Sunday, June 13, 2010

Re-examining Our Outdated Models

Good morning. (Please click on the logo above to go to the site if you wish to enter a comment).

“And the beat goes on……………………………”

I hope you will take the time to read this one.


After more than forty years of success, the nonprofit arts in the United States have entered a period of tremendous challenge and uncertainty. Cultural policy thought leaders are increasingly calling attention to seismic shifts and sea-changes in: a) how we create and deliver art; b) what the public desires in terms of their consumption of the arts and how they wish to be arts consumers; c) what the managers of nonprofit arts organizations are facing in terms of funding and operating challenges, and in their preparation to effectively meet those challenges; d) the emergence of the for-profit creative economy as a potential robust partner and / or frightening competitor to the nonprofit arts; and e) the continuing - even accelerating - demise of arts education in the schools K-12.

The models the sector has developed over the past four decades for its business and operational structure, its’ funding, governance, advocacy efforts, leadership development, and audience growth and marketing are all increasingly vulnerable, outmoded, and ineffective in dealing with the challenges of a changing environment and ecosystem. In many cases the default model is no model at all.

We are tooling around in the equivalent of a broken down old Edsel that wasn’t all that well designed in the first place. And yet we haven’t come up with alternatives. This isn’t to suggest that everything we are doing is a failure; many things we are doing are working – some quite well. But it is to suggest that, taken as a whole, the models we are using are not working – not as well as we need them to, not for enough of us, not within the circumstances in which we are now forced to operate.

Conversations on these critical topics have, in the past, been piecemeal, and have lacked a national focus and priority. Too often they have been confined to academic or philosophical discussions of broad policy and failed to zero in on arriving at practical solutions to the very specific and real problems we face. If we don’t make the time to confront our weaknesses now, things may only get worse – perhaps much worse. The time is long overdue to engage in focused and serious conversations about fixing the old models or envisioning new ones.

These conversations must involve the whole of our sector from top to bottom, but we must also involve thinkers from outside our sphere – both our stakeholders and from quarters of society with which we currently have little relationship or contact. We need to heed our own advice and think far outside the box. Our discussions must include familiar voices within our field, but also TED like luminaries and critical thinkers from outside our comfort zone.


I believe the six most important conversations for the arts sector in America over the next five years - demanding our revisiting, rethinking and reinventing the models we use in these areas - will be centered on:

1. ARTS EDUCATION – Despite the expenditure of considerable of our resources in the effort, we're losing ground and the current models to move us forward seem stalled in the face and wake of economic crisis and other barriers. For all our work, arts education remains marginalized, undervalued and not a priority; at best a frill and an elective. We face another generation that gets little to no arts in their K-12 experience.

2. FUNDING - The decades old percentage formula of earned income, individual philanthropic donations, government support, and foundation & corporation contributions isn't holding up and seems less sustainable than at any time in past 25 years. Surprising numbers of organizations are closing their doors; most of the rest are downsizing. We must now ask ourselves if this formula is even viable any longer. What new revenue stream model might work in the future?

3. ADVOCACY - At least as far as state and local government support go, the old messages and mechanisms aren't working and we are suffering ever deeper cuts. Can the nonprofit arts ecosystem survive without some meaningful government support? Continuing to simply concentrate on and refine the message as to our value has categorically failed to protect gains we have previously won. While the public seems sympathetic to the arts, we seem unable to translate that support into widespread grassroots action on our behalf. While our cause is just and our product unassailable, we have almost zero political clout, and we continue to fail to use the strength of our numbers. How can we finally compete in the political arena and be effective advocates & lobbyists for our interests?

4. LEADERSHIP –There is no working model for the provision of professional development for all our leaders, nor one for effective generational accommodation and succession planning. Are we any closer to figuring out how to better prepare and train our leaders (the Michael Kaiser issue)? Are we moving towards maximizing the benefits of multiple generations in the workplace or in danger of a future leadership drain and / or void?

5. MARKETING / AUDIENCE DEVELOPMENT - Our audiences are shrinking and we flounder in our attempts to build a model to accurately identify and effectively reach key target potential audiences. Supply continues to exceed demand. Is our current audience research model helpful or a waste of time? Is time running out on our ability to master new technologies and apply those technologies to what we offer? How can we effectively compete for leisure time dollars and consumer time loyalty?

6. INCLUSION OF ALL ARTISTS AND ARTISTIC ENTERPRISES – The nonprofit arts field has as its ultimate constituency the entire creative sector, including all those practicing artists of every stripe (professional and amateur) that do not get NEA or other grants and support, nor whom are directly served by most of the nation’s nonprofit arts organizations. Most of that grouping remains distant and detached from what we do and how we do it. The disconnect between the nonprofit arts field and both younger artists and younger consumers is particularly acute. Somehow we must figure out how to include all of them within our thinking, planning, advocacy, support and other areas so that we can serve them, even if only indirectly, and by so doing marshal their resources and energy on our behalf. The alternative may be that we lose relevancy and represent an ever smaller circle of the artistic and creative forces within America.

Implicit in, and central to, these discussions is whether or not our business, structure and operational models need rethinking, reinvention or replacement. And while philosophical cultural policy considerations are also implicit in these topics, the problems and challenges inherent in each area are specific, practical and real, and we need to focus on concrete solutions to what can be done to make the models the sector uses efficient, effective and relevant, and emphasize less consideration of the issues from a conceptual or academic perspective.

The SEVENTH CONVERSATION is one that may be beyond the control of the sector - and that is: will the arts even be at the tables where decisions as to its future are discussed and determined? For example, who will actually set a national cultural policy for America? Will anyone, or will it be set by default? Will a Ticket Master / Live Nation type entity take over nonprofit arts performances by promoting popular national tours, buying up venues from cash starved municipalities, and controlling ticket prices and distribution? Will that be good or bad for all segments of the nonprofit arts sector? Will those who champion more math & science in the schools ever see that more arts complement what they want, or will they continue to exclude the arts as a frill and a luxury? Will the high tech and entertainment and other industries ever want real partnerships with the arts? There are more decisions to be made out there that we may have no part of at all than you might imagine. A lot of our future is in other people’s hands – at least if we let it be. Where is the model that leverages our numbers and strengths to demand our seat at these tables?

This is the macro picture. On smaller levels the same question is being asked all across our sector: Is the model obsolete? So, for example, bloggers at the League of American Orchestras Conference ask that question about their future - see Orchestra R/Evolution.  And at the Association of Arts Administration Educators gathering, they ask that question about future business models for the arts - see Andrew Taylor’s blog.  On the smaller level, clearly no one model works for all situations. So in some cases perhaps the answer is ‘No’ – the model might need repair and revision, but at its’ heart it works. On many other levels though, including the larger models referred to above, our models are arguably beyond salvage.

The consequences of our failure to seriously consider how to revamp, re-invent, rethink, reform or replace the models on which we have for so long relied, but which are now failing us, will unquestionably impact how well we fare in the next decade. To think we can continue on as we have done for so long seems to now be a fool’s paradise.

This may sound alarmist or a gross overstatement of the challenges and barriers we face, and I suspect many of you may simply dismiss this, but I caution each of you to look around. Ask yourself: Is what we (you) are doing working? Are we headed in the right direction for the protection, expansion, nurturing and health of the arts in America, or are we, at best, stalled? Are things getting better or worse? Are the models we depend on above working for you? Is your revenue stream getting bigger? Are your fund raising efforts yielding significant increases in your revenue stream? If not, is that just because of a down economy, or are the tools and methods you are still using perhaps outdated? Have circumstances now changed so drastically and dramatically that the old assumptions are no longer valid? Is your audience growing? Are the marketing tools you are using to grow your audience working? Is your organization competitive? Have advocacy efforts protected state and local funding in your area? Is Arts Education expanding in the schools in your area? Are you and those in your organization getting more professional development training? Are you getting any skills building opportunities?

In short, are you and your organization measuring your success in real growth and progress or is the benchmark now mere “survival”, maintaining the status quo and only falling back so much?

Maybe you and your organization can continue to skate for awhile. Maybe as the economy improves (assuming arguendo that it does improve), your circumstances will change for the better, and you may even recover somewhat. But ask yourself this: Will anything have really changed to move you forward towards real growth and sustainability? Will you be better prepared, using the same old models of doing things, for the next crisis and for all the change the next decade portends? Are you equipped to thrive, or merely survive?

There is something fundamentally wrong with the model we use to adapt to change if all it allows is for us to “react” to those forces at play which mold our existence. Where is the model that will enable us to act in anticipation of change, to proactively prepare for varying scenarios, to weather storms with minimal damage or interruption to our sector – to prepare for the dramatically changing future? Where is the model for the whole of the sector that will enable a matrix for it to be a player and not a victim?

We can change the models to make them work for us again, but that won’t happen unless we focus on the job of doing it. We need to organize these conversations on a national level and approach asking these fundamental questions about our models in a systemic and cohesive way. Otherwise it will take us forever to have isolated conversations and let the ideas somehow filter up and out. And we don’t have forever. How long are we going to continue to tool around in these beat up, and in some cases, broken down old cars? Which ones are worth fixing? Which ones should be junked? In some cases, perhaps the time has come to re-think the very means of our transportation.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit