09/15/2014 09:04 am ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

In Search of Balance

A few weeks ago, a seasoned arts professional called me "the patron saint of artistic directors." He did not mean it as a compliment. He suggested that my focus on creating important, exciting art had empowered artistic directors to spend what they wanted regardless of the capabilities of their organizations to pay for it. I had made life difficult for executive directors, he implied, when their artistic counterparts would say, "But Michael Kaiser says we should mount large artistic projects."

It is true that I believe the most important requirement for financial stability is creating exciting programming on a consistent basis. Those institutions that produce uninteresting work year after year have a far harder time building and maintaining the audiences and the donor bases they need to survive. Arts institutions that make exciting art consistently are best positioned to survive and thrive in a difficult arts climate.

But this programming ambition must be balanced by the organization's ability to pay for it. A strong arts manager knows how to encourage artistic leadership to be daring while also providing limits on spending. The goal of achieving this balance must become part of the culture of the institution; administrators must appreciate that art is the mission and that good art drives revenue, and artists must respect the need for fiscal stability.

Creating this culture is best achieved by a strong focus on planning: It is far easier to develop a realistic budget when a project is carefully thought-through from the beginning. When a project is conceived years in advance, all departments in the organization have the time required to find the resources needed and to create a project budget that separates true spending requirements from "nice to have" luxuries. And a carefully designed annual program can balance the number of ambitious, risky, expensive projects with those that are far less risky and likely to generate the extra resources needed to underwrite the bigger projects.

Unfortunately, for too many arts institutions today, this balance is out of whack. Either the organization is spending more on art than it can afford (and bold, exciting programming need not be expensive) or the fear of financial problems so retards the artistic leadership's ability to program interesting work that donors and audience members drift away from the institution. While the man who suggested I over- empowered artists would strongly disagree, I fear that we are suffering far more from this second form of imbalance.

And since many of our problems today stem from a surfeit of alternative forms of entertainment that are inexpensive, accessible and convenient, we have a greater need than ever to compete aggressively by making interesting work. This is how we truly engage our communities.

Truth be told, I would rather be considered the patron saint of artistic directors than the patron saint of executive directors. Our missions are about creating exciting art, not balanced budgets. But I do not consider my focus on exciting programming as a license to spend more than one can realistically earn.