In today's environment, it is easy for many arts managers and board members to explain away problems with the words, "Every organization is suffering in this economy." In fact, a substantial number of organizations are radically reducing the scope of their work in reaction to the current economic downturn as if it will last forever. There is a widely held belief that we have turned some corner and the arts world will never be the same again. I have encountered this pessimistic view of the world so often that on odd occasions, even I begin to believe it.
And then one visits Pregones Theater in the South Bronx, New York City.
Founded in 1979, Pregones Theater has a mission to create and perform original musical theater and plays rooted in Latino culture and to present other artists with a similar commitment to this work. I have known its artistic director, Rosalba Rolon, for over a decade. She and members of her staff have participated in numerous arts management programs run by the DeVos Institute for Arts Management at the Kennedy Center. While I have always been impressed with her intelligence, passion and willingness to try something new, it was not until I visited the company's new theater (opened in 2005) that I recognized the full breadth of her accomplishments. The new theater is simple but elegant and functional, filled with artwork that brightens and enlivens the facility. There is even a new Steinway concert grand piano on the stage!
In a decade marked by economic and political turmoil, and with so many others in the arts losing their optimism, Rosalba and her team have built a beautiful theater and exhibition space, links to numerous other important arts organizations serving the Latino community, and a remarkable relationship to the people in her community. When the theater needed new music stands for musicians, Rosalba asked her audience for the funds needed and the new stands were purchased.
But the Pregones staff and board are not resting on these accomplishments. They have vivid plans for the coming decade that will see the organization expand in numerous ways while remaining loyal to their community and their mission. Staff members speak with such knowledge and passion for their plans that it is impossible to imagine them not coming true.
It is important to remember that all of this is taking place in the South Bronx within the shadow of Yankee Stadium, not an area blessed with large donors and substantial wealth.
If Pregones Theater can emerge from the current recession far larger and stronger than they entered it, then why can't every arts organization in America?
If Rosalba Rolon can build and motivate a board, create a donor base, build a facility, engage her community and continue to plan for the future, then so can many other arts leaders across the nation.
My trip to Pregones left me rejuvenated and determined and slightly embarrassed that others were getting me down.