04/21/2014 08:05 am ET Updated Jun 21, 2014

International Touring

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I have to admit it: in my 30 year arts management career I have been ambivalent about the value of international touring. While many of my peers disagree strenuously with me, for every benefit of touring I can list a countervailing cost.

It is clear that when an ensemble tours the artists draw closer together, benefit from having new audiences view the work and new critics assess the quality, and come back home refreshed and excited. I also know that bringing donors to enjoy the artists they support in another setting and watching audiences cheer for them can make them more engaged and more generous. I have seen Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Japan, American Ballet Theatre in London, the Royal Ballet in Beijing and the National Symphony Orchestra in Oman. In every case the artists, the management and the donors were enlivened by the experience.

My ambivalence stems from the cost of touring -- in dollars and in hours. Too many arts organizations spend more on touring than they receive in fees. They either must accept the loss or search for sponsorship. And in many cases, this effort requires a huge amount of scarce time and cannibalizes donations that might have gone to other purposes. Arts leaders justify the tour by citing the benefits mentioned above and typically add: touring is good for the image of the organization.

That may be true but is it the best way to create image? How many of our family members really know or care about the tours we take? If we took the time and money devoted to organizing a tour and spent it on local activities, would we do more for our image? If we mounted an astonishing new production, created a major outreach project and lowered our ticket prices, would we do more to create long-term support for our institution?

For large, well-funded institutions that have the luxury of expanding donor bases that permit them to tour and to create excitement at home, it is undeniable that touring abroad is a benefit.

But for smaller organizations -- those that do not have large, engaged families of donors and audience members, those without staffs large enough to add the burden of a tour without sacrificing another project, those that must make extremely difficult choices between a debut tour to Prague and a new production at home -- touring must be evaluated with a truly skeptical eye.

And yet, having worked in South Africa during the mid-1990s I can attest to the impact of the cultural boycott on the art and artists of that country. The development of contemporary dance there, for example, was stunted without exchange between dancers and choreographers from other countries. Once Apartheid ended and artists were allowed to travel to South Africa once again, the cultural sector blossomed. Perhaps the most important reason for international exchange is not the impact on any one arts institution but on the society as a whole. Perhaps this is cost that must be borne by an institution to ensure a healthy international arts ecology.