Three arts organizations in Dayton, Ohio, recently made history by merging together. The Dayton Ballet, Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra and Dayton Opera are now going to be one organization named Dayton Performing Alliance.
It was refreshing to hear the announcement that this was not an effort to reduce staff. In fact, the combined entity will have one more staff person than the three separate organizations combined had before the merger.
This was honest and realistic; while so many arts mergers are contemplated as a way of reducing staffing, the truth is that most arts mergers do not result in significant staff reductions.
Each of the three art forms will maintain a separate artistic director, though the boards of the three organizations will be merged.
I have not spoken directly with any of the participants in this landmark 'deal' but I do have experience with multi-art form organizations and with mergers among arts organizations. I hope that in the course of negotiations, the group that developed the agreement considered the following:
- What happens if total fundraising does not equal the plans of the three groups? How will projects be prioritized? While, under the Dayton agreement, donors will the right to designate their gifts for one of the three performing entities, I imagine over time many donors will fund the conglomerate. The biggest problem faced by merged organizations is division of resources during the financially challenging years. This problem can be mitigated if an approach to resource allocation is discussed in detail before the merger.
- How will they allocate resources so that each art form produces major work annually? While the orchestra is the largest of the three performing entities, it will be essential for all three art forms to shine every season. Otherwise, there will be pressure to focus on the more successful art forms.
- How will they ensure that the art form that plans furthest ahead (typically opera) does not control the annual schedule and budget? When I ran the Royal Opera House, the ballet always felt like a poor relation since the opera season was always planned four or five years ahead.
- How will they develop marketing synergies? In many cities, there is not a large crossover between art forms, especially between ballet and opera. Perhaps this is not true in Dayton, but if it is, how does one create a rationalized programmatic marketing campaign?
- How will they work to create a truly unified board from the three boards that have been merged? Board members must be encouraged to support and represent the merged entity, not the single art form they governed before the merger. Otherwise there will be constant tension over resource allocation, marketing materials, fundraising strategy, etc.
I am optimistic that the Dayton plan has been clearly thought through and will result in a stronger set of artistic and educational offerings in the years to come. But other cities should not replicate this model without careful consideration of the issues raised above. Mergers are not as easy as they look.