Jack, be nimble

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” — Charles Darwin

We talked last time about evolution, and the need for arts organizations to be able to respond to the changes that are taking place in the economy, with our audiences and with our patrons.

Today, I’d like to talk a bit about a buzzword I’ve been hearing a lot lately: nimble.  Being nimble is the ability to respond to changes in the organization’s environment, and to be able to make changes to strategy and resources based on real-time situational needs.  For some, being nimble has surpassed growth as a primary business goal.  Which organization will survive – the biggest? The strongest? Or the one who most easily adapts?  Charles Darwin posited the answer to that question a century and a half ago.

I’m all about being nimble. In today’s economy, it seems to be a given.  We live in a time of such rapid change that many of our organizations and businesses are like Titanic facing the iceberg: not able to do anything but watch the boat crash.

Performance metrics for the arts over the past forty years have most definitely centered on growth.  Grantors asked about it on applications and often made it a condition of funding. Often, funders could come on board only for new programs and initiatives, leaving the organization stuck after a year or so with a program that needed to find different sources of income to survive.  Organizations (and researchers) touted growth statistics while making their case for the importance of the arts in our communities.  For many of us, growth was a measure of getting past the scrappy stage, the time when we had to run on the fuel of volunteers, limited supplies and equipment, and underpaid artists.  Most of us were thrilled when we got to the point in the 90s and 00s when even small communities had union orchestras and fully-staffed art museums.


This is no secret: our big traditional institutions are struggling.  The latest potential casualty is the San Jose Ballet, who announced yesterday that they need a half million dollars to keep the doors open.  I have to think that some of this struggle has less to do with the fact that audience participation patterns are changing and at least something to do with the fact that these institutions have grown to the point where continued existence is unmanageable.  When you have a fundraising goal of eight, ten or fifteen million dollars a year, after a while the fundraising tail starts to wag the artistic dog.

I had a wonderful talk this week with Stephen Butler, director of CNY (Central New York) Arts.  His assessment was that our funding system has turned into a beast that may be our fatal flaw.  Much of the capital supporting the arts flows to the large institutions – partly because they have “proven” themselves with growth and longevity, which leaves little capital for entrepreneurial organizations.  The big institutions can’t move, and the little ones can’t afford to.

I also talked this week with Catherine Underhill, executive director of Symphoria, a reincarnation of the former Syracuse Symphony which folded in 2010.  Symphoria is operating under a $1.7 million budget, much less than the former symphony’s $7 million budget, and musicians are making about 25% what they were making before.  They’re experimenting with a number of things, including operating under a co-op structure where musicians have 50% of the seats of the board and a bigger say in artistic decisions, and offering free admission to anyone under 18 (which, Catherine says, has led to dynamic participation by high school music programs and students).  Catherine says their goal is not to grow – but to find the right size that works for their community.

I don’t believe there needs to be a mentality that we need to save our institutions just as they are or else we are endangering the very future of the arts.  I have been critical of organizations claiming that they deserve the support of the community just because they exist, and that it is unthinkable to allow a cultural institution to die just because it is a cultural institution.  In my (admittedly limited) experience, I have seen several cultural organizations fold and then come back in a different incarnation after having the luxury of planning without assumptions.  Many organizations I have watched come back stronger for having done this – leaner perhaps, but most definitely not wedded to growth as the overriding organizational goal.

No cultural organization is too big to fail, but many are too big to be responsive in the economic and social world of the 21st century.  I hope that we can find some ways to allow organizations of all sizes to find their correct balance of growth and flexibility.

About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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