I have recently been talking with a large number of performers who work with a range of dance, music and theater organizations in an effort to learn what they care about most and are concerned about most in the current arts climate.
The most often cited desire is for some level of continuity within their organizations. They want to know that they can depend on the organization to produce as much work as has been planned and announced. They want to know that they will not be subject to sudden cuts in the number of productions, the nature of the productions, the ambitiousness of the work. In other words, they want to know that the pursuit of the mission of the organization is not going to take a sudden hit for financial reasons. They want to do their work in a safe environment where they can take artistic risk and invest in a performance without fear that it will be cancelled before it reaches the stage.
This is fascinating to me because the responses from artists are virtually identical to the responses from board members and funders and audience members: deliver what is promised and avoid the fiscal peaks and valleys that force major course corrections, often without warning.
This begs the question: If so many of the constituents of arts organizations want exactly the same thing, why is it delivered so rarely? Why are so many organizations cutting seasons? Why are contract negotiations so fraught at the Metropolitan Opera, the Atlanta Symphony and across the nation? Why is a highly ambitious promised new production so often replaced by a tamer existing work?
I believe the answer is that arts institutions by and large do a very poor job of strategic planning.
The vast majority of the plans I read do not even mention the environment in which the organization operates and how it will be different in the coming years.
The context in which arts institutions operate is changing very quickly. Foundations are altering their giving priorities, alternative forms of entertainment are emerging every year, the demographics of our communities are evolving, marketing techniques have changed remarkably, and on and on.
These changes must affect our future plans. Otherwise, we are developing a plan that is appropriate for 2005 and not 2015. When we do not plan for the environment in which we will operate in the future, our plans cannot make much sense. We are likely to be surprised and, typically, disappointed that the plan we are implementing simply did not work: We will not have the fundraising success we need nor the audience we anticipated, and we will have to make dramatic, and often sudden, changes to what we had planned to accomplish.
I am convinced that if arts organizations did far more thorough and forward-looking strategic plans, ones that really anticipated the world in which the organization was going to operate, we could provide our artists and donors and board members and audiences the continuity they desire.