My 50-State Tour

I just completed a 50-state, 69-city tour across the entire United States. I traveled 83,000 miles and spoke with nearly 11,000 artists, arts managers, board members, elected officials and concerned citizens.

We discussed both generic approaches for dealing with (and not dealing with) an economic downturn as well as local arts issues and concerns.

The motivation for this tour came from my fear that the recession would set many arts organizations on a path that would create problems for years to come. When an arts organization's first response to a fiscal crisis is to cut programming and marketing, bad things are sure to happen.

Surprisingly, and thankfully, the name of the tour, "Arts in Crisis," surprised people in many communities. Many people said they were happy to come and talk about how to improve their organizations, but they didn't feel in crisis. Yes, things were tougher than they had been, but they did not feel their organizations were in danger.

When I started the tour, I thought I might write a book about the experience. I thought it could be interesting to illuminate the differences in the arts ecologies between each community.

I was wrong. While there is certainly great variability in the intensity with which the recession has influenced each city, the issues faced by arts organizations are remarkably consistent.

How do you make a board more productive? How can we take advantage of new technologies to sell more tickets? How do we raise more money? What should start up arts organizations focus on? Where do we find trained staff or volunteers? These questions, or variations on these questions, were asked on every stop of the tour.

There will be no book after all; it would be too dull. I could write about the legroom challenges of regional airplanes, the best places to eat in Meridian, Mississippi or Billings, Montana, or the remarkable physical beauty of our country, but I would have nothing to add to the others who write about travel.

But this does not mean I did not learn anything of value on my tour. I learned of the vibrancy of the arts in America. I learned that arts leaders simply will not give up. I learned that some of the most interesting artists and most entrepreneurial arts managers are working in some of our smallest cities. And I learned that we need to give these managers and their boards a far better education if we want the arts to flourish. Some have said I did this tour to promote myself. If so, I am incredibly inefficient and deserve to be fired. (I reach more people with one post on this blog than all the visits combined.) Indeed, we planned several stops in less-populous areas where expectations for attendance were low. Regardless of size, participants in every city shared common concerns and displayed a passion for the arts that inspired me tremendously.

And if the Kennedy Center is doing a better job of fulfilling its mandate to be the national cultural center then I certainly don't mind the attendant publicity. It is my job to create visibility for my organization.

But the overwhelming feeling I have is gratitude for the people who came to the sessions (often driving four or more hours to do so), the 69 local moderators who interviewed me, and the hundreds of people who helped organize the events. I know I was given a most rare opportunity and I am truly grateful.