I sat in a meeting with a respected businessman the other day who was skeptical about the ability of a specific arts organization to turn around its financial health. "Everywhere you look," he said, "arts organizations are going bankrupt. They all are struggling now."
This was news to me.
Not every arts organization is struggling.
Ask the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Penumbra Theatre (of St. Paul, Minnesota), Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and numerous other thriving arts organizations around the United States. The Detroit Symphony just announced record fundraising results and the Kennedy Center has had 14 years in a row of an operating surplus. And there are so many other examples I could cite.
We hear so much about a few, high profile arts bankruptcies that the conventional wisdom has it that every arts organization is in trouble. This has repercussions for all of us who manage, or care about, arts organizations.
When the general belief -- of audience members, donors, board members and politicians -- is that "all arts organizations are struggling now" there is a built in skepticism about expansive planning, adventuresome work and new ventures. How can we condone big projects when the money doesn't exist to pay for them? Isn't this the time to think small, to pull in our horns a bit?
But the money does exist -- there are important artistic projects happening in Miami and Grand Rapids and Seattle and Santa Fe. Great artists are working with well-managed arts organizations in every corner of the nation.
And when the conventional wisdom suggests that "every arts organization is in trouble," there is also an implied excuse for not giving generously to a special campaign ("Why should I give a lot when the entire field is doomed to failure anyway.") and not even attempting a turnaround of a troubled organization ("It is going to fail anyway.")
Contributions, in fact, are largely dependent on the mood of the donor base. That is one key reason why strong artistic planning and aggressive institutional marketing are so important. When an organization seems to be growing and thriving, more people feel compelled to contribute. And success breeds success in the arts and in all not-for-profit sectors.
Conversely, when donors are pessimistic and skeptical, they are not as generous.
Unfortunately, at this time we are not just facing one or several arts organizations that are doing poorly, we are encountering a commonly held 'wisdom' that all arts organizations are in trouble.
And that belief is inhibiting new donors from supporting our field and even motivating some of our most loyal donors to back away.
So what to do?
We need to celebrate our success stories as much as we mourn those organizations in trouble.
While there is a natural inclination to pin blame on those associated with failures, we must also openly give praise to those who are doing it well.
There is, in fact, a great deal to celebrate in the arts world today.
And we would all benefit from doing so.