Sunday, March 8, 2009

March 08, 2009


Hello everyone.

"And the beat goes on....................."


The bad news continues unabated. Everyday the economic news gets worse. From America to Thailand and everywhere in between, people are stuggling, amid confusion, to makes ends meet and somehow survive the meltdown. We throw money at the crisis, hoping somehow that we can buy our way out of this mess created by the world's banking and financial institutions (and make no mistake those people and their greed are the ones who caused all this), and, alas, so far it isn't working - or if it is, the positive results still lie far into the future. We must be patient we are told.

It is increasingly obvious that we haven't yet hit bottom; that the worst is yet to come. It is also increasingly clear that we aren't likely to return to the way things were; that things will forever be different, including, in large measure, our spending / saving behavior.

Meanwhile, every sector, including our own, is feeling the pain: layoffs, cutbacks, downsizing, uncertainty, anxiety. The world is changing, in big and small ways, most likely permanently, and all of us will, of necessity, need to do things differently from this year forward.

Part of the anxiety we all feel stems from the vagaries of what that future will look like, how we will be forced to change our procedures and protocols, our policies and presumptions, our priorities and preferences. As the sands shift, what will the new model(s) look like?

We can talk about those changes in broad terms and there are several (but by no means all of the) obvious areas that will demand new focus:

1. The necessity for new collaborations and new partnerships - including mergers and cross sector alliances. It is doubtful that we can continue "business as usual", and that our sector, like most others, is going to have to make wholesale changes in how we operate - as a "business entity."

2. Changing audience demands and profiles. The competition for discretionary spending has already risen and is likely to become fierce. Couple that reality with generational challenges in audience development, and the result is that "putting more bodies in seats" is going to require a level of sophistication in terms of research, marketing, content, staging and other factors heretofore beyond our reach.

3. Rapidly changing priorities and perspectives in donor giving - including the likelihood of new foundation imposed accountability, compliance with specific protocols and even specific time sensitive benchmark results achievement. People and institutions will continue their philanthropic giving - but to what extent, with what caveats, and on what timeline are increasingly unknown variables. Again, the competition for those dollars will increase.

4. If not continued downsizing of our organizational size, then certainly the necessity to be able to adapt and alter our organizational models on very short notice. Leadership will need to be flexible and have the tools to re-organize both structure and operations on a continuous basis so as to remain competitive. How we organize our business structures, how we manage our people and assets, how we spend our limited time and how we capitalize our resources are but a few of the myriad questions we will need to deal with in the short term. Many observers have concluded that our nonprofit model needs to be revamped. Into what - the pundits are less specific. We are businesses at heart and if we want to survive we will need to very soon figure out how to change.

But those four demands are vague in themselves. What will they actually mean to the average organization? Will collaborations and mergers actually save dying organizations, and at what cost in terms of the "art"? What are the ramifications of trying to keep existing audiences while simultaneously trying to appeal to other generations in this new economic reality? Can we compete in our current form? Will donors and foundations dictate artistic decisions? Will new demands on our time, our structures, our support systems so drastically and dramatically change the way we must do things that we will lose the character of who and what we are?

The arts face a particular conundrum: What is our priority - quality or quantity? Do we cut back on the scale of our offerings - fewer plays, dance performances, musical concerts, museum exhibitions - so that we can maintain a certain level of artistic excellence? Do we somehow compromise the quality of the goods & services we offer if we try to maintain the current level of expanded offerings that we have grown to include over the past decade? Do we scale back what we offer in order to protect the quality of that offering? And if we must do that, then how will that impact our fundraising, our audience development aspirations, the public's appreciation of our value, the degree to which we can protect and nurture our artists?

It's easier for some industries than it is for us. Take cereal for example. If you haven't noticed, cereal makers now offer smaller boxes (less net weight) but at the same price. Few people notice. But do we emulate that approach and offer the same number of plays in a season - but with less stage and production values? Do we have less gallery space in the museums? Do we cut back on the lighting of our dance pieces, have fewer musicians in the orchestra? Can we cut back expenses by cutting back on production values? Or do we cut back in the "front office" expenses by slashing marketing budgets, laying off a bookkeeper, or leaving a program officer position vacant?

Certainly, theatre groups, symphonies and dance companies can cut their seasons and offer fewer plays, performances and pieces, and while that saves the organization much needed money, what does it do to the artists - the actors, musicians and dancers? And are not they our core client base as much as is the public? Or we can offer the same number of plays, symphonies or dance pieces, but cut back on the staging or lighting or costumes, but then is the experience the same? Do not those cutbacks compromise the artistic integrity of the work? And while the artistic merit of the product may not be critical to Hollywood, can we say the same? But if we cut back on the marketing budget, how do we compete effectively with all the other options available to the public - from television to movies to sports to whatever?

The world may have already fundamentally changed in such profound ways that everybody is now just beginning to try to figure out how to act in the new order of things. There is substantial evidence this is the case, and the arts sector needs to figure out what all this may mean to it early on if it is to survive. I'm not talking about the short term - this year - but rather how we will fare from 2010 on. We need to be in the vanguard of whatever new thinking will be required for us to adapt to the changes that may have already begun on systemic levels and not end up in the "johnny come late" group. We need some heavy emphasis by some of our thinkers and funders to begin to: first survey what is actually going on in our organizations - on all of these levels -- and then to put forth some likely scenarios as to what it will all mean and how we might make the necessary changes and adaptations to our behavior so that we can not only survive, but be positioned to thrive. This isn't just some academic exercise that we can afford to postpone until a "better" time. If we really understand and appreciate the need for strategic planning, we better start being more strategic, and doing more planning right now. Because, the world has already changed and will likely change more, and what use to work is going to be nothing more than a prescription for future failure. It would be a disaster if we simply wait for things to return to normal. The old "normal" is, I think, now gone forever.

These are very complex issues and we need to pay attention to the long term implications of the short term crisis.

Have a good week.

And, Don't Quit!