A Springtime of Discontent: Two Paradigms for Thriving Arts Organizations

I spent last week at the League of American Orchestras annual conference in Minneapolis, and came away confused, concerned, and frankly somewhat depressed. My reaction didn’t stem so much from theproblems the orchestra field is facing as from what people are talking about – or NOT talking about – in terms ofsolutions.

The conference last week emphasized the fact that things are pretty tough in orchestra-land. For the last two decades, there’s been no disagreement among thought leaders that the aging of the audience for classical music and the difficulty in recruiting large numbers of younger people is a central challenge. Pair this with the reliance on significant individual philanthropy from an existing but diminishing older audience, and you’ve got a combination that spells trouble.

The trouble now abounds, particularly for some of the country’s larger orchestras, and the recent economic collapse has weakened the financial footing of orchestras across the board. Government funding (both federal and local) is being slashed in the double digits as we speak. Corporate leaders who care about the arts are having more and more trouble convincing their companies to go out on a limb and support them. Foundation support has dwindled because the argument that orchestral music is a vital part of society is now relevant to only a very few major foundations. Costs to run orchestras have risen faster than inflation, and individual giving is not making up the difference. None of these facts should surprise anyone.

The main message of the orchestra conference, eloquently articulated by League president and CEO Jesse Rosen, was that artistic excellence is no longer enough. The industry must face its business issues head-on.

There were plenty of thought-provoking sessions by some of the leading thinkers in the field, all searching for solutions. We heard about “right-sizing,” economic planning, board development, and financial planning. All of these are relevant and appropriate. But sadly, none of these are easy, they all require a LOT of time, and all require that arts boards be willing to embrace change– which is by no means a given. I came away thinking that not only are there no easy answers, there is simply no consensus about what can be done right away that will make a difference in the next six months to a year.

In the days since the conference, I’ve done some thinking about solutions and have come up with some ideas of my own – ideas not only for the orchestra field, but for all art forms and institutions both large and small. These are changes that you can implement today that will make an impact nearly immediately, and don’t require raising funds. One is a purely an artistic paradigm, the other purely business:

1. Organizations will thrive if they make art that attracts a growing (not a diminishing) audience.

2. Organizations will thrive if they run themselves in a more and more efficient, effective, and professional way, and new technology ought to play a central role.

The first idea comes directly from a short speech at the conference by Larry Wendling, Ph.D., vice president, Corporate Research Laboratory, for 3M. He clearly and matter-of-factly described 3M’s alarmingly simple business approach: “Innovate and then add value.” He said it over and over: if you truly add value, people will beat down the door to your company (or concert hall).

And indeed, in the hallways of the Hilton Minneapolis, I heard stories from small and mid-sized orchestra managers that backed this up. A handful of managers told me that despite the economy, they were holding their own, or even improving in some key ways. Ticket sales were up, or subscriptions holding steady, largely owing to refinements in programming, pricing, or overall strategy.

A more dramatic example came from our client, the Stockton Symphony, which I mentioned more obliquely in last month’s article. Jane Kenworthy, the executive director/CEO, told me that Stockton, California, has a 17.3% unemployment rate and the seventh-highest foreclosure rate in the country. She said that “by all rights, our orchestra should have folded by now.”

But she went on to describe how they had recently sold 3,000 tickets for a pops concert – the most they had ever sold for a single evening in the history of the orchestra. She was brimming with pride in having sold out the house and added that it had taken “years” for the board and music director to agree to initiate a pops series.

Was she bringing Mozart and Beethoven, as (some might argue) was the mission of a symphony orchestra? No. It was a pops concert, plain and simple. But she sold tickets – and lots of them.

Here is a plucky orchestra manager pulling out all the stops when the chips are down. She added value to her community. And how did she do it? By taking risks and trying something new. Jane said, “We are still innovating in the midst of this economic crisis!”

This is my first point.Organizations will thrive if they make art that attracts a growing (not a diminishing) audience. If you find ways to continually fill your house, your economic engine will grow. You’ll identify new donors, board members, and you’ll look much better to prospective funders. Nothing breeds success like success.

My colleague Diane Ragsdale took me to task last month when I suggested that in this economy, filling the house must be job number one, and bending the mission of your organization might be part of that equation. For a few days others chimed in, and it was a spirited debate. You can read the whole comment thread here.

Perhaps because I straddle the fence between the for-profit and non-profit world, I have developed a particular point of view. In the end, I’d rather my local orchestra stay in businessand do two pops concerts a year along with their two classical concerts, and have a growing budget, bigger audience, and a positive story to tell, than doggedly stick to what it’s been doing for decades and face extinction.

And lest you think I’m merely suggesting that everyone do more pops concerts, or more productions of Beauty and the Beast, I’m not. Witness the fact that the recent “Spring for Music” festival at Carnegie Hall sold out nearly all of its events, and presented not a single piece of standard repertoire – it was all modern music. Witness the fact that that Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival presents nearly all new work each summer from both established and cutting-edge dance companies. They don’t do The Nutcracker. I’m not passing judgment on what the art is. I don’t have an agenda. I am simply arguing for the creation of something for which tickets are hard to come by as a prime objective in tough times.

Now, let’s turn to the business paradigm: Organizations must run themselves in a more and more efficient, effective, and professional way, and new technology ought to play a central role.

I spend a good deal of my business life immersed in the technology world. Every day my inbox is overflowing with announcements about new technology innovations to make businesses more productive. In corporate America, companies are constantly seeking new technology to streamline their operations, do better marketing, provide better customer service, and save time for their employees to focus on their jobs.

What struck me at the League conference was this: If technology is seen as a central and critical solution for American corporations, why is it not a more central topic for discussion in the arts? For instance, if I told you that new technology could reduce the time your staff takes to do their jobs by 20 or 30 percent, isn’t that a worthy goal? If time is money – then the right new technology can literally manufacture time!

In an industry in distress, why isn’t technology front and center as part of the discussion? And if technology is driving innovation at every level of the corporate world, why aren’t arts leaders embracing it?

What I know for sure is that new technology is nearly always present when industries in crisis manage to wriggle out of their troubles. The much-maligned newspaper industry, which was teetering toward irrelevance a few years ago, has made valiant strides in this regard, and now some of the very best iPad apps are those created by The New York Times and more recently the New Yorker. So why isn’t this happening in the arts?

I’m now heading out to California this week for the Americans for the Arts Conference and TCG, where I suspect I’ll be hearing stories similar to the ones I heard at the Symphony League. As I do, I’ll be thinking about these two paradigms for the direction the arts field needs to head: making art that adds value and attracts a growing audience, and embracing technology that helps it cut costs, market better, and run more efficiently.

These may not be the only things the arts world needs. But I would bet that if these are nailed, a lot of other challenges will be a lot easier to manage.

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One response to “A Springtime of Discontent: Two Paradigms for Thriving Arts Organizations

  1. Dear Eugene,
    Topic: “It’s the passion, stupid!”
    I confess to falling away from your emails; pre-occupied by having failed after three years struggle, to establish a creative-helping-type site. I am pre- digital; a fossil.
    Lost my passion basically, unil the last two days: First I made (review) direct contact with a new writer whose book about his experiences in Iraq as a US soldier in a land forgotten and… He “made it” on the market (Kaboom by Matt Gallagher – De Capo Press) His first book: Passion was there anew for me and for him in discussing his atruggle uphill.
    Then today, your lenghty but refreshingly frank message about orchestras and their future…a pet matter for me admittedly – but this, after a year of not reading your online posts/comments.
    What I see is your most passionate output in the last year. GO WITH THE FORCE, LUKE!
    Arts are about (and stir) our deepest and sometimes private passions. Period. They must and will survive, like an single aria from Lucciano. On a wave of that energy that resides in passion, carved into blocks and served.
    Take heart dear colleague and go like Gangbusters at your next assignment – next week! I wll try the same..and would love to help.
    Neil McPherson
    Mainz, Germany

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