A Short Note on Resuscitating the Arts

10,000 arts organizations will die this year!

That is the dire warning of a report by Bob Lynch of Americans for the Arts in a report from USA Today which was covered in depth on the great blog of Beth Kanter.  So is it true?  It appears so.  But only if you believe that arts organizations must be at the mercy of the economic crisis rather than rising to meet the challenge.

I began my career at the National Endowment for the Arts and remember how critical our grants were to organizations and individual artists, not only for the money they provided but also because of the government’s seal of approval. Grants were determined not by local arts agencies but by peer panel review. Every dollar was a reflection of what leading talents thought was important to support, whether it was the tried and true or the challenging and new, and other donors knew it. Questions on the organizational applications addressed audience size, underserved populations, overall budget and sources of support, all important to evaluating which organization provided the greatest value and where the grant might have the greatest impact.

To my recollection, however, we did not ask specific questions about individual financial support. I learned how important this characteristic of organizational independence and sustainability was after I left the Endowment and began consulting on major gifts.

I was surprised when I learned how many organizations felt uneasy about generating revenue outside ticket sales and institutional support. Most vivid in my mind is a conversation with a nationally recognized alternative presenter in New England who told me, “if I have $5,000 to spend, I’d rather spend it on writing a proposal to a foundation than identifying my wealthy supporters.” Then the stunning admission: “I really don’t want to talk with those people anyway.”

Now, I wouldn’t apply this one person’s aversion to “rich people” to all arts organizations. It would be safe to assume that the vast majority of organizational leaders are well aware of the immense and sincere contributions made by individual donors from the time of the Medicis to the millions given for creative writing at Wesleyan just weeks ago.

At the same time, I’m unconvinced that there is great comfort at smaller organizations with reaching out to affluent supporters individually and sharing power at the leadership level. And this, I believe, is precisely what could help ensure survival in times like these.  But we’ve got to change the mindset to do it.

Just this week, one of the fundraising listserves had a lively exchange on the subject of how to manage constituent data. While universities try to argue for individual records on each constituent, some organizations group them together in families, almost as if it is the household purchasing tickets, attending functions, etc. On one level, this was a technical discussion (“what will our software allow us to do?”). But on another level, this is symptomatic of the desire to direct market to a physical address rather than to actively engage in a real partnership with successful individuals outside the arts in order to build and sustain arts organizations.

I believe a major gifts orientation can be especially useful now because it is wealthy individuals who have best weathered the financial storm. And while most people might be generous of heart by nature, it is clear that organizations which have made a commitment to building a major gifts program, which includes staffing and resources, raise more money from individuals.

While Bob Lynch may be right about the danger arts organizations are in today, I do think those same organizations have at least a partial remedy at their disposal: A network of individual supporters waiting for someone to knock on their door and say, “how can we work together to save and advance this thing we both love so well?”