Over the last year I have noticed a change in the reactions by major donors, especially foundations, to serious fiscal problems experienced by important arts organizations.
In the past, if an organization with a history of major contributions to the field became seriously ill, donors would rally and work to shore up the organization until it could clean house, strengthen its board and hire new staff leadership. This was not always a clean or easy process but arts organizations with strong reputations were not allowed to go out of business without a fight.
There seemed to be a belief that organizations with important histories of artistic excellence, or organizations that were leaders in communities of color, should be saved and given a second (or third) chance to create stability. I was involved in such turnarounds at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and American Ballet Theatre in the 1990s. I could not have saved these institutions without the tremendous support of important funders. The Ford Foundation, for example, played a key role in saving Ailey and the Mellon Foundation was instrumental in the turnaround at ABT.
During this recession, however, funders have taken a harder tone. "When there are well run organizations that are struggling to replace donors who have evaporated, why support those that have poor management, weak boards, and unrealistic plans and budgets," the funding community seems to be suggesting.
It is hard to argue with this logic, but it is also dangerous not to. The line between sickness and health is a slim one in the arts. It can take one competent staff leader or a few energized board members to initiate the process of fixing a troubled arts organization.
Letting organizations like the Baltimore Opera, Charleston Symphony or the Las Vegas Art Museum close comes at a huge cost to their communities. And it is especially sad when they are allowed to disband when their deficits are modest compared to their histories of service.
It seems disingenuous for major funders to chastise or ignore organizations with poor management when these same funders have avoided funding programs to improve the quality of arts managers. We spend billions of dollars to train singers, dancers and actors, and insignificant amounts to train the people who employ them.
I have said it before and I will continue to say it: the biggest problem we face in the arts is a lack of trained arts managers and board members. One can trace the demise of virtually every bankrupt arts organization to a lack of competent staff and/or board leadership. There are many, well-managed arts organizations that are surviving this recession. It is not easy for any arts manager, but those with knowledge and skill are seeing their organizations through this most challenging environment.
Until the funding community addresses this issue of arts management training, they will continue to be faced with organizations of artistic and educational merit that are going to ask for emergency funding and be forced to close if they do not receive it.
Isn't it time to discuss this fundamental problem in our arts ecology?