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Michael Kaiser

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Are Unions to Blame?

Posted: 06/06/11 09:25 AM ET

A recent article I read suggested that labor unions are a primary cause for today's financial problems in the arts. I could not disagree more.

It is absolutely true that when income falls precipitously, as it has for many arts organizations, costs must be realigned. And it is also true that unions, in protecting their workers, fight tooth and nail to maintain their members' standard of living and work environment. That is why there are unions in the first place.

But the key issue is: why has revenue fallen so far for so many arts organizations?

It is not the fault of union members that we are selling fewer tickets or raising less funds. We can blame a terrible economy, lack of arts education in our schools, substantially lower government grants at every level and new forms of entertainment that compete for the time and resources of our audiences for much of the reduction in resources available for arts organizations. A recent study, for example, found that contributions for the arts fell much farther during the recession than had previously been expected.

But this is not the entire story.

For while many arts organizations are cutting budgets and reducing their service to their communities in response to falling revenue, many others are doing very well, thank you.

They may have to work harder for the resources they require for growth but they are still growing. These are the organizations that are smart about building revenue. They produce important art, they market this art and their institutions aggressively, and they are especially good at making people feel welcome as members of their extended families.

I have been surprised (and dismayed) to see how many arts organizations handle their donors, manage their special events and treat their board members. One arts manager I met told me that her organization never communicates with its donors except for writing them once a year and asking for their annual contribution! I recently went to a board member event for one organization where the board members were left to fend for themselves as the staff members sat and drank and ate! Another arts executive told me on several occasions how he "hates his board members and wishes they would go away!"

And then they are surprised when their levels of contributions fall.

It is impossible to blame unions for the lack of revenue for arts organizations when so many are doing such a poor job of managing themselves.

In any event, cutting wages is not a long term strategy for success, nor does it ensure that the mission of an organization will be pursued with vigor. (And you can only cut for so long before there is nothing left to cut.) The only way to assure success for any not for profit is to build a sustained and growing revenue producing capability.