HuffPo blogger and Kennedy Center chief Michael Kaiser recently wrote a post reflecting on the financial corner that many arts organizations have painted themselves into (which he compares to the Fed’s fiscal cliff). His post got me thinking about our tendency to see the problems facing the arts and culture sector as inherently financial in nature. Kaiser ends his post with the following recommendations:
I have spent the better part of my life arguing that revenue increases are not only advisable, but necessary. It is inarguable that over time, those organizations that reduce salaries of artists and cut artistic initiatives are going to have a harder time raising funds and selling tickets — they will simply not be able to compete for the best talent and for funders and audience members. For not every arts organization is going to be making big cuts–for every troubled organization I can point to one that is doing well at the moment.
Like many who are commenting on our national problem, I believe growth must be the long-term answer.
And a combination of judicious cost cutting matched with aggressive marketing and fundraising aimed at creating more revenue must be the short-term answer.
I agree with Mr. Kaiser’s general point that investments in artistic planning and programming, as well as improved stakeholder relations, are critically important to the long term health and vitality of arts organizations. However, I see some flaws in his analysis of both the nature of the arts cliff and how to avoid tumbling over it.
Michael Kaiser suggests that the arts cliff is a result of “plummeting contributions” and the failure of earned income to keep pace with growth–and that the solution is to be found in driving revenues. However, I’m skeptical of his suggestion that more aggressive fundraising and marketing is the answer. For one, this seems to have been our strategy the past few decades (could we be any more aggressive with our marketing and fundraising efforts?) and it doesn’t seem to have done the trick. But more importantly, I’m not persuaded that the arts cliff is actually a fiscal cliff.
I, too, see a cliff (or, actually, multiple cliffs)– but I would suggest that they stem not from a failure to cut costs judiciously and maximize revenues but from some other failures. Here are four for your consideration:
- The arts education cliff. By-and-large, arts organizations have failed to plunge with vigor and seriousness into the K-12 arts-ed breach and systematically provide comprehensive, high quality, hands-on arts education experiences. We seem to have forgotten that the “taste” that is a critical component of deriving satisfaction and meaning from the arts is not formed at birth or (for the most part these days) at home, or school. Most organizations (still) don’t see arts education as being their responsibility. Years from now I predict we will look back and see a missed opportunity to strengthen our organizations from both a mission and financial standpoint and will be amazed that for-profit providers have successfully moved into this space ahead of us.
- The diversity cliff. Many arts organizations have failed to change the demographics of their boards and staff to reflect the diversity (physical, aesthetic, etc.) of the artists and audiences that they are seeking to serve. Other social sectors, and even corporations, made such adjustments y-e-a-r-s ago. We watched on November 7th as Republican pundits and politicians shook their heads and stammered on about shifts in the demographics of the US and struggled to make sense of their losses. I predict the arts will be doing the same in 10-15 years. The social structures that have long under-girded our sector are crumbling.
- The professionalism cliff. The disparagement of the community arts (aka/ grassroots, populist, popular) sector alongside the promotion of “professionalism” has led to the systematic devaluation of this incredibly important part of the “arts ecosystem”. We are a sector of professional snobs, who have turned our noses up at the community arts for the past thirty years. And I’m not persuaded that this sentiment is changing because individual organizations have begun to collaborate here and there with community-based artists and companies (often in response to carrots dangled by foundations). I predict that before the decade is out we will recognize the folly and vanity of distancing ourselves from our community-based cousins, who will be perceived as being able to do everything many “professional” organizations do but with more heart, less expense, and greater social impact.
- The leadership cliff. When I think of the organizations that are knocking it out of the park these days (and there are plenty of them) it all comes down to leadership. We need leaders who have vision and courage to throw away the staffing, structure, and programming templates and the willingness to fail in the short term in the interest of being better in the long term. We need leaders who identify more with the artists on their stages and the poorly paid administrators in their offices than with the donors they are courting 250 days a year. We need leaders who are not using their organizations to advance their careers but who are laboring in service of something greater than themselves. Talented, forward thinking leaders exist, but we are not doing a great job of promoting them, making use of their talents, and moving them into positions of power and influence in the sector. Some of them are slaving away as #2s. Some of them are running smaller organizations. I wager that all of them are ready and able to run much larger enterprises. Our sector seems to be quite poor at succession planning and I predict that our dysfunction in this area is going to catch up with us–before current leaders are finally ready to ease into retirement (10-20 years from now), but after they have already begun to erode the value of their organizations.
So, yes, the arts are facing a cliff. And we’ve been walking towards it for 30 years. But with all due respect to Mr. Kaiser, this cliff is not averted by simply doing, raising, and selling more.