Last week I spent three days in New York City in meetings with the leaders of several arts organizations.
Three of these organizations -- The New York City Opera, Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance -- are emerging from periods of great challenge with talented and energizing new leadership. It is gratifying to observe how leaders with vision, ideas and grit can create change in troubled organizations. But it is not surprising. The line between sickness and health in the arts is a slim one. Sick organizations can get healthy relatively quickly because our debts are limited by the small amounts of money people will lend us. (Healthy organizations can get sick rather quickly, because no arts organization has a large enough cushion; arts organizations always grow to the point that they are uncomfortable financially.)
The three other organizations I visited are less well known, if no less important.
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe is a venerable institution that presents groundbreaking works of literature, music, theater, performance art, poetry, and visual arts. Nuyorican occupies a unique space in the New York arts ecology. Its young, talented director, Daniel Gallant, is as smart and focused an arts manager as I have met. He is working simultaneously to maintain the quality of the work presented while modernizing the way the Cafe operates.
The Lark Play Development Center is a treasure. This organization truly embraces its mission: to facilitate the play creation process for playwrights. Lark allows playwrights to explore their works, to hear them read, and to experiment. It creates an environment in which creative people can share ideas, argue and struggle to make art. Hundreds of theater professionals can attest to the impact of this group's work. This is not a flashy organization; one will never read about a gala on the society pages. But its special mission is palpable the minute one walks into its unpretentious space.
Walking into Publicolor is a radically different experience. Publicolor is a unique arts organization that engages at-risk students in their education to prepare them for college and/or careers through a continuum of creative programs that starts with painting their schools. The Publicolor offices are splashed with color; the remarkable staff and board take evident pride in the accomplishments of 'their' students.
At a time when every American arts group is struggling to make ends meet and when the missions of so many arts organizations are being sacrificed, it was a pleasure to spend time with these six arts organizations, each of which is led by people who understand their mission, set clear priorities, implement well and work diligently to find the resources needed.
I would bet my money on all of them.