“And the beat goes on........................”
THE “NEW NORMAL” – COMING SOON TO AN ARTS ORGANIZATION NEAR YOU?
Two articles in the L.A Times last week give testimony to the continuing cutbacks and closures of arts programs & services across the country. In the first article, The Los Angeles County Arts Commission’s vaulted summer internship program was saved from total elimination by the local Board of Supervisors with a vote to approve $250,000 for this year’s program – down from $500,000 last year. This program is one of the best internship programs in the country, and a benchmark model for mentoring new arts leadership for the future. The second LA Times story chronicled the severe cutbacks to the Los Angeles City Department of Cultural Affairs staff roster and the city plan to privatize a number of satellite art centers run by the Department so as to cut more jobs. Additional layoffs and early retirements loom over a department that expects staffing to fall from 63 last summer to 36 by July 1.
And in another sign of the times, last week Bob Booker, Executive Director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, sent out an email message entitled: “We’re Not Dead” to reassure the Arizona arts community that the Commission was still alive and still awarding grants, though with downsizing and cutbacks.
These three incidents are emblematic of what is now commonplace across the nonprofit arts landscape as the dire predictions of further cuts made by a host of funders last year are coming true. We continue to measure our success, not in growth, but in maintenance of the status quo - in saving some of our programs, organizations and jobs out there. We are saving fewer of those than we did in the past. This isn’t a surprise, we knew it was coming. Still, the shock and reality of it are daunting. It’s likely to get even worse next year.
The strategy seems to be to hang on and survive; to more narrowly focus on our missions and insure that we enable and produce great art – even if less of it, or less access to it – until good times return. But the question looms – is this really temporary? When the economy is again strong and robust, and more Americans can find jobs -- when stock portfolios rise and tax coffers again swell so as to reduce the deficits, will we return (as we have on numerous previous occasions) to meaningful arts funding and then be able to begin to re-build the part of our infrastructure that we are now losing? Are we just in one more of those cyclical economic slumps that we in the arts have seen many times before?
OR is that more likely a false hope, and might the reality be that this scaling back, these lost jobs, these shelved programs, these changes in our structure, these shifts in our funding sources are all permanent? Are things fundamentally different this time, and does it presage a new era for our sector that will not follow past rules and probabilities?
And if it turns out that these adjustments and adaptations we are now making are not permanent, do we really want to go back to our previous modus operandi and once again create the same fragile structure we had – one subject to the same pressures and fatal flaws when new bad times come around? Isn’t that a bit like building the same house on top of an earthquake fault after a major trembler, or building the same house on the same waterfront after a big hurricane? Is that smart?
It seems to me that we are once again so involved with simply trying to survive the hard times, to get by with at least the framework of our past efforts still intact, that we haven’t really given much thought to whether this crisis is a repeat of what we have previously seen and weathered, or this one is different and will result in a forever altered landscape for the way we do business in the future. I think many arts organizations and leaders are just assuming that this is a temporary crisis that can be weathered and that the model they have painstakingly created over time will survive and again serve us all well. We just have to wait it out and things will get back to normal. I think perhaps that assumption is erroneous, and that when this crisis is over we may not be able to return to the way things were. I think maybe our revenue stream model will never again be the same as it was two years ago, nor perhaps will our past approaches towards staffing, marketing, and even strategic planning work anymore.
Is it time to question our model, our structure, our approaches, and even our basic assumptions ?
We don’t really know what will be the outcome once the economic crisis is past (and it will pass), but it is something we should be thinking about and asking ourselves about with an eye to what new approaches we may need to adopt, and what directions we may be forced to take when things return to a “new normal”. I think it might be smart if we consider – both as isolated, individual organizations, and as a sector – what a “new normal” for us might actually end up looking like. If things don’t (can’t) go back to the way they were, then to the extent we anticipate what changes might be here to stay, the better we might be able to adjust and adapt to some new paradigm. And if they do go back to the way they were, don’t we have to ask ourselves if we want to do this over and over again with each new economic downturn cycle? If we’re to not only survive, but thrive and prosper, we need to take a cold hard look now at the phenomenon of change as it pertains to our field, not after it’s already here. In this, like advocacy and a host of other areas, the arts simply must become proactive instead of reactive. Right now may be the time to look around at your organization and begin to wonder in earnest whether or not the changes that are taking place are likely to redefine what you do and how you do it -- permanently. It’s possible a “new normal” will soon be upon you, and you need to grasp what that means for the future and how you can adapt and make it all work for you. Something to think about anyway.
Have a great week.