Syracuse Symphony, Detroit Symphony, and the New York City Opera have all been in the news this past week. To some degree these three organizations share a common circumstance: the conditions under which they were created and grew over time have changed and, in recent years, they have begun to experience difficulty sustaining their operations at the level to which they (and their stakeholders) have become accustomed. These organizations are not alone in their struggles.
Syracuse announced that it is filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy because it is unable to pay off its debts; Detroit’s musicians have recently voted to end a six-month strike, accepting pay cuts necessitated by a deteriorating financial situation; and NYCO’s chairman has announced that it is struggling to pay off a $5 million deficit and will not announce its next season until it has a balanced 2011-2012 budget.
There should be no shame for organizations that are coming down the mountain, so to speak—just as there should be no shame in having one’s net worth and lifestyle change dramatically through divorce, or from losing one’s assets or high-paying job due to the recession or retirement. However, people (and organizations) sometimes respond to challenging material circumstances either by being in denial about them (and continuing to spend money as if they still have it) or by being bitter towards the world because they no longer have all that they once had.
Thomas Friedman writes in The World is Flat, “when a company is the pioneer, the vanguard, the top dog, the crown jewel, it is hard to look in the mirror and tell itself it is in a not-so-quiet crisis and [that it] better start to make a new history or become history.” It is, indeed, a difficult reality that many arts organizations may not be able to sustain the level of operations (the programming output, the staff size, the employment terms and salary levels, the opulent buildings, the perks, etc.) to which they have become accustomed (in the short term or even in the longer term).
Many arts organizations have closed in the last few years. By-and-large these were not ‘planned sunsets’. Those that even recognized it was necessary to change (and I’m not sure many ever did), evidently did so too late in the game—after debts had mounted beyond the point of being managed, and goodwill had eroded beyond repair. In other words, after years of being unwilling to accept that circumstances had changed.
The sooner organizations can face their changed circumstances and make the necessary changes the more likely they are to have control over their destiny. And please know, ‘make the necessary changes’ is not my euphemism for ‘birth a radical innovation.’ In fact, lately I’m beginning to wonder whether the process of adapting to a changing environment has become harder than it needs to be because funders and others have become so fixated on the idea that future success will come only through ‘radical innovation’.
I’m not saying that innovations should not be enabled or pursued, but I have a hunch we could see some pretty great results through good-old-fashioned, common-sense, it’s-about-time, just-do-the-right-thing, ‘improvements’:
- Arts organizations avoiding redundancy and, instead, seeking to provide what’s clearly missing in the cultural landscape in order to find a less competitive and more valuable niche;
- Communities of organizations forming cooperative agreements for the use of space, or investments in shared technology, or other resources;
- Complementary partnerships and alliances aimed at supporting the development, creation, presentation, and distribution of work, or providing stable sources of support for artists, or providing pathways for people to discover and experience the arts.
To name just a few.
And, oh yeah, all organizations living within their means—even if their means are diminishing—and doing so with grace.
End of the Paved Road image by Tom Grundy licensed from Shutterstock.com.