05/19/2014 08:27 am ET Updated Jul 19, 2014

Double Vision


Over the past 30 years I have written or evaluated more strategic plans than I can count. In every one, appropriately, there is a statement of mission and objectives, or a vision statement or both.

Yet the more I observe arts organization struggling to balance art and fiscal stability, the more I realize that the most successful arts managers have two distinct but related visions for their organizations: one picture of the work of the organization -- the artistic and educational programming that addresses the mission and sets the organization apart -- and a second for the financial structure that provides the resources needed to pay for the programming.

Both are critical. Without a clear picture of the art and other programs that will be mounted in the future, the organization cannot achieve its mission, cannot build an audience or donor base and, frankly, is of little value. Arts organizations, after all, exist to produce art.

But without a clear financial picture of where money will come from and how it will be spent, however, the organization will never be free to make art without always feeling the crushing pressure of cash flow shortfalls. This financial vision reflects expectations for a growing or changing donor base, projections for ticket sales and the development of new strands of earned income.

There are arts managers I observe who do a brilliant job of envisioning art -- of creating new projects of great merit and excitement -- without developing a comprehensive fiscal picture of the future. These managers typically start with a bang -- announcing great artistic projects and engaging the audience and the press. But, ultimately, they cannot pay for their dreams and the wonderful artistic plans cannot fully materialize.

These managers also eventually run afoul of those board members who come from a corporate background and are used to fiscal regimen. They tolerate the artistic innovations until there is no money to pay for them. Then they swoop in, 'restore order,' and often destroy the soul of the institution.

Other arts managers struggle to create exciting programming -- they stick with the tried and true -- but have a very clear picture of financial performance in the future. These managers often use the fiscal vision to justify being more conservative about programming.

Yet with only a fiscal vision, they invariably lose their institutional families, experience reductions in earned and contributed income and, in truth, cannot effectively pursue a mission of artistic excellence. Despite the fiscal discipline they impose, these arts managers end up with organizations as sick as those without a financial plan.

It is those arts managers who can effectively balance these two requirements -- who in fact recognize that the success on one side of the equation is essential for success on the other -- who are the most successful. They know that great art must come first but that a comprehensive financial vision must be developed in concert with a long-term artistic plan. They make the best art for the longest periods of time.