One of my DeVos Fellows at the Kennedy Center asked an important question in class recently. She wanted to know, "What do you do if the current season is not so interesting artistically but future seasons are scheduled will be far more exciting?"
This is a problem many arts organizations face, especially in light of the current economic climate. Many organizations that have seen contributions or ticket sales fall have been facing cash crises. One typical response to a cash crisis, albeit not one I recommend, is to cut the amount of programming or the size and scope of programming in the current year.
My student knows I believe that the key to building an engaged family of donors is to create important and exciting work continuously; I find creating a long-term programming plan is an essential discipline in ensuring consecutive seasons of important art. But I also know that my institutional family is willing to forgive an uninteresting season or even two if it is clear that the future is going to be more exciting.
I use the word family to describe those who provide us with resources of time and money -- our donors, audience members, volunteers and board members -- for many reasons; but one of the most important is that family members tend to forgive us a mistake or two -- a poor show, a boring season, a financial hiccup, etc. I do not know of any arts institution that has had uniformly excellent seasons, every year. I do not know any arts institution that has had no public relations challenges. It is the mark of the well managed institution that it addresses its problems head on, and refocuses the attention of its family members on the exciting programming to come. It is when we ignore our problems that our family members tend to drift away.
So when we have a season that is not as ambitious as desirable, we must make sure we have a longer-term programming plan that includes truly stunning work and then focus intently on communicating our exciting plans with our family members.
In my three decade career I have overseen seasons that are more or less interesting. During my first season at the Royal Opera House, we were in the concluding phase of a major physical renovation and there were only a handful of performances by the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. Yet I knew I had to raise the funds required to finish the building, to pay for our overhead and to provide the funds needed when we returned to our home.
My staff and I worked diligently to broadcast the work to come: the functionality of the new facility, the important artists who were engaged to work with us and the world premieres that were on the horizon. No one seemed to mind that the current year was relatively devoid of content; they remained loyal family members. In fact, we raised a record amount and attracted many new donors during this fallow year.
Having a strong long-term programming plan and focusing attention on it can cure many ills.