Is It Quantity or Quality That Counts in the Arts?

05/09/2011 08:29 am ET | Updated Jul 09, 2011

I read a recent report that bemoaned the fact that many major arts organizations (in this case in New York City) were reducing their levels of programming. The arts institutions that were included in this survey were all music groups and each are doing less programming now than five years ago.

The report made me think a great deal about the importance of quantity of art versus quality of art.

I am famous (amongst an admittedly very small number of people) for exhorting arts organizations to use reductions in their programming as a last resort when things get tough. I believe that arts organizations that do less programming to balance their budgets will seem less vigorous and exciting to their constituents. When they lose the interest of their audience members, donors, etc. (their "family members"), both earned and contributed income, will fall.

Arts organizations that think they can balance their budgets by doing less put themselves on a slippery slope that can end up with low levels of service to the community, a very sick balance sheet and demoralized staff, board and artists.

Conversely, those arts organizations that continue to produce important and engaging work will see their families, and their revenues, grow. While it might seem risky to maintain the level of work during an economic downturn, I have yet to see an organization that is sick because it does too much excellent work.

On reflection, however, I think I need to refine my argument. Does the fact that many organizations are now doing 10-20% less each year matter to anyone? Do audience members and donors really count the number of performances or productions or the attendance at educational events? As subscription numbers have fallen for most arts organizations, hasn't the number of people going to every production of one organization fallen as well?

I think an arts organization that does fewer productions, but makes each of them incredibly interesting, engaging and of high quality, is better placed than one that does lots of under-funded, uninteresting weak projects each year.

Quality does trump quantity in every way, including in energizing the family. If an organization becomes known for creating a few dazzling projects a year, they still command the attention of both audiences and donors. And the press is likely to take each of these projects more seriously than if the organization produces a long series of undistinguished work. Those organizations that do many poor quality, hackneyed and uninteresting projects will not receive kudos simply for maintaining a quantity of programming.

I don't think it is tragic, therefore, if arts organizations are doing a few less projects a year, as long as the projects are dynamic and engaging. My concern is that arts organizations that cut programming to balance budgets may not be working harder to make every remaining production of great importance. I have seen that many organizations doing less work today are doing the same quality of work they did before they made cuts, just less of it.

Less work, and less distinguished work, is not the recipe for success.