Rembrandt in recession? The fate of the arts

If all the world's a stage, then nonprofit arts organizations appear poised for a premature curtain call.

With the recession painting broad red strokes over many patrons' disposable incomes, donor-, sponsor- and audience-supported arts programs around the country are increasingly fearful they won't make their '09 budgets. Worse, tens of thousands of arts organizations have already bit the dust -- a dire harbinger of others' fate as the recession deepens.

So what can a nonprofit arts org do? More than you might think, according to bloggers Katya Andrieson, Allison Fine, Beth Kanter, Brian Reich, and many more. Here's a sampling of the takeaways from their ongoing discussions (links at the bottom), with my analysis thrown in:

* Accept the fact that arts business models must change. Perhaps the answer lies in more performance broadcasting to keep overhead low and ticket sales affordable. Or maybe it's redistricting, so to speak, with smaller troupes fanning out over wider areas. Or having all-volunteer cast and crews. Or maybe it's a return to campfires and cave drawings for a year. The point is, arts don't necessarily need all the structures they have now -- which strikes me as a terrific chance to ...

* Have arts and audience alike contribute to the solution. After all, aren't we talking about one of the most creative sectors in the world? What a powerhouse group -- writers, thinkers, visionaries -- and all are trained to think outside the box. What's more, they have audiences who do the same, and who can also contribute a dose of common sense (as in, "I can't afford your ticket anymore. But if you did this, I could swing it." ). So, since no one solution has risen to the top yet, it's time to commit these group's collective brainpower to finding it.

* Prepare for greater competition. Brian Reich raises the excellent point that many arts groups are providing essentially the same service -- in which case, "shrinking the marketplace" will increase value (and thus, I'd think, make higher ticket prices more palatable). Yes, this still means loss of jobs, shuttering local hubs, and other emotionally tough times. But it's nothing that all other major job sectors aren't going through too, and it might be just the lancing this particular group needs to keep it on its pointe shoes.

* Keep social capital in the black. Arts orgs have long been our torchbearers for culture, and I don't think a recession exempts them from their unique responsibility to keep our creative flames lit. But how to do that? By making their content available and accessible, even if it presents a financial loss in the short term. Because in doing so, they'll satisfy past audiences, cultivate new ones, and position themselves for a profitable renaissance once the economy is on the upswing again.

As both performer and patron, I know what it feels like when an audience's applause thrills you to the core, and when artists send awe-struck shivers down your spine. We can't let such visceral responses go extinct, especially at a time when we need the release and rejuvenation they provide.

So I ask all art organizations -- from Hexagon Theater in DC to Avenue of the Arts in Philly -- transfer your passion for reinvention on the boards to reinvention backstage. Together, we can keep those standing ovations going for years to come.


Blog posts cited:

Allison Fine, A. Fine Blog: Greatest Loss of 2009: Social Capital

Katya Andresen, Nonprofit Marketing Blog: Why are arts orgs and newspapers folding faster than you can say A-I-G?

Beth Kanter, How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media: The Crumbling of Nonprofit Arts Organizations: What models will rise from the ashes?

Miriam Kagan, Generation Y Give: The Economy and Opera: a tragic end or new beginning?

Jocelyn Harmon, Marketing for Nonprofits: Social Media 101 for Arts

Photo by Zamario