I was asked an interesting question on my Arts in Crisis tour stop in Phoenix: Is there conventional wisdom amongst arts organizations that I disagree with and try to fight against? I didn't give a full response during the live interview. Here is a more thoughtful list:
- All we need is an endowment. Of course, if someone drops an endowment in my lap, I will be thrilled to accept it. But the cost of creating an endowment is high since it takes focus away from the key strategic areas for all arts organizations: making great art, marketing aggressively and building the size of the organization's constituency. When revenue is diverted to endowment rather than to making more great art (and marketing it aggressively) the organization can begin to lose its constituents and, therefore, its revenue. And, since every arts organization grows to the point of discomfort anyway - new expenses naturally follow new income - building a larger endowment rarely means financial security. Instead, it almost always translates into a larger budget with the same old tensions.
- In our next executive director, we need to hire a strong finance person (often from the for-profit sector) to keep control on expenses. The problem here is that finance people are experts at measuring problems, not fixing them. Arts organizations need entrepreneurial managers who know how to create income, not intelligent analysts who can tell you how bad things are.
- We need to control expenses in order to be healthy. While some arts organizations do have inflated budgets, far more have inadequate revenue streams. It is far more effective to focus on building new sources of revenue than on saving our way to health.
- All artists and arts organizations are spendthrifts. Wrong. It is amazing how much arts organizations produce with so little. We are not spendthrifts. But we do suffer from a difficulty improving productivity so our costs rise quickly and we need to experiment to make great art so there is often the appearance of waste.
- Now is the time to play it safe with programming. Wrong again. If we all do safe, boring work, we will lose our audiences and our donors. It is the big surprising projects that build visibility and, therefore, income.
- We can attract young audiences by doing more exciting, or higher tech, marketing. It is not the nature of marketing that attracts any segment of an audience but the work itself. Of course we must use marketing techniques that reach the audience we hope to attract, but simply putting something on Facebook does not guarantee that younger people will come.
- Institutional marketing can only be pursued by large, famous organizations. I have yet to find an arts organization that cannot influence its community by pursuing a campaign that highlights important programming, special events, and important announcements. While larger organizations may have a broader range of opportunities to promote themselves, smaller organizations can use their assets to build visibility as well.
I am so glad I was asked this question; it made me recognize how much work is yet to be done.