Opportunity is Knocking

Bill DeWalt, former (and founding) director of the Musical Instrument Museum, wrote an op-ed piece in the Arizona Republic that delineates the challenges faced by the new arts leaders coming in to replace not only him, but also the leaders of other large institutions in the state such as Arizona Theatre Company, the Children’s Museum of Phoenix and Arizona Opera. “The principle issue for all organizations is lack of funding,” he writes, before explaining some of the reasons why arts funding is particularly challenging here.  I urge you to read his full piece as it carefully explains why the unique philanthropic climate of Arizona is particularly challenging.

phoenix arts and culture ride guideI want to focus on another point he makes, almost in passing, “Such rapid change in leadership of a city’s major cultural institutions may be unprecedented.”  A couple of new leaders are already in place; searches are planned or underway for others. This is a tremendous opportunity not only for the individual organizations experiencing leadership change, but also for the culture of Arizona and, indeed, its funding climate.  This unprecedented shift in leadership means that there will be an influx of new ideas, new talent, and new programming.  Coincident with this upheaval in the cultural community comes the resignation of Phoenix city manager David Cavazos.  There is – or should be – an opportunity here for the city of Phoenix (where all but one of these organizations is based) to re-envision and re-evaluate its commitment to arts and culture.  There is – or should be – opportunities here for the many communities that make up the cultural fabric of the Valley of the Sun to participate in the next stage of development for these large organizations.  And, “the next generation of cultural leaders” as DeWalt calls them, have unprecedented opportunity to work together to enrich the culture life of the region.

In my work, I generally engage with very small or brand new arts organizations or even individual artists. But, the fate of the larger arts institutions affects everyone in the arts and culture community and, I would argue, everyone in the city, whether they realize it or not.  So, here are some thoughts for the “next generation:”

  1. Can the organizations work together in a consortium format on their fundraising efforts? This was tried on a small scale with some of the smaller arts organizations and didn’t get very far, but the target was small donors (in a kind of crowdsourcing effort, before we all were comfortable with that term).  What if there was more cooperation and less competition for the philanthropic dollar among the big five as well?
  2. Can the large organizations work symbiotically with small organizations to help the latter develop both artistically and business-wise, thus diversifying not only the content but also the scale of cultural organizations?
  3. Can the organizations, under new leadership, provide more opportunities for authentic community engagement? (Not “outreach,” but true two-way engagement, even to the point of co-creation/co-curation)
  4. Can the large organizations diversify their revenue streams, perhaps even developing auxiliary enterprises, to better fund their day-to-day operations?
  5. And, lastly but not finally, could the fundraising consortium suggested in #1 be used to build a cash reserve for Phoenix Arts and Culture?

Opportunity is knocking. Let’s answer the door!

(image by Kristin Roberts, METRO for the Phoenix Arts and Culture Ride Guide)

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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6 Responses to Opportunity is Knocking

  1. The Religious Right and their politically conservative counterparts figured out that quickest way to stop or at least changed the artistic content which artists were producing at the time was to starve the NEA of it’s funding. To stay alive as an organization the NEA finally was forced to change the rules of who in fact was allowed to be funded. The initial political attack on the NEA was not because of real financial concerns, it was because they didn’t like what visionary leaders (artists) were making.
    Today those conservation goals have been accomplished. Federal money for the arts is almost non-existent and any art institutions from the old days are left scrambling for any hand outs they can get. The conservative final death blow is that of the restructuring of any remaining institutions and local governmental’s cultural planning with a “change in leadership”. A change that will finally insure the politically conservative belief that the arts don’t lead society but serve the conservative taste of a “engaged” society.

  2. Matthew Wiener says:

    Linda – I appreciate your comments on Bill DeWalts op-ed piece. And I also urge people to read the entire article. It’s good, timely, and relevant. I believe he placed responsibility for addressing the incredible deficit in arts and culture capitalization and investment where it needs to be – the lack of funding due to lack of community support. And I would add the lack of community support due to the lack of relevance. At all levels. I am sure this is partially a function of our times – always cyclical. And even more a function of the uniqueness that is Arizona in 2013 – can we travel anywhere in the country (or the world) without people asking us – “what’s wrong with Arizona”? And I would suggest more than anything else it has to do with how young our state and city truly is – when compared to the great cities of the world we are barely toddlers. We are not even a 20th century city, we are not even a post WWII city, we are a post John Lennon city. Imagine that.

    The challenges we are facing will not be solved by the next generation of cultural leaders. And if I may suggest the thoughts you have offered for the “next generation” – have for the most part been the ongoing work of the outgoing and current leaders. The challenges we face will be solved by the positive influence of our current educators, business leaders, religious leaders and elected officials; for they are the ones shaping the future of our community – they are the ones able to inspire society so individuals come to recognize the relevance that arts and culture organizations create. They set policy. They steer the boat. We need a sea change. The few new organizational leaders will certainly be passionate and thoughtful curators and creators of arts and culture – but to put the weight of change on the weakest link of the arts and culture business – doesn’t really work for me. In an effort to create more dialogue here are some of my reactions to your thoughts:

    1. Can organizations work together on fundraising? Yes. Been there. Done that. Three of the largest performing arts organizations in the Valley just did: Ballet Arizona, Arizona Opera, and the Phoenix Symphony. And they are planning on doing it again. However. However. I think Ms. Knight’s comments on this blog are about as eloquent an argument against “united arts funds” as possible. This is not a new idea. And the fact that the most recent large fund was created almost a quarter of a century ago attests to its lack of resonance in our current economy and society. People want more control over their gifts and philanthropy – not less. They want to see and feel and taste the outcome of their generosity – not be co-mingled in an amorphous glop of money. Can there be more cooperation and less competition for the philanthropic dollar? Of course. But competition is rooted in the giving side of philanthropy – not the receiving end. Corporations and Foundation often pit us against each other to see how big a bang for their buck they can get. How many pages in the program? How many square feet of signage? How many eyeballs on the website?

    2. There is a remarkable amount of cooperation between arts and culture organizations here in the valley. Not just large one helping small ones. But rather more synergistic relationships as opposed to symbiotic ones. I am most familiar with the non-profit theatre world in Arizona and I can tell you there is an unprecedented level of support between organizations. Phoenix Theatre “houses” several other theatres and provides “box office and admin services to others”. Black Theatre Troupe has brought Teatro Bravo into its new home. And when Actors Theatre was forced to cancel the last two shows of its season, Arizona Theatre Company and Phoenix Theatre immediately offered to allow Actors Theatre patrons into their shows. For Free.

    3. Authentic. Community. Engagement. We’re trying. We are all trying. This is perhaps our greatest collective challenge. What does it meant to be engaged? How do we make our work relevant? And can we measure that? Most leaders of arts and culture organizations struggle with this issue all the time. But I would suggest that most individuals who attend museums are “co-curating”. They are selecting how to move through the galleries, where they want to go and how long to stay there. This is also especially true of many “cultural organizations” like the Zoo, Botanical Gardens, and Science Center. I’ve been to the Zoo many, many times but I doubt I’ve walked the exact same path twice. Is this co-creation/co-curation? And frankly I started co-curating music over 30 years ago when I made cassette mix tapes for the drives back and forth to college. This does not feel new to me.

    4. Diversify Revenue Streams. Again, this is already being done by many organizations at a very high level. The Heard Museum derives a huge percentage of its operating income from sales in their giftshop. Do you know how many Birthday Parties are hosted at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix? Or how many martinis are served at the various musical gatherings at the Botanical Gardens? Lots and lots. The challenge here is that in order to create earned revenue many organizations have to make choices to generate activity that is not mission-based in order to support the greedy needs of their life changing missions. This can be a very slippery path.

    5. Cash Reserves. That would be nice. Let’s do that. But before we put all that money in the bank let’s try to rebuild the human resource infrastructure that has decimated in so many local arts and culture organizations. Let’s try to balance the balance sheets. The financial balance sheet. The human resource balance sheet. The community service balance sheet. Forward looking corporations measure multiple bottom lines. So should we. Let’s encourage General Operating Support. And give this next generation of leadership the tools to make the unique right choices for their unique organizations in this unique moment. Or we can “punish” the “bad behavior” that Bob Booker speaks of when referring to the financial deficits held by many nonprofit arts organizations. Although I’m not sure what he would prefer – that they close? Across the Valley and across the country we see shuttered businesses – of every sort – for-profit and not-for-profit. Even cities are going bankrupt! These are ridiculously challenging times. And the arts and culture organizations (staff members and board members alike) that have made very hard choices to hang onto their missions through sheer determination and stubbornness, to serve our community – in one way or another – deserve nothing but our praise, admiration, and support.

    And I agree. Opportunity is knocking. Let’s open the door to in-the-moment relevance. Let’s open the door to new people. Let’s open the door with optimism, open-heartedness, humility, and an overriding sense of service. If it were easy – anyone could do it.

  3. Sounds like a call for a united arts fund to me. As the 10-year director of the last LARGE fund to be created in the country (United Arts of Central Florida, founded in 1989, which when I left was providing 44% of the contributed income of the 16 largest cultural organizations through a collaborative of 140 businesses, 8 governments, 26 foundations and 3400 individuals), I can attest it is a most difficult thing to create and then sustain in a community with large, independent cultural organizations. Keeping the collaboration going was not easy and it required a LOT of consensus building. Every united arts fund was CREATED by the corporate community as an efficient way to invest in local cultural organizations BUT but there is understandable resistance from cultural organizations with long-standing funding relationships that might be threatened by a collaborative approach. And corporate and foundation philanthropy has gotten away from “general operating support,” to sexier retail, themed project-based grantmaking as well. United Ways have faced the same philanthropic market forces, part of Richard Putnam’s Bowling Alone thesis. Our sense of community is simply not what it once was.

    Richmond, VA made a valiant effort, working with town’s major corporations but, in the end, couldn’t pull it off. Silicon Valley has also had difficulty. I have done consulting with several communities to talk about “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” of united arts funds. It is VERY difficult to create a shared ethic that a cooperative effort will, over time, be more successful than a competitive one. It runs against the ingrained “we need to do it OUR way” from both organizations AND corporate philanthropic interests. Governments too want their own systems for grantmaking, etc. making it nigh impossible to create a true fundraising collaborative from scratch. Cultural organizations, businesses and governments don’t want to lose their philanthropic identities. Everyone needs to buy in for it to work–these efforts are fragile and vulnerable to sabotage!

    And it is the rare individual donor that “gets” a united fund–people have passions for individual institutions. Even some of the largest and most successful united arts funds have changed their models to allow for more choice for donors through crowd sourced fundraising platforms like Power2Give and allowing designations in employee campaigns. The IDEA of a strong cultural community isn’t always a strong enough incentive to prompt investment.

    Change of ANY kind only happens when the pain gets unbearable (that goes for marriages, addictions AND collaborative fundraising and marketing). So how bad does it need to get before groups and funders stop “muddling through” and enthusiastically experiment with new collaborative models? Time will tell.

    • lindaessig says:

      Margot: Thank you, as always, for your comment and for sharing your expertise in this area. Coincidentally, this morning a piece crossed my blog feed about “collective impact,” the concept of which extends beyond unified funding models to achieving change through collective action. Kania and Kramer write “Our research shows that successful collective impact initiatives typically have five conditions that together produce true alignment and lead to powerful results: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations.” This sounds like – and is – a pretty steep list of conditions, but their piece sights several successful examples in the social sphere. (you can read their article here: http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/collective_impact). Ian David Moss wrote today about how the concept can apply more specifically to the arts: http://createquity.com/2013/08/collective-impact-in-the-arts.html

  4. Bob Booker says:

    Smart piece Linda. I would add that board members of arts organizations need to step up to truly understand the financials of their organizations and demand that their artistic and managing directors create and realistic budgets that will eventually produce working capital reserves. The amount of deficit held by nonprofit arts organizations here and across the country is incredible and quite frankly more money will not change this bad behavior. I also would hope that our business leaders, small and large step up to the plate and realize the public value arts organizations provide to our state and a strong arts industry works hand in hand to create a strong economy, a smarter workforce, and vibrant communities.

  5. Pingback: Opportunity is Knocking | Symposium Magazine

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