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Michael Kaiser

Michael Kaiser

Posted: October 4, 2010 08:28 AM

Thinning Out the Field

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I have heard from so many people over the past two years that this might be the time to "thin out the field" of arts organizations. The argument goes that there are more organizations than can be supported by the existing group of donors in a given community. If the weaker organizations either closed or merged with stronger organizations, competition for dollars would be reduced, and the entire field would be healthier.

I do not agree with this prescription for a number of reasons.

First, it assumes that there is some fixed level of donors and donations in any city or town. I do not believe this is true. I believe that there is an endless supply of donors if the art is exciting enough and the marketing is potent enough. It is true that in many cities, there is a group of donors who have been so loyal and generous to the arts that every arts group solicits these donors first. But an organization that fails to expand its donor base beyond these loyal few does so at its own peril. Donors die, move away, and change giving interests. And if a few donors are always the "go-to people" when money must be raised they are more likely to suffer from donor fatigue. Every arts community must work diligently to engage new donors.

It also assumes that existing donors will happily shift their allegiance from one (now defunct) organization to another. This has not always been my experience. With the exception of foundations, which are required by law to give out donations each year, donors do not have to keep giving. In fact, many donors are attracted to the specific mission of a given arts organization. If that organization closes its doors, its donors may stop giving to the arts entirely.

And finally this approach assumes that the strongest arts organizations, in terms of fiscal health, should survive. I am more interested in making artistically-strong arts organizations more stable than assuring an easier playing field for financially-strong organizations. I would rather spend time and resources training the board and staff leaders of challenged organizations that produce interesting work to find new resources than to see them evaporate so that larger organizations (whose art may not be very interesting after all) can have an easier time of it. I fear that the diverse voices that characterize the most potent arts ecologies would be silenced if only the "strong" organizations remained.

Why do people who suggest thinning out the field always come from larger, stronger organizations after all? I have yet to hear someone attached to a small, weak organization suggesting the thinning out strategy!

Maybe if boards, working with the staff leadership, spent more time planning strong fund-raising efforts rather than demanding that budgets be cut our arts organizations would be healthier.

Perhaps we need to stop thinking about ways to make it easier at the expense of others and start thinking about ways to make our work more interesting to a wider set of audience members and donors.

And maybe we need to remember that while a greater range of arts organizations might make for more competition, it also makes for a far more interesting arts environment.