Change in the arts sector. Can we speed it up or must we wait it out?


  Devon Smith has written a smart, provocative post on a debate she engaged in at the recent Americans for the Arts Conference in Nashville. It’s called We Should Allow Failing Arts Organizations to Die and it has lit up the arts blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook the past few days. So much so that she has added a second post responding to the internet comments. This topic is close to my heart. In 2009 I was on a panel at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference alled Graceful Exits,What Can Funders Do When It's Time to Pull the Plug. In … [Read more...]

On organizations evolving: when short-term coping mechanisms become the new way of doing business


A couple weeks ago, one of my favorite arts bloggers, Andrew Taylor (a/k/a The Artful Manager) wrote a post whose title conveys a pretty strong thesis: Organizations don’t evolve; they cope.  While I share Andrew’s skepticism of the field’s use of natural world metaphors (ecosystem, ecology, evolve, adapt, sustainability, etc.) it’s not because I think the metaphors don’t apply (within limits); it’s because I think we sometimes misapply them. Andrew begins his analysis with a comparison between individual organizations and individual … [Read more...]

When does coaxing become coercing?


Last week I wrote a post on the efforts of foundations to encourage diversity (of various forms) in nonprofit arts organizations, in which I suggested that such efforts could be construed as a form of coercion. In particular, I discussed a new initiative at the Irvine Foundation and suggested that Irvine has been trying to "coax" its grantees into uncharted territory and "coerce" them into behavior that some are not ready or willing to adopt. In response to my post, Ted Russell at the Irvine Foundation tweeted the excellent question, “We're … [Read more...]

Renegotiating the value of a museum

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Over the past couple of weeks quite a few people have weighed in on the Detroit Institute of Art’s successful appeal to three counties in Michigan to pass a “millage” (a property tax) which would provide $23 million per year for the museum (91% of its budget) over ten years, while it raises $400 million for its endowment to replace the tax revenues when they run out. One of the most interesting aspects of this strategy is that the DIA offered free admission to the museum only to people living in the counties that passed the levy (which equates … [Read more...]

Are feasibility studies a racket? If not, then why do so many capital campaigns derail?


Last Friday, I read a story posted on AJ about Michigan Opera getting a one month reprieve on the $11 million it must pay to Chase Bank if it is going to avoid a possible bankruptcy related to delinquency on a bond obtained for a capital expansion in 2004. How did this arts organization get here? I’m assuming there was a feasibility study at the outset and that the feasibility study gave the arts organization a green light, right? So how did it end up several million dollars “short” on its campaign? How did we end up hearing yet another … [Read more...]

Is Opera a Sustainable Art Form? Excerpts from a new keynote …


I’ve been on hiatus in order to concentrate my time on the weekends to learning Dutch (state exam coming up). My last post was before Mike Daisey unhinged Ira Glass and Ira Glass exposed Mike Daisey and the whole world wrote about it. I’m not going to write about Mike Daisey. Instead, because I’m still concerned about the state of the arts and culture sector in the US (despite its “turnaround” according to Americans for the Arts), and because I’m still studying Dutch and neck-deep in my research at the moment, I’m going to share an excerpt from … [Read more...]

Making donor dollars stretch and perform miracles


The other day I received an email alert from the Philanthropy News Digest, which mentioned that a theater company had announced a $7 million endowment challenge grant. When matched, the 3:1 challenge grant (which requires the theater to raise $2.5 million) will boost its endowment from $500,000 to $10 million. Putting aside for a moment debates over the pros and cons of endowments for performing arts organizations, I was struck by the following quote by theater’s artistic director in the press: When reached, this unprecedented offer will … [Read more...]

A planned ending for Merce Cunningham Dance Co.


Merce CunninghamIn last week’s post on direct subsidies to artists, I expanded upon a premise from artist/economist Hans Abbing--that direct subsidies to artists may provide incentives to more people to become artists, thereby increasing competition, and making it more difficult for any to make a living--and suggested that the same may be true of arts organizations. I wrote, "We have incentivized the exponential growth of the arts and culture sector in the US and, despite significant resources (government and private) flowing into the sector on … [Read more...]

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

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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 … [Read more...]

The crucial gap once filled by Florida Stage

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Last week, it was announced in the Miami Herald that Florida Stage would be filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection and closing its doors for good. I am haunted by the thought that the American Theater has just lost an organization without fully grasping the critical role that it played. It appears that the move to a new space was a key factor in financial troubles that eventually left the company with a $1.5 million debt (significant for a theater of its size). This closing has left me feeling sad and disappointed in the trajectory of the … [Read more...]

Outsourcing Admin: Not Just for the Money Savings

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In a post a few weeks back I suggested that, rather than radical innovation, the arts sector might see some pretty great results through some common sense improvements. I suggested as an example “communities of organizations forming cooperative agreements for the use of space, or investments in shared technology, or other resources.” Strategic alliances, shared services, and partnerships sure sound good on paper but, one might ask, are they paying off in practice? A couple weeks I ago I was directed to a great post on the blog of Betsy … [Read more...]

A bankruptcy and a canceled season: inevitable or entirely avoidable ends?

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Recently, the Philadelphia Orchestra announced it would be filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection (the reorganization variety) and Intiman Theatre in Seattle let go of its staff (including its artistic director) and canceled its season in an effort to get a handle on its operations and save itself from an imminent death. These announcements (on the heels of other similar announcements) prompt a few questions: First, whenever I hear that an arts organization has had recurring deficits (often leading to the accumulation of excessively … [Read more...]

Letting go of the lifestyle to which some arts groups have become accustomed

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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 … [Read more...]

What is a mission-failing arts org? Like its opposite, perhaps you know it when you see it.

STREB: The Opposite of Mission Failure

In last week's post I suggested that the sector might be strengthened if some ‘mission-failing’ organizations were to close. I defined mission-failing organizations as those that were not providing sufficient cultural or social value relative to the investments in them. It’s an awkward phrase and I find it difficult to describe a mission-failing organization with any confidence; however, I can give an example of its opposite--an organization that is providing great cultural and social value--and did so in a talk I gave in 2010 called The … [Read more...]

Supply and Demand Redux: Rocco’s Comment and the Elephant in the Room

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I’ve been following the responses to Rocco’s 'decreasing supply' comment and his subsequent post on the NEA blog. Some believe that supply/demand is the wrong framework through which to look at the sector; some that there is no such thing as too much art and that we should increase patronage rather than ‘kill’ organizations; some agree with him but believe it was inappropriate for him to make the statement; and a few seem to agree with his points and believe that it was beneficial for him to make them. I'm in the last group. Rocco has … [Read more...]