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Artists and Administrators: we really are all on the same team

I’m not sure why Mike Daisey’s article from February 7, 2008 has been making the social media rounds again, but I’m reminded enough of the ire I felt when I first read it in 2008 (and saw his production of “How Theatre Failed America” during NPAC in Denver that same year) that I am back here blogging again.

I’m not going to spill a lot of ink on the article itself or Mr. Daisey’s specific arguments because (1) it was written 6 years ago, before the “Great Recession” hit that autumn and changed much of the landscape, and (2) I feel Mr. Daisey makes so many leaps of ill-focused logic and presumptions that it is a waste of breath to enumerate all the flaws in his argument.

I do worry, however, about the perception that the resurfacing of the article may encourage: that (1) “large” organizations (broad and ranging definition depending on who is speaking) do not care about the art or the artists and (2) arts administrators are evil delusionary autocrats deliberately seeking to cheat artists (“they are a dime a dozen”) and fill their own pockets in the name of supporting the edifice of “the institution.”  Granted, I am an arts administrator, so it would make sense that I would take offense to this…no one, not even the most universally reviled criminals would probably paint themselves as a villain.  However, I have spent almost two decades in the non-profit theatre industry and I have yet to encounter one single person who was deliberately trying to find ways to cheat or devalue artists for their own gain.  The sooner we all stop demonizing each other, the sooner we will start to realize there are numerous theatres existing right now that are trying to do what’s right by all their employees and the communities they serve.  When we do that, we can start talking about what works in various communities, why it works, and how these strategies can be modified and replicated in other communities that haven’t found their model yet.

The first, and most important, thing to note is that we really are all on the same team.  The vast majority of us, artist or administrator, came to this industry through a love of theatre.  We have a deep, burning need to share that love with our communities, to help them know how much more beautifully rich our lives are with theatre in them.  That love is why we put in the umpteen extra hours, work for significantly less pay that we would find in the corporate sector, and (for me, anyway) stay awake at night trying to find more ways to make our employees’ lives better.  In the years since Mr. Daisey wrote the aforementioned article, the answer to that last issue has rarely included increased salaries.  We’ve all spent the last six years finding our balance and learning to be better stewards of the public’s funds (we are, after all, by definition of “non-profit corporation”, in the public trust).  We know that our people are the backbone of our organization and, there is no question, most of our theatres rode out the recession on the backs of our people, artists and staff alike.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned in my career and I hear echoed in the conversations of my peers:

  • Your mission, vision, and values must be your guiding light.
  • Great employees (artists and admin) are the only way any organization survives, much less thrives
  • All great employees should be valued, regardless of title or union affiliation
  • Respect is the Golden Rule.  Why on earth would anyone put up with everything else related to working in non-profit theatre if they weren’t at the very least respected for their unique contribution?
  • When there is a choice, you should always prioritize people (we will give raises rather than getting a color copier until all our employees are paid fairly)
  • Sometimes it does come down to “we have to fix the air conditioner” and there is no other choice.
  • It is almost never a question of black and white; so many factors go into every decision (budget, casting, marketing, staffing) it is always a matter of degrees, timing, and competing priorities.
  • Transparency should be the law of the land.  Without accurate information folks are free to jump to whatever conclusions pop into their brains, just as Mr. Daisey did.
  • You have to bring in more revenue before you expand the budget.
  • Breakeven is never good enough.  We’ve allowed ourselves (often encouraged by funders) to believe that if we aren’t “re-investing” every penny we make this year into this year’s expenses then we are not using our funds wisely (and we don’t need their funding).  We must eradicate this thinking.  It is only by establishing cash reserves (not endowments) that we can take the artistic and programmatic risks we all want to support.
  • It should not be a question of “if” but “when.”  Just because you can’t fulfill the organizations wildest dreams (or even more pedestrian ones) tomorrow doesn’t mean you give up and condemn “the administration” for killing your dreams.  It does mean you need to plan out how to take all the steps needed between where you are and where you want to be.  We’ve all been so busy making sure our checks didn’t bounce, it has been hard to lift our eyes to the horizon and even think about dreams.  I’m encouraged by the fact that I am hearing more and more conversations about strategic planning and mapping out strategies to move our organizations to the next level (including the next level of support for our people).

I honestly believe that most often the fault lies not in administrators’ motivations, nor even in the specific budgetary priorities of an organization, but rather in a severe lack of transparency.  Without transparency, there can be no appropriate oversight.  Without transparency, you lose vital opportunities.  Without transparency, there can be no trust.

Articles like Mike Daisey’s encourage and support a culture of fear in an industry where our best work can only be created in a safe environment.  We, as administrators, must lead the way to reverse this culture of fear and the surest way to do this is by sharing what you know and all the plans.  By doing so, we invite in every person in the organization to be part of the solution.  We are better together.  In fact, we can only exist as a team.  Let’s stop fighting and start working towards a better artistic world for us all.

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Posted by on October 9, 2014 in Arts management, risk-taking, theatre

 

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Enlightened and Inspired Funding from the Nonprofit Finance Fund and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

In nonprofit theatre, folks spend a lot of time talking about how the “model is broken.”  That phrase is bandied about referring to the production model, the business model, the funding model, you name it.  Within all the broken talk, there are a few brave souls actually testing new models.  The Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) are two of these brave souls.

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a webinar hosted by Rodney Christopher & Rebecca Thomas of NFF on their “Leading for the Future” initiative, supported by DDCF (check out the webinar slides and video).   The presentation also featured Cynthia Hedstrom and Jamie Proskin from The Wooster Group and Amanda Nelson and Thomas Cott from Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation.  I’m thankful to NFF for posting the video; the presentations were fast and furious with a lot of great information. (some of which I missed the first time around due to live tweeting!)

I’ve been following the information NFF has released over the past year regarding this incredible initiative.  If you haven’t yet read “The Case for Change Capital” or watched the video case studies, I highly recommend them.  I hope this project is a sign of things to come.

For those new to the Change Capital and Leading for the Future conversation, NFF and DDCF have teamed up to provide up to $1 million to each of 10 arts organizations “intended to allow participants to take transformative rather than incremental steps to remain artistically relevant, effective and excellent while ensuring long-term financial viability.”  The capital is meant to be expended over the course of four or five years.  Some organizations are using the funds to grow, some to shrink, some to reach new audiences in new ways, one organization is using the capital to responsibly wrap up their operations.  There are a number of revolutionary components to this funding model:

  1. The size of the grant allows for truly transformative change.  NFF and DDCF are not asking for the moon while only providing enough funds for a trip to the beach.
  2. The massive investment is funded from one source; the organizations did not have to cobble together 15-20 different small or mid-sized grants in order to make this happen.  I believe this not only saves organizational energy from searching for, courting, and applying for separate funding, it also saves the proposed transformation from too many cooks in the kitchen.
  3. The choice of how best to achieve transformational change was left to the organizations, with technical assistance and professional consultation from NFF.  Allowing the organizations to chart their own future and adjust their course as the funding period proceeded means the folks on the ground, witnessing the actual impact of the changes are the ones steering the ship.  Plus, they are fully invested in their destination.
  4. The time period is long enough to allow the organizations to build up to sustainability, with the acknowledgement that there probably would be deficits as they made changes and then grew into their new structure.  I’ve seen a few grantors provide funding for new or expanded positions at arts organizations.  However, these are often at most two-year programs.  Expecting a small or mid-sized arts organization to go from not having money for a $50k/year Development Director to having enough surplus to not only cover that salary but also all the other incremental costs that come along with that investment (not to mention all the other incremental increases in costs we all face every year) in only two years can be too much for many organizations to handle.  If you want true, sustainable change, you have to allow time to grow into your new skin.
  5. It encourages strategic risk at the exact time we as arts organizations are fighting the urge to buckle down and hide from the financial uncertainty.  It is taking advantage of what Jerry Yoshitomi called “an unfreezing moment.”  These chances have to be seized before everything finds its new baseline.

Back in late 2008 / early 2009 a lot of us in nonprofit theatre were speculating that those who made it through this recession were going to come out the other side stronger, leaner, and more resilient.  I think that is proving to be true.  However, just as Michael Kaiser suggested in The Art of the Turnaround that those who manage through turnarounds must be careful to not keep too tight a fist when stability is reclaimed, we must now begin to look at how we will not just survive but explode the status quo with revolutionary models of our own.  Who knows, maybe this is just the beginning of a tide of change capital to help us all transform into what we are next meant to be.

 
 

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Misguided Means to Unintended Ends: Portland’s arts diversification plan

This article came across my Twitter stream this afternoon and immediately piqued my interest.  On the surface, a city like Portland linking funding for arts organizations to racial diversification of their boards, staff, contractors, and eventually audience sounds like an innovative and progressive idea.  Diversification of voices around the table is a good thing and we should all invite a variety of voices to the conversation.  However, linking vital public funding to blanket benchmarks can’t be healthy.  While I understand this policy is still in its infancy and “years from completion,” the information covered in the article is plenty to make me wary.

Here are some of my concerns:

  • Arts organizations, their missions and their audiences, are as diverse as the city itself.  Suggesting that every organization should be striving for the same benchmarks goes against the very reason they are distinct organizations in the first place.
  • What about organizations that are not producing work that speaks to a large and diverse audience?  We, as an industry, have decried funders dictating programming for decades.  Is it OK here because diversity for diversity’s sake is seen as a good end result?  There should be room in a vibrant arts ecosystem for niche companies and each of those will serve a different audience.  You can’t force an audience to be interested in a type of programming and you shouldn’t force an organization serving a distinct audience to turn from its mission in order to secure public funds.
  • Requiring a certain level of spending (30% of their budget is the “ideal” mentioned in the article) on communities of color is misguided.  How would this play out?
    • Do the Mayor and City Commissioners understand that each dollar an arts organization spends is already stretched to the limit and that few companies can simply divert funds in this way?
    • Does this mean a forced quota for staff, artists, and contractors?  What happened to allowing companies to hire the best person for the job, regardless of ethnicity?
    • Throwing marketing money at underserved communities may be the antithesis of actual engagement of these communities
  • Why just enforce ethnic diversity?  I’m willing to bet that there isn’t a direct correlation between the gender split of the staff and boards of Portland’s arts organizations and the population of the city as a whole.  What about gay voices at the table?  The disabled community?  Religious beliefs?  Socio-economic status?  Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes and each organization daily contends with reaching out to those audiences who could be interested in their work.

Instead of making arts organizations jump through ever more hoops to reach benchmarks unrelated to their mission, how about some of these ideas:

  • Rewarding organizations for diving deep into the communities to which a company’s programming speaks?
  • Judge an organization on their dedication to fulfilling their mission and the steps they take to engage and broaden their audience in ways that make sense for them?
  • Celebrate diversity in all its forms within the arts community

I applaud the Portland city leadership for looking for ways to encourage diversity.  I just fear they are heading down a path that will be detrimental for all involved.  As always, I’d love to know what you think.  Please continue this conversation in the comments below.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Advocacy, theatre

 

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