Monday, February 07, 2011

Nonprofit Arts Zombies

For those of you not following the conversation about the state of the arts in the US, you may not realize that a big war is raging right now with the hashtag #SupplyDemand. Say what?? You ask. That's the running hash-tag due to the bomb (s) that NEA chairman Rocco Landesman dropped during a recent conversation at a convening called #NewPlay Convening. Now, just because this hasn't run up the hashtag pole on Twitter doesn't mean it hasn't been heated. Sitting in front of tons of performing arts professionals, Landesman thought it would be a good time to point out that perhaps we have too many nonprofit theaters in the country. He was right, but he didn't go far enough - there's too many arts nonprofits period.

Trisha Mead sums up the conversation best at the Arena Stage blog, and here's the relevant excerpt:

"Here's a recipe for a hell of a conceptual fist fight. Convene 100 or so people from around the nation, each of whose mission in life is to grow the field of new work for the theater. Each of whom represents an organization that is fighting to generate new audiences, new ideas, new structures for expanding the American theater.

Then place a guy in cowboy boots in front of them (who happens to control the largest pool of public arts funding in the U.S.) and have him baldly state, "Look. You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply."" (italics mine)

He went on to cite some statistics and explain his comments further in a blog post....yes, the NEA has a blog, who knew?! The post is worth reading, and if you care about this stuff, you should probably also read the good responses from Diane Ragsdale, Edward Clapp, and Aaron Andersen (and the negative reactions). But most of the reactions I've found online seem to be that Landesman should never have thought such thoughts, especially as someone in a public role of supporter of the Nation's art, and that no one should ever believe we have too many nonprofits in theater-ville.

Many people argued against Landesman that you can increase demand, and perhaps this is true. I tend to believe so in my little indie film world, so let's just concede that yes, perhaps you can increase demand. Doesn't matter though, as you'd have to completely reshape the sector, if not the world, to increase demand to a level that would sustainably support the number of nonprofit theaters we have in the US. On top of that, the same can be said about nonprofit arts organizations generally - again, too many.

Let's just look at my arena - media arts. By my count, there are thirty-nine media arts organizations in New York City alone that are members of NAMAC, the organization which represents nonprofit media arts organizations. Not every media arts organization joins NAMAC, however, and some of the bigger names in the sector aren't on the list. Neither are the majority of the many, many film festivals in the City. Now, we can all probably agree that having a diversity of voices is great, and that audiences and filmmakers in NYC are well-served by having so many options for seeing work or getting support. But more than a few of these organizations are on a constant near-death watch, struggling financially and yes, artistically. A few are doing well, but trust me, that's a very few and even some you might think are healthy will tell you off the record that they struggle to make payroll regularly. I'm also willing to bet that there are more than a few that are doing fine, and doing good work, but work that is duplicative of something being done by someone else and that might be stronger if done together.

I've often wished that a foundation, or group of foundations, would put forth a fund to support one big roll-up in the sector. That's right, merge multiple organizations together, and even let one organization acquire the good assets of a few others and shut the rest of their business(es) down. There's quite simply no financial incentive for this now, and nonprofits are hard to put to rest. I wrote a bit about this in my chapter for 20 Under 40. Here's an excerpt from that:

"Unfortunately, it’s not a stretch to say the nonprofit arts sector looks like a field of zombies—undead, potentially harmful shells of their former selves, haunting the landscape, unable to live or to die. Quite simply, funders, board members, and leaders in the arts need to take a hard look at reality and make some painful decisions. More organizations need to merge to save costs, end duplicative services, and achieve greater impact. Many more organizations need to be shut down entirely, having either served their mission well or having long ago abandoned any real hope of having a meaningful impact. These conversations aren’t easy, but they need to be had on a field-wide level. Even those organizations that are healthy enough to survive will need to consider downsizing their costs and refocusing their energies as the dwindling support for the cultural sector is likely a permanent shift away from robust public, foundation, and individual financing of the arts."

That's right - things aren't getting better anytime soon. I'm not a fan of it, and I explain my reasoning more fully in the chapter, but the arts will continue to attract less support from all sectors, even as the US economy stabilizes. We need to have these hard conversations, and Landesman was right to kick start the debate. I'd much rather have it started within the sector, and for us to find a solution, than for us to be forced into a solution - and that time is coming near. I'm not arguing that every nonprofit arts organization needs to be merged or shut down, nor am I willing to publicly share which ones I think should go. These decisions need to be made by the leadership of the arts organizations themselves. They can be prodded and funded in these endeavors by foundations, but they shouldn't be forced. That doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't have the conversation.

It's not necessarily a bad conversation to be in the middle of either. As I also say in my chapter, "Mergers are often thought of as drastic measures to cut expenses or end duplicative services, but they can also be planned for to better prepare organizations to face new economic and cultural realities, fill strategic gaps, and lead to new programming and greater services. In fact, a downsized arts sector does not necessarily equal less artistic programming. As many arts administrators know, budget tightening can often help one to focus on mission and expand services and programming through new, creative solutions." (Italics added). That's what we need to focus on - new, creative solutions - in these conversations. I'll be adding my own ideas to the debate, and hopefully the conversation, as it moves forward, but welcome your ideas in the comments below.


Anonymous said...

The Republicans are laughing all the way to the bank.

Brooklyn Red said...

This is so true. In Sarasota, we are actively working on partnerships with local "film festivals" based on identity issues-- Jewish films, films by and about Women, films about LGBT issues-- by folding their programs into our festival and collaborating with the organizations, generally human services organizations not primarily focused on film, to deliver a great film experience for their constituencies, albeit folded into the pre-existing Sarasota Film Festival (with special events here and there year round). It has expanded our focus, scope and reach at a time when our own organization is facing expanding financial restraints and we are always working to figure out how to do more with less.

On the other hand, I can imagine everyone reading this piece and these ideas and thinking "I agree, there are too many others out there," not seeing THEIR organization as part of the problem. When you have passionate people who have put in years of service for very little reward, people who love what they do and want to keep their organizations afloat by making sacrifice after sacrifice, no one sees themselves as the organization who should be the one to walk away.

I think mergers are a great idea, but there needs to be a paradigm shift among leaders in seeing partnerships and mergers as being collaborative and essential. The question is, do you like being in charge or is serving the mission the most important thing?

I will say, no matter how this goes, one of the things I think is very important is that arts workers, people working to deliver arts services to communities around the country, should be one of the primary priorities of this effort; with all of the reductions and cuts, many many talented people will be leaving the arts. Which is a huge shame, because they have worked as hard as anyone to fill important roles and deliver on the organizational mission. No one talks about workers in the non-profits arts sector, but they are the lifeblood of this area and their rights and concerns need to be addressed at the same time.

Too often, arts groups are run by people passionate about the art and not passionate about good management, be it of people, of money, of development, of Boards. I think this is one of the most important problems in the field; leaders who love the various art forms and the satisfaction of working directly with artists, but who are less than effective in the actual business and management of the people and the institutions that deliver on the mission.

Bad management costs everyone; the more bad experiences sponsors and donors have with organizations that don't deliver, the more the rest of (or is it us?) suffer.

Brooklyn Red said...

PS- that previous comment by me. And the "red" reference is to Liverpool Football Club, not my political affiliations.


--Tom Hall

mikki mouth said...

thank you brooklyn you well know, we here in ourlando are right there with you.
fresh from the 48th state in arts funding...yeeehawww,lets ride to tally.'s going to get worse before it gets better!
animals know who feeds them,it's not that complicated.
if they cant do it alone they need to help one another and see if they can do it together. otherwise give the slim reigns over. put it in the business model right under the mission statement...too many on the rat wheel will make it roll.

Brian Newman said...

Thanks Tom. You're right about the people part - we need ways to keep the good ones and move out the bad ones (this is harder). I'm so glad to hear what you're doing in Sarasota. When I was in Atlanta, we tried this, but the competitive spirit of many people (probably myself included) stopped this from happening as well as it should have. I remember people starting another fest all the time, and just wishing they would have walked in my door and said "let's collaborate." Would have been better for us, the community and the artists.