Time to Stop Blaming the Economy

I am tired of reading that the arts are in trouble because of "the economy." If you have read the financial news lately you will see that the stock market is at an all-time high, corporate profits are strong, housing is rebounding and the unemployment rate is falling.

Yet arts leaders still blame poor ticket sales and fundraising results on "the economy" and board members, the press and the public nod their heads in knowing agreement.

It is true that there remain depressed sectors of the economy and too many people are still out of work. The economy has not rebounded equally for all.

But for the vast majority of arts organizations, most of their audience members and donors are still employed and are enjoying strong returns on their investments. They have rising levels of disposal income and consumer spending is increasing as a result.

What is true is that the world has changed very dramatically: governments are giving less, corporations are far more selective about how they give away their money, there are far more entertainment choices available, our traditional audiences are aging and the younger potential audience members have not received as strong an arts education as their parents did.

Arts organizations must adjust to these changes; we need to change our fundraising strategies to accommodate the reduction in government funding and to compete more strategically for corporate funding by developing strong visibility plans for each corporate prospect. Corporations that are supporting the arts, after all, are now looking for enhanced visibility for their products and services.

We need to examine our programming and determine if it is exciting enough to compete with the new entertainment options; if not, we must work harder to create the transformational projects that astonish our communities. Simply producing the same work year after year is not going to foster earned revenue.

We need to focus, increasingly, on individual donors, providing benefits donors want to become active members of our institutional families.

We need to become far more aggressive marketers, employing old technologies and new ones to entice new audience members and hold on to the old ones. We need to adjust to the buying patterns of younger audience members who purchase their tickets later, do not necessarily get their information from traditional news sources and are often price sensitive.

We need to adjust our budgets to this new reality. It is not acceptable to earn deficits year after year and use the economy as a justification. This is the surest path to bankruptcy.

And we cannot accept the conventional wisdom that "every not-for-profit arts organization is facing deficits" because that is simply not true and is dangerous. I know of hundreds of arts organizations that have done a superb job of navigating the new world in which we live.

It has been harder, for sure, to balance our budgets and has required arts managers and boards to be nimble in the face of the new environment in which we operate.

But blaming "the economy" is not way to sustain ourselves.