So, Who Is Managing The Crisis?

The New York Times recently published a very interesting and thought-provoking article in which author Anthony Tommasini asks: what have we learned after a year of crises? (Lessons in a Year of Crises, New York Times, June 8 2014) Mr. Tommasini refers to a number of alarming challenges faced by arts in 2013, and the demise of the New York City Opera tops the list.

In a nutshell, this storied company ran up a deficit of some $7 million. In what could have been a last minute lifeline for the opera company, billionaire, former NYC Mayor, and long-time supporter, Michael Bloomberg, declined further philanthropy. His reason: the “business model doesn’t seem to be working.”

Fair enough. It seemed no matter what they did administratively or artistically, nothing could halt the Opera’s mounting debt.

What was the meaning of Mr. Bloomberg’s statement, asks Mr. Tommasini? “In short, artistic excellence is not enough.” He adds, “In finding the right business model, a performing arts institution must know where to draw limits.”

I have often thought the latter point, knowing when and how to draw limits, is one of the main challenges facing arts organizations and their caretakers.

All too often we are fixated on the next new, innovative, diverse project. As a result, we create organizations that are self-cannibalizing, often adding enormous stress on the organization and staff to raise more and more funds to feed the beast and keep it alive.

Artistic and executive directors and boards make the decisions that create these situations. However, with fear of biting the hand that feeds, we also need to recognize that funders must assume a share of the problem.

With every good intention, funders typically nudge grant recipients to continually produce new and innovative projects, and to continually demonstrate growth. Paradoxically, funds are typically not available for a project’s second, critical year. Organizational stress mounts under the constant newness.

How is this constant flux and reinvention sustainable given an insecure business model?

Mr. Tommasini points out there is no one business model. But what are the business models? That is where arts administrators and boards really need to get creative. With strong leadership and vision, we need to see the situation for what it is, and make clear-eyed business decisions that ensure the manageability and sustainability of our organizations.

Without the underpinning of a strong and supportive business foundation, we run the risk of creating the monster we can no longer feed.