11/13/2009 10:24 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

To Build Or Not To Build?

I was fortunate to be invited to attend a symposium offered by the Young Arab Theatre Fund in Alexandria, Egypt.

This group facilitates discussions amongst Arab artists and arts managers. This biannual symposium presents one of the few networking opportunities for Arab arts leaders.

I was asked to present a half day workshop on arts management issues.

I discussed the model for artistic and financial success that I suggest to all arts organizations, regardless of location: strong artistic planning leading to aggressive marketing leading to focused fundraising leading to more resources, leading to better art, and on and on.

As usual, when I teach in any country where the arts funding infrastructure is either nascent or changing (e.g. Pakistan, Eastern Europe, South America) there was particular concern about the ability to plan art years in advance.

The political and economic challenges of the region makes planning three, four or even five years in advance seem downright silly. Yet I still believe an arts organization in Damascus, Cairo or Ramallah is more likely to achieve its goals if it plans years in advance, recognizing that plans can change.

As always, there were a few (young) participants who 'got it.' They were not yet jaded or beaten down by the challenges of their environment.

But one topic I discussed became truly controversial: the 'right' time for an arts organization to commit to its own facility. I have always believed that an arts organization that tries to build or renovate a facility before it is ready ends up diverting its focus from its mission (producing great art and education) to building the facility. This can lead to a reduction in annual fundraising, less interesting or smaller programs and a loss of audience and community support.

The Alvin Ailey organization provides a great example of how to do it right. Even though the organization was stabilized in 1993, it took another decade before it embarked on its building campaign. By that time, it was ready to switch some of its focus to this effort because its annual efforts were so mature and strong.

My audience in Alexandria did not agree with me. One very smart and sophisticated manager from Lebanon took particular exception with my remarks. She believed that having a facility made a statement about the importance and permanence of the arts. She believed that without a facility an arts organization would appear marginal. She believed that in her country, with a highly unstable political situation, that it was crucial that the arts build a physical infrastructure.

Her arguments are strong and compelling. But I can't help worry that if arts organizations, in Lebanon, Buenos Aires or Dubuque, build facilities (or sign long-term leases and renovate spaces) before they have the fiscal wherewithal to maintain the quality of their programming, they may not be able to sustain themselves and grow in a consistent manner.