Virtually every arts institutions is concerned with money today--because of cuts in government funding, aging donors, reduced demand and new forms of entertainment that compete with traditional art forms. But the way arts institutions respond to these concerns about money affects the institution in profound ways.
There are some organizations that recognize that they must work harder to produce important art--to build allegiance among donors and to fight for an audience. These institutions must still cope with the challenges of today's environment, but they take an aggressive, offensive stance. No one is going to threaten these institutions without a fight.
There are other organizations, typically with strong, if reactionary, boards, that address these challenges by forcing their artistic leaders to abandon their hopes and dreams and follow a safe course; these artists are asked to produce accepted, accessible works that are clear audience favorites.
There is nothing wrong with accessible work; Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Swan Lake and Hamlet are works of genius that deserve repeated productions and reevaluation.
But the choice to produce these works should come from the heart and mind of the artistic leader who feels there is something new and important to reveal, not because they sell well.
The job of the board and the executive staff is to support the vision of the artistic leadership, not to rein it in. Inhibiting the dreams and vision of an artistic leader is deadly.
When artists stop dreaming and begin to plan to a budget, they are doomed. The greatest works of art emerged from an artist's vision, unaffected by concerns about budget. Beethoven did not scale back the forces he employed in his Ninth Symphony to meet a budget. Stephen Sondheim was not thinking about running costs when he wrote Sweeney Todd and Follies and Company. And Petipa did not create a work with fewer swans simply to meet budgetary requirements.
The great works of art emerge from a vision.
And it is these works of art that attract audiences and donors today as they did a century or more ago.
When we limit artists, we limit the organization's ability to create the works that change the field, that change the way the community views the organization and that present the greatest opportunity to attract broader audiences and donor support.
This does not mean that any cost is justifiable or that no limits should be placed on the desires of artists. We cannot spend more than we have, and the board has the right--and the obligation--to review and approve major projects, and their budgets, before they are pursued. Project budgets must be viewed in the context of the organization's entire budget, not evaluated solely on their own merits.
But the reins must be loose. Boards do not plan or make art. If they do not trust the vision of the artistic leader, they are free to look for a new one. But the only effective artistic leaders are the ones who are empowered to pursue their visions.