profit, membership-based clubs?

Or if that’s a preposterous idea, at the very least it may be time to question whether such organizations should continue to be lauded as exemplars of the nonprofit arts realm? Perhaps we need a new conception of what constitutes a ‘leading’ nonprofit arts organization in the 21st century? It may be time to set the public record straight.

Image of fallen chess king by Herbert Kratky, licensed at

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  1. says

    This is a great post. I can’t stand the politicians who are cracking down on arts funding any more than the next liberal arts advocate. But shaking up the arts non-profits isn’t all bad. Many of them begin as vital, groundbreaking organizations and after a certain period they start to exist for the purpose of maintaining their existence. Also, a lot of this government funding is barely worth the time it takes to apply for them or administer their reporting requirements. An economist would have to judge many of these grant procedures aren’t worth it.

  2. Eden says

    Excellent article. Top heavy arts org administrations also need to be reviewed as an obvious source for cost savings. We are overpaying executives in some cases to the tune of millions per year, that would pay for a LOT of arts education for children, schools, and families in need.

  3. says

    I love the idea of re-engineering theatre institutions as arts education hybrids – but I would propose that this is really a matter of re-defining what we already do as educational in nature. I have always understood the essential purpose of theatre to be in its posing of the question “how should we live,” while harnessing the power of language and behavior to compel its audience into examining that question and make meaning of their own world. This purpose and practice is education at its core. And yes, we need to push past our core constituency to share this educational purpose with a broader audience. That means engaging in all of the strategies that Diane suggests. But it also means using these strategies to build new demand for the work itself, because it is there in the sacred temple of the stage house that the most efficacious learning takes place.

    Let’s get busy people.

  4. Clay Lord says

    Hi Diane,

    While pricing is definitely an issue in arts attendance, I always come back to the fact that many of my friends, twenty-somethings with very limited incomes, still managed to buy those couple-hundred-dollar shoes when the want is strong enough. Discretionary income is, of course, discretionary, and I think that just as much as we need to look at overhauling our pricing schemes (and general budgetary mindset), we’ve also got to be cognizant of the fact that we’re also suffering mightily from a full generation or more of teaching people not to appreciate or value the arts as a part of their lives. As you say, arts education has long-term financial benefits, which I think it’s clear a lot of organizations are now catching onto (although some, including the biggest, also seem to have discovered that hanging their hat on arts education saves them from justifying homogenous programming on their main stages for a decade or two). At the same time, while some organizations can financially succeed in arts education, more often than not the education systems those organizations are working within are strapped for cash themselves, can’t pay very much at all, and also can’t afford to provide adequate facilities or materials, which forces the conversation straight back to the philanthropic model that has been causing so much consternation of late. I don’t doubt for a moment that companies can lower ticket prices, and can reach into new generations to try and create future grown-ups who value the arts, but I worry that both of these impetuses are emerging, for many arts organizations, as temporary strategies to deal with perceived whims of funders and not as a wholesale shift towards salvaging the role of art in our society.

  5. says

    Clay, you raise some excellent points. With regard to pricing, I by no means think it’s a cure-all … and have written about the more fundamental shifts in relationship, programming, etc. that I think need to happen elsewhere … but I guess I’m struck by the successes of, for example, Fall for Dance Festival in NYC (which in one year seemed to rejuvinate audiences for dance with low ticket prices and eclectic programming) and Signature Theater, which has sold out run after run of its shows since it adopted lower pricing strategies – and is attracting new audiences. That says to me that there may be some latent demand for these artforms which could be met with lower prices.

    To be honest, despite being an avid arts goer, now that I am living on a student’s salary with less disposable income I would be more inclined to invest $200 in a pair of shoes I know I’d wear for awhile than to spend $200 for a pair of tickets to a performance. For that matter, I wonder how many arts administrators would pay $200 for tickets to a play or orchestra performance before they’d pay $200 for a pair of shoes? For me to pay such an amount it would need to be an artist or show that had extraordinary word of mouth from people I respect. Furthermore, as a consequence of buying such relatively expensive tickets, I would not be able to buy tickets to any other performances the rest of the month. For me to see something every week or two, I can’t really spend more than $25-$45 per ticket. But here’s the rub – frequency matters in the arts. The more you experience, the more you value, the more you value, the more you want to experience – it’s cumulative. Ticket prices being lower may result not only in more ‘once in a blue moon’ buyers – but, more importantly, more frequent attendance … which may lead to greater satisfaction being derived from each experience. That’s my hunch anyway.

    Then again, some organziations may have a strategy that is aimed at having a ‘once in a blue moon’ relationship with people … Teatro Zinzanni, for instance, strikes me as more of a ‘once a year on your birthday’ or ‘when friends come to visit’ type of activity. There are, no doubt, others. Summer festivals, etc.

    Regarding Arts Ed – you’re right … it’s not clear how this would be paid for. And perhaps I’m not being forward thinking enough about the role that technology might play in creating an efficient, scalable, mechanism for producing and distributing arts education programs. Putting technology aside for a moment, I’ve long wondered if a private/public voucher system could work for both ideas … What if anyone who makes less than the median income could be eligible for up to $1,200 in ‘arts vouchers’ per year. The vouchers could be spent on arts lessons, or renting an instrument, or arts appreciation classes, or tickets to a performance and then participating nonprofit organizations that honored the vouchers could be reimbursed in full for the value of their services. This would put power in the hands of the people and give them the opportunity to choose for themselves (whether that be musical theater or salsa lessons or the opera). It would, of course, require a significant INCREASE in funding … well beyond the current level of the NEA … if everyone receiving the vouchers utilized them. But if it were quite popular with people and had positive spillover effects, perhaps politicians would see the merits and would find a way to pay for the program (perhaps through city, state, or regional arts agencies and with matching funding coming from local corporations and private funders).

    It’s easy to speculate when you don’t have to actually raise the $$$. I don’t underestimate how tough that might be and you’re right to raise the point.

    Finally, the last point you make is sobering and I couldn’t agree with you more. The sector can’t afford reluctant dragons … I love, btw, Walt’s new post on the search for a definition of excellence … … he talks about defining excellence in terms of the interaction between the audience and the art and also suggest ways that funders might reward such excellence. Great stuff.

    Thanks, again, for the great comments, Clay.

    • Clay Lord says

      Good points, Diane. I agree that many tickets to live arts events are overpriced, but, taking a look, for example, at Devon Smith’s numerical justification for #supplydemand at 24 Useable Hours, we can see that for most arts organizations it’s not, unfortunately, as simple as just lowering the price. In the case of Signature, for example – they have that wonderful sponsorship from Time Warner, which allows them to subsidize the tickets. Whether the TW subsidy actually bridges the gap for the whole ticket price, or simply is being used as a shield against undervaluing the work being done there (a point you note that you sidestepped, but which does seem to be a reality, at least out here in SF – as Alan Brown points out, it’s really hard to disappoint a full-price Broadway ticket holder, hence the number of standing-O audiences on Broadway), that subsidy is an anomaly, at least for now. As far as the shoes metaphor, let me try and stretch it a little further…I agree with you that i would be hard pressed to spend that much except on very special occasions for art, but might be more inclined to get that pair of hiking boots i really need…that said, I generally go into boot shopping with an understanding that I’m guaranteed a certain level of quality (dare I say excellence?), and if my boots disappoint, especially at that price point, I take them back and get my money back. Art, of course, doesn’t really work that way, though I have heard of some companies experimenting with a “returns” policy. But i think the other side of that metaphor is that the boots/shoes industry has standards and quality control – something which we lack in the arts, for a variety of reasons that you know better than I do, having written about them at length. All this to say, and perhaps it was an unspoken undertone in your post, but perhaps we could get away with some higher prices if our work was more often guaranteed to be as persistent, powerful and useful as a good pair of boots…

  6. says

    Smart! I applaud the efforts of you and a few courageous others who advocate a shake-up in the way arts organizations do their business. Better art for less money that’s less expensive to experience sounds like a great idea to me.

  7. tonya lockyer says

    Great post Diane. Thanks for having the courage to bring up Executive salaries, “fancy new buildings” . . . . Arts organizations in recent years have been rewarded by funders for building infrastructure. In many cases (not all) I think these organizations have developed a “feed the beast” mentality, where administration and infrastructure are growing, but less money “trickles down” to individual artists or artist-lead projects. I’d like to see any research done about where money in the arts is actually going, and how this has changed over time. I was recently on a panel at a public policy conference with the founder of Fractured Atlas. He pointed out that in the 60s Carnegie Hall had 15 employees and all fundraising was done by volunteers. Today it has over 200 employees and its fundraising budget is in the millions. I’m not saying let’s go back to the 60s, but there has to be a more productive, cost-efficient (and creative) middle-ground.

  8. Jeanette O'Connor says

    Diane, I’d like to offer a comment about ticket discounts: who gets them and who deserves them, and why they are offered, anyway.

    First, young adults, particularly college students, who don’t work. Since they’re young and educated and potentially adventurous, someone once presumed they can be converted into lifetime audience members through the offer of a 20% ticket discount. Because we don’t know what else to do to stimulate audience growth, we ignore the fact that people this age think nothing of forking over (mom and dad’s) $200 for a pair of tickets to a sporting event, rock concert, spring break trip or fancy pair of kicks, and so we give away 20% of our student admission income needlessly.

    Post-grads and 30-somethings are broke because their money is going into paying for a house and raising small children and paying for their kids’ activities and myriad routine costs, and traveling between families every holiday. You don’t see them spending $200 on rock concerts, probably because they’re broke and exhausted, if they aren’t working 50+ hours a week. If you offer them a discount, are they more likely to attend a classical concert? Maybe, if you throw in babysitting, dinner and a quiet hotel suite for the night. Is a discount likely to convert them into lifelong audience members? They won’t even remember it, come time to write their holiday newsletter.

    What about those high-earning 40-year-olds? They are still paying the mortgage, and now they are paying for Dick and Jane to go to the prom and attend college and participate in all sorts of after-school activities. And by now the kids’ sports, fashions and car insurance bills are more expensive than ever. But occasionally they do manage to go out to dinner, take a vacation or attend a concert. They get no discount, which means they are likely to view concert going as a special occasion activity, not something they can afford to do regularly which defies the concept of audience loyalty.

    High-earning 50-somethings working 50 or 60 hours a week are stretched between paying for their kids’ college (or bail and rehab), their own continuing education and health costs, paying off their mortgages, and assisting their parents who have become a new focus. Ticket discounts are wasted on them because if they do attend, they’re probably going to sleep through it anyway, if they don’t bail out at intermission to find something more fun to do.

    Now we arrive at retirees on fixed incomes. Usually they are poor or wealthy. Anyone in the middle is essentially poor because they’re so worried about making their savings last that they don’t often spend money on ephemeral experiences like live entertainment (unless it’s Tom Jones or Bingo night). So of this group, who attends classical concerts, opera, the ballet? Wealthy ones. And they get the discount!

    As an industry, we should probably wake up and recognize that ticket discounts are costly and don’t build long-term audiences to any material extent. They should be abolished and we should be unapologetic about that.

    If students become interested in the performing arts, they should be recruited as volunteers and interns, which would give them a visceral experience and establish a connection that will last a lifetime, and above all, we should encourage them to become audience members and consumers, not necessarily performing professionals.

    • Paul Botts says

      While this string of vague old cliches is nicely composed, as an argument it has no substance to stand on. Inclusion of some actual facts — real-world data on the current users of actual discounted tickets — could help it be taken more seriously.

      • Jeanette O'Connor says

        Paul, please refer to the studies cited above (among others like these down the years).

        There is no question that early education and multiple if not regular exposure to the arts is essential to audience development.

        But I have not seen and therefore I cannot cite any studies that have demonstrated a direct link from ticket discount programs (alone) to a material, quantified increase in long-term audience participation or donor support. I believe the lack of such evidence is the point.

        If you would care to provide evidence showing this not to be the case, demonstrating something a bit less vague than a fuzzy recommendation that “the arts community… “create circumstances for rewarding arts experiences”, I would be genuinely interested in seeing the study report. Perhaps you have access to unpublished surveys by aud dev consultantsor trade associations, or internal study reports conducted by individual institutions. I would really be interested in seeing compelling, clear evidence that long-term audience development is significantly aided by ticket discounts.

    • says


      I think you’re a bit biased on the younger groups you mention. My own biases:
      – “College students who don’t work”. A fairly large number of college students do work. A fairly large number of college students are not the spoiled Mommy-and-Daddy-are-paying for college. Many go to cheaper colleges, many take out thousands in student loan debt, many are working weekend jobs as a waitress to make money for things that the student loans will not provide for, such as said discounted tickets.
      – Post grads: not all of them are broke and exhausted working 50 hours a week paying for a house and raising small children. Some of them are simply in their young or mid 20s and don’t make very much yet.

      If you’re suggesting that there’s an argument to be made for stopping to cater to these groups–to all groups who can’t afford–I can’t necessarily argue with that. But that $200 opera ticket without the $30 student rush means that those are a few less students who can grow up to be interested in opera. That’s the conundrum with students and young adults, you’re battling catering-to-the-future with catering-to-the-now.

      • Jeanette O'Connor says

        With respect, you missed my point. I am not anti-student (or anti-anyone). I am pro-preforming arts. Our institutions are in financial trouble and if they do not aggressively find ways to survive, then ticket discounts become moot. I believe that reducing or eliminating ticket discounts is a Best Practice that major and regional institutions should adopt as they seek to preserve access to live fine arts performances for future generations.

        My point was that most everyone at every age and in almost every circumstance believes they deserve a price break at the box office. My message is that ticket discounts have not been shown to achieve a measurable and significant level of increased audience loyalty or donor support either specifically toward the sponsor organization or toward the arts generally.

        Given the actual operating costs of arts organizations, and the ever-increasing dependence upon contributed income, businesses that choose to forego even 0.5% of their potential sales are making an unwise business decision. Not only is the potential future income valueless today and vague and immeasurable in the future, but those foregone earnings must be replaced by additional contributions or sales (pricing increases or expansion of products offered), or offset by compensation or other overhead or program cuts, which harms already lean organizations.

        Organizations continue offering ticket discounts because (a) the board considers them traditional and public outcries are politically incorrect; (b) to help fill the hall, and (c) under the rationale that doing so will build audience loyalty.

        Point (a) demonstrates the formidable power of organizational resistance to change and the difficulty of rescinding precedent privileges and eliminating “entitlements.”

        Point (b) succeeds in projecting a somewhat glossy public image of a successful organization by demonstrating that there is interest in the product, if not a market for it.

        But as for point (c), by themselves, ticket discount programs have not been shown to result in a measureable and significant level of audience development over time. Nor do discount programs establish what administrators are really aiming for: to establish today’s young enthusiasts, so they become tomorrow’s ticket buyers and eventually donors.

        You yourself said it exactly: “without the $30 student rush..a few less students” can grow to enjoy opera, “few” being the operative word. Immaterially few, in fact. Moreover, anyone can enjoy opera through a variety of other less expensive and more available delivery channels, such as going to college productions or enjoying recordings or broadcasts. Anyone can save their money and pay for a full-rate $300 ticket to the Met or the SF Opera, or volunteer usher, or find other ways to enjoy live performance. The sense of entitlement to discounts is short-sighted and selfish, and the practice is out-dated and fiscally irresponsible given the economic pressures facing the arts industry today.

        In today’s world, we need to accept economic reality and the minor sacrifices that it requires. I don’t need to remind anyone here that we are talking about a high quality of life issue here, not a fundamental right to survival issue.

    • Ro says

      The assumption that no college student ever pays his/her own way through school in this commentary is way off base. I can’t think of a single student I’ve met in the past decade who doesn’t work, go to school, and depend upon some kind of financial aid. The idea that they have “mom and dad’s” money to spend is also unrealistic. I know more people from single-parent homes, or joint-custody situations stemming from divorced parents than those who come from the ‘ideal’ two-parent home.
      Also, many thirty and even forty somethings are pursuing post-graduate degrees in the current economic climate. They are dealing with debt, as well.
      These hard-working students, singles, and married/partnered couples do attend more than rock concerts and sporting events. They do appreciate a discount or even a comp to an arts event, and keep coming back when they can afford the purchase price of a ticket.
      When did we stop believing in “arts and culture”? How can people experience and participate in culture when they cannot afford to do so? Did we become completely elitist after WWII?
      Perhaps not. Community theatres still dot the landscape when organizations who shut out the economically disadvantaged- students or not- go under every day.
      I agree that opportunities such as internships should be offered, but who would bite if they’d never been given the opportunity to attend an arts event? Also, the vast majority of internships currently offered are unpaid. That is the top reason people do not apply for them.
      I have seen the numbers rise steadily in attendance of the local, monthly, free of charge art walk in my community. People who would not normally be able to take in an arts event do, because they can afford to do so.
      Maybe we should work on keeping the arts local, on outreach programs, and not worry so much if we offer discounts here and there. After all, the commentary makes the case that people aren’t taking advantage of discounts anyway. So, not to fear, your typical, wealthy, elitist patrons are still here.

  9. says

    I am somewhat disturbed by the thinking here. It seems that we have accepted the paradigm that America can never be culturally literate; and so, instead attack fellow arts administrators and artists as the problem. The truth is that thanks to a lack of Goverment funding in the schools and after school programming over the last thirty years, the average student is not having as much arts exposure as in the past. This laconic exposure is not going to be made up for by the relatively tiny budgets of the nation’s arts organizations. I find it disturbing when arts advocates get Stockholm syndrome and adopt the views of those who have oppressed them, blaming the artists and arts organizations for a corporate powershify that diverted education and civic funding back to the wealthy. NAlook at the budgets of schools thirty-five years ago will reveal all too clearly the social engineering that has created the low levels of cultural literacy we face. I, for one, want high snooty art, community art and everything in between. There are a tiny, tiny fraction of people in the artworld who are overpaid. Most of us are underpaid. And even those few who are overpaid make a fraction of what those in the private sector make in similar positions. Please stop blaming us for the fact that the culture has been attacked by greed and short-sightedness in our politicians. It becomes a circular firing squad.

  10. Shawn says

    At last–a recognition of the educational mission which is supposedly at the heart of non-profit arts activities. As the former education director of a performing arts presenter (I was laid off in 2009), I have been pondering many of the issues you raise in your post. At the time of my lay-off I was one of numerous arts education professionals in my field to be cast aside while fundraising departments remained wholly intact. Such an action could be perceived by the public (or at least by this jaded arts professional) that raising money is the mission of these non-profits and that despite what their appeal letters may state, they do not value education. We know that strong education programs are one of the most direct means towards creating an arts-attending public.But perhaps these supposed arts leaders did not have the patience to invest in long-term stability for their organizations when revenues were declining. I believe that there are strong ethical considerations here as well. To not invest in the legal (tax) requirement of education is a rupture of fidelity to the community that supports the non-profit. Needless to say, I can’t afford either the shoes or the gold circle tickets.

  11. says

    I’ve been very inspired by this post and the ensuing debate. In fact, now that I’m terrorized by fears of Stockholm syndrome as alluded to in the comment above, I sat down today and wrote a long essay on my website in reply to this post, for I’m of the view, too, that some basic assumptions about the field need immediate reframing. (This is also why I believe Rocco Landesman is the most courageous individual our field has out there.) There’s a cultural shift going on — and while we can debate the history of the clock all we want, that doesn’t permit us to deny what time it is.


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