The Big Project

04/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In these difficult economic times, many arts organizations are working hard to develop programs that do not require many resources. Board members are pressing for small operas, small plays, and small ballets. Many executive directors, understandably concerned about balancing the books at a time when contributed income is still in jeopardy, are concurring.

Unfortunately, these smaller projects, while good for the annual budget, rarely do anything for the image of the organization or its long-term financial health. They rarely excite audience members, donors, board members or the press.

Why does this matter? Because the programming of an organization, and the excitement it generates, is central to the fundraising capacity of the organization. Fundraising is not about board members forcing their friends to contribute; this brute force form of fundraising is rarely sustainable.

The most consistent, faithful donors are those who are excited and surprised by the work of an arts organization. And when the organization is regularly producing large scale projects that attract a great deal of public and press attention, more and more of these donors are likely to become affiliated. Artistic ventures that change the way a community views an organization, therefore, are a strategic, mission-driven way to build financial health.

When I arrived at the Kennedy Center in 2001, during the last period of economic instability, we announced the largest project in our history, a landmark celebration of the works of Stephen Sondheim.

We did this project because we had a point of view about the work. We believed there were many myths about this work that were simply not true. There should always be a curatorial reason for doing any project. Simply 'filling a slot' is not good enough.

But we also did this project because I knew that we needed to excite our constituents. We had not produced our own theater at the Kennedy Center for over a decade. We needed to do something to make the press and the public sit up and take notice.

The Sondheim Celebration generated an astonishing amount of press and public interest in the Kennedy Center. It was the opening salvo in a series of projects that were large in scope and true game-changers. Projects focusing on the works of Tennessee Williams, the arts of China, and the plays of August Wilson were other mega-projects we mounted over the past nine years.

These projects are expensive. They cannot be developed in a few months; one must plan years in advance to engage the right artists and to attract the necessary resources. But when they do come together, the impact is spectacular and long-lasting. Eight years after the Sondheim celebration, it is still written about and remembered by our growing donor base.

At this time of tightened budgets, arts organizations must continue to develop these mega-projects, perhaps for implementation three or four years from now when there is more funding available. Just talking about projects in advance can generate excitement and have a positive impact. Those who think big at this time when so many others are thinking small will recover more quickly when the economy turns around.