American arts organizations are threatened, but it is not the economy that poses the largest threat.
It is the decision-making of boards and staffs in response to economic challenges that has much greater long-term implications for the health of our arts ecology.
While arts funding only fell 6% last year, many arts organizations are making drastic cuts to their programming. Many have canceled performances, eliminated educational programming, shortened seasons, or closed altogether. Others are "dumbing down" their product; there is a widespread call to make programming more accessible (read boring). Still more are cutting their marketing dramatically; after all, they argue, who will notice if we spend less on communicating our (reduced) programming?
These approaches to dealing with the current recession all assume that cost is the underlying problem of the arts; conventional wisdom suggests that an arts organization can "save its way to health."
But this is wrong, dangerously wrong.
Arts organizations across the world have a revenue problem, not a cost problem. We are a remarkably efficient industry, doing more with less. But we do not yet know how to create the revenue streams we need to do our work in a consistent manner.
And what creates revenue for an arts organization? Good art supported by strong marketing. Arts organizations that consistently do good work and are aggressive about their marketing are the ones which succeed, both programmatically and financially.
Cutting programming and marketing, the current favored strategy, therefore, ensures that future revenue will fall. This initiates a viscous cycle; less art and marketing yielding less revenue leading to more cuts in programming and marketing, less revenue, etc. etc.
Taken to its conclusion, an arts organization simply gets too small to matter.
This is why our arts are in crisis today. We can survive the current economic downturn if we keep our programming vital and work harder than ever to convey our message. Those arts organizations who compete well will survive and recover when the economy recovers. Those that continue to cut away at their programming are likely to become irrelevant.