How to avoid a strip-mall future for the arts sector: Lessons from the boutique label, Pi

This past week I came across a New York Times article featured on ArtsJournal examining the remarkable success of the indie Jazz label, Pi. The article demonstrates that Pi is bucking trends in the music industry. It is managing to not just keep its head above water at a time when many music labels are struggling, but it is having tremendous impact despite being a relatively small Jazz label focused on the leading edge of its artform.

Here are a few keys to Pi’s success (which I gleaned from the article):

(1)   Unlike many labels that flood the market with product (often as a hedge against the uncertainty of not knowing which will succeed or not), Pi releases a handful of albums per year and is highly selective in choosing which artists to get behind. Virtually everything it releases meets with critical acclaim. Because it has earned a reputation for consistently putting out great albums and has a very clear niche, it has a devoted (and growing) fan base.

(2)   Given its limited release schedule, and the limited revenue potential of each of its releases (these are not mainstream artists), Pi keeps its overhead low. Its owners are pragmatic and disciplined. By staying small they have been able to maintain artistic integrity.

(3)   Pi has a long courtship with an artist before it makes a commitment. Once in, however, Pi invests deeply in the development of its artists and ensures that each receives sufficient resources, attention, and support from the label. This is a critical factor in the label’s remarkable track record and reputation.

Pi’s strategies are serving both its artists and its customers.

Given an overabundance of product and seats to fill on any given night in many communities (relative to current ‘demand’) and (sorry to say) the not-quite-ready-for-primetime-quality of much the so-called ‘professional’ work that is produced and presented in the US, it’s worth considering the lessons of Pi (which are not new, of course).

It seems that more than a few overleveraged and underperforming professional nonprofit arts organizations need to both better differentiate themselves and hold themselves to higher artistic standards; to right-size their institutions and reduce fixed costs given the amount of income they can reasonably expect for the forseeable future; and to provide more time, attention, and resources to artists and to the development, production, and thoughtful promotion of artistic works.

I’d much rather live in a community with a sustainable number of boutique arts organizations than one with a deluxe mall featuring four high-end department-stores (the ‘flagship’ orchestra, theater, opera, and ballet companies) that suck up the majority of the resources and a bunch of strip malls made up of undercapitalized retail chains and mom-and-pop shops that either saw their best days in 1985 and haven’t been able to make improvements since, or were formed in recent years and (while perhaps promising) are struggling for attention, customers and capital.

I seriously fear that the strip mall nonprofit arts sector is our future. There are arts boutiques out there, but in many cities they are few and far between and seem endangered.

How and why so many arts organizations in the US have grown to unsustainable levels in recent decades is a topic that requires more reflection than I can give in a blog post. However, I will say this: it often seems that capacity building in the arts sector is (1) aimed primarily at securing the administrative futures of arts organizations and (2) resulting in an erosion of quality and distinction in artistic processes and experiences, today. I by no means wish to suggest that the answer to an overbuilt sector is to starve it into a more sustainable state; but it is reasonable to think that we need to seriously rethink how existing resources are distributed (within and among institutions).

We tend to think of a ‘sustainable state’ for the arts and culture sector as being one in which existing arts organizations have achieved equilibrium and can crank along in perpetuity. This is wrongheaded: even if we could achieve a state in which all existing organizations could secure adequate resources to keep running year-after-year, the lack of creative destruction in the sector would eventually lead to its stultification (oh wait, we may be there now). This is one of the consequences of letting some institutions get ‘too big to fail’ (and too big is relative to the size of city you are in and the other arts organizations in your market): the majority of arts sector resources get sucked into the incumbents and rather than creative destruction (reinvention of those firms or their replacement by younger, more innovative ones) we end up with plain old destruction (losing the boutiques and watching the big organizations calcify).

Pi may or may not last for another 50 years (much less beyond the lives of its owners/founders). But while it exists it is having positive cultural and social impact. That’s more than we can say about many professional nonprofit arts organizations in the US.

Generic strip-mall image by Mark Winfrey, licensed at


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  1. says

    Your thoughts, as usual, are very interesting, but additional explanation might be required to understand some of your premises, especially here:

    “I’d much rather live in a community with a sustainable number of boutique arts organizations than one with a deluxe mall featuring four high-end department-stores (the ‘flagship’ orchestra, theater, opera, and ballet companies) that suck up the majority of the resources …”

    Symphony orchestras, which require 80 to 100 musicians plus a staff of at least 20, and genuinely professional opera houses which require a minimum of about 500 employees, cannot be boutique organizations. They are by nature very large, and by nature occupy flagship positions in the performing arts.

    So are you suggesting we should not have them at all and look to smaller genres? Or are you suggesting that we should have large institutions like symphony orchestras and opera houses, but that they should not be concentrated in one large cultural center? If the latter, would spreading them around the city make them more efficient financially, and more relevant to the public?

    • says

      it’s a terrific and fair question. What I do not mean to suggest is that we should not have large orchestras, opera companies, ballet companies, regional theaters and museums in the US. Some cities (Minneapolis, for example) seem to be able to support an ecology that includes very large, midsized, and smaller institutions across the disciplines. Private support for the arts is higher than the US average (as I recall) in Minneapolis; and government support has also been quite strong. Thus, Minneapolis seems to be able to maintain the infrastructure it has built. What concerns me is that some cities appear to have supported the growth of their major institutions to a level that now threatens the livelihood of the rest of the arts ecosystem. To my mind this raises the question of how contributed income is distributed among institutions (does the majority flow to one or two organizations in a community with everyone else struggling) and within institutions (how much of each dollar contributed supports large buildings and large staffs rather than to artists and artistic programming). So, if I lived in a city that was struggling to support all of its arts organizations — and a significant increase in support for the arts did not seem to be a likely scenario — I think I would want to think carefully about whether the default position should be that the largest organizations continue to capture the majority of resources (and continue to grow over time) and everyone else shares what’s leftover … or whether particular attention should be paid to nurtuing the ongoing development of those small-to-midsized ’boutique’ organizations that often do excellent work, have distinctive programming, have relatively smaller administrative staffs (compared to the largest organizations) and are often focused on developing emerging and midcareer artists (who need to be supported if we’re to have a thriving arts sector in 10 to 20 years). I would suggest that if we continue to have a ‘winner take all’ system (that is, the first scenario) that if we want a healthy ecology the largest institutions might need to be compelled to broaden their missions to support smaller institutions (i.e., use their ability to capture the lion’s share of the resources in their communities to partner with smaller institutions). The second scenario (we seek to address the current inequality and shift funds from larger institutions to smaller ones in the interest of having a healthy arts ecosystem) could necessitate that large institutions find other (most likely earned) sources of revenue to cover their operating expenses so that they are less reliant upon contributed revenues, or (in some cases) downsize their institutions given current realities (and likely future scenarios). And there are, no doubt, other possible solutions (consolidation, shared services, etc.). Of course, many would suggest that the ideal solution would be to simply raise more money to cover the existing infrastructure but we seem to be witnessing a system that has been pushed to its limits, and then some. Each community needs to figure out its own priorities, values, and what it can to support. And, indeed, some communities might decide that their ideal arts community is one giant big box Performing Arts Center and hundreds of community arts organizations, rather than the ‘professional’ ecosystem I’ve described.

      • says

        Thank you for the informative response. Very complex artistic issues arise when attempting to down-size orchestras and opera houses. The myriad issues can be very difficult for people without extensive musical backgrounds to fully grasp. To state it as a vastly over-simplified analogy, you can’t down-size a Cadillac. One can take off the front fenders and the back bumper, but it just makes the Cadillac a bit ludicrous. In reality, you can only junk it and trade it in for a used Dodge Dart, or if circumstances are better, mabye a new little Alpha Romeo. In the most basic sense, cultural institutions aren’t just made smaller when downsized, they become qualitatively something else. A violin is not just a little contrabass.

        The questions you raise are even more complicated because they tie together changes we might have to make due to financial concerns with forms of artistic transformation we might *want* to make in the name of artistic quality and progress. Very complex issues arise when administrators without extensive artistic training and experience become involved in transforming institutions to create their own artistic visions. Even close consultation with artistic directors hardly helps.

        An interesting case in point is the NYCO. The big hidden agenda that has totally by-passed the media reports is that George Steele isn’t just changing the size of the organization. His real purpose from the outset has been to change its mission to an organization that focuses on rare and contemporary opera. Though dire, the financial problems were more of a cover for his changes than a compelling motive. The financial problems could have been resolved in a city that rich, but instead they were used as a cover for creative destruction and reinvention. (I know that is an astounding statement, but it is what is happening. That is among the reasons why the unions are so angry, and why the GMD quit.)

        This vision has been possible for Steele because he is also a highly trained conductor with a highly refined specialty in contemporary music. Big problems arise, however, when administrators without that kind of background try to make similar big changes. Simply stated, they don’t really know what they’re doing.

        For administrators without extensive musical backgrounds, the best approach to such transformations is close collaboration with the institution’s artistic director, and above all, with the musicians themselves. This is difficult, because down-sizing means the loss of jobs, but I still think openness and honesty are the best approach.

        I mention this, because such collaboration has been notably lacking in the Detroit Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Louisville Orchestra, and the New York City Opera. Even when down-sizing is necessary, the results will always be better when you find ways to work with the artists in an institution, not against them. And there are always ways. A study of industry in America and abroad shows that over the long-term, the organizations that worked with labor (like UPS, BMW, Volkswagen and Audi) had better futures than those that tried to weaken labor (like GM, US Steel, and countless other rust belt corporations.) Orchestras and opera houses are no different. My two cents.

  2. MWnyc says

    “It seems that more than a few overleveraged and underperforming professional nonprofit arts organizations need … to right-size their institutions and reduce fixed costs given the amount of income they can reasonably expect for the foreseeable future …”

    Yes. Thanks for saying that out loud, Diane.

    That, of course, is exactly what New York City Opera is trying to do – and the company and its leadership are getting raked over the coals for it by a lot of people. One can certainly disagree with particular choices the company has made (for instance, with programming or marketing), but it’s pretty clear that City Opera just doesn’t have the income stream to stay at Lincoln Center and keep an orchestra and chorus on a guaranteed salary. (Apparently, that has been the case for a number of years, but the company is only now facing the fact.)

    I’m sure New York City Opera isn’t the only example, and I’d be interested to see what other examples readers might offer.

  3. Rob Gibson says

    Your original article was provocative and worthy of discussion, although your follow up comments to a subsequent post seem to border more on idealism than reality. I am not aware of a “winner take all” situation in any American city now, although there may be some. Having directed arts organizations both large and small in three different sized cities, I know that in many instances, larger institutions take an even greater chance than boutique organizations because of their size and artistic ambitions (the NY Phil comes to mind). So to suggest that “the largest institutions might need to be compelled to broaden their missions to support smaller institutions” implies an almost “redistribution of wealth mentality” that doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe this isn’t what you were trying to say, but to compete successfully in any marketplace, arts organizations need creativity, ingenuity, innovation and a vision of the arts growing naturally out of the culture to be a decisive part of individual’s lives, of the community’s lives, of schools and of professional performers. The best of these will always thrive, while there will be others that face stultification. To think that the leaders in a community would believe that “particular attention should be paid to nurturing the ongoing development of small-to-midsized ’boutique’ organizations” is very idealistic, if only because most of them have so many problems that come before this scenario. The reality is that those of us in the arts are fending for ourselves, now more so than ever, but many of us are working our tails off to have a positive cultural and social impact.

  4. Ken Tabachnick says

    Hi Diane,

    Good post with lots of things to think about. It is interesting to consider your thoughts in the context of our “free marketplace” funding of the arts. Other societies have adopted a different model where a limited number of groups receive funding from centralized sources. The tension between these two models seems to be at the heart of the questions you raise. In order to have a “sustainable number of boutique arts organizations,” someone needs to make the determination as to which and who these groups would be. This begins to tread on the structure of our funding of the arts, which is totally (almost totally anyway) decentralized and market-driven.

  5. says

    Thank you for another post that raises difficult issues, and is provocative but not for the sake of provocation.

    But I do have to take issue with the idea that accepting equilibrium is wrong-headed. Equilibrium rarely meets our ideals, certainly not our artistic ideals, but equilibrium is how systems sustain themselves. If you’re fighting equilibrium for yourself, but don’t intend to change the system, that makes you a competitor, a hard working contributor to the system. And that’s fine.

    If you’re fighting against equilibrium and are aware of it, and intentionally want to change the equilibrium in the system, that typically puts you in the revolutionary camp, which is also useful. But if you’re in the revolutionary camp, you need to think about what tools you have or can get that will help with the revolution.


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