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New Season Anxiety

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The new arts season begins this month for many arts organizations. For me the start of a season holds a mixture of excitement and dread, not unlike the feeling of a roller coaster hitting its zenith with a precipitous drop to come.

I am terribly excited by the slate of projects we have spent years planning. I know some of them will be remarkable and potent, fulfilling my fondest wishes. I cannot tell you at this point which projects will be successful, but I am confident that the successes will justify the failures.

I am scared to death, however, that we will not have the resources to pay for these projects. Will we sell the number of tickets we expect? Will our fundraising efforts bear enough fruit?

I don't think I am unique in this mix of feelings. My guess is that thousands of other arts managers are also excited and scared this month.

It is interesting to compare this set of feelings to those of someone from the for-profit sector, the members of our boards for example. As a new fiscal year dawns for a corporation, I am sure senior executives have the same concerns we do about success. Will sales meet expectations? Will costs be controlled? Will new products succeed or fail?

But the reward structure is so different in the for-profit and the not-for-profit sectors. If we are successful in the arts, we are proud of the work we have created and relieved that we generated the resources to pay ourselves, our artists and staff members. We are satisfied (thrilled?) with balanced budgets that pay this year's expenses but provide no resources for the future.

If a corporate executive is successful, huge personal financial gain is earned, the corporation builds a cushion against future failure and the ability to raise capital increases.

But arts executives never feel this new season anxiety let up. Those of us who have been in this field for decades are just as threatened this year as we were 10 years ago. Our organizations don't build large cushions since we don't earn large surpluses and we don't earn huge bonuses even if the work we produce is wonderful and our budgets are balanced.

No wonder our board members do not appreciate our elevated stress levels at the start of a season. I have been told more times than I can count, "Why are you scared? After all, you have been so successful for years."

And no wonder so many great arts executives leave the field prematurely.

It is simply too scary. And at some point the accumulation of fear outweighs the excitement about the next production.

The only antidote I have found is to plan very well and to raise money for large projects years in advance. At least feeling prepared and having some money raised in advance reduces the stress I feel at the inception of a new season. But I would be lying if I suggested I am not having sleepless nights this month.