Are arts organizations ignoring what could help them the most?

not listening

I had an interesting conversation the other night with colleagues in arts management from other cities.  All of them had decided not to serve any longer on boards of directors for local arts organizations.  They listed a litany of sins, ranging from ignorance of best practices, ineffective board meetings, reliance on volunteers who knew nothing about the arts industry, and seemingly no desire to innovate or improve infrastructure.

One person said this: “I assumed I was being asked onto the board because of my arts management knowledge, yet I am seldom asked to provide insight into my areas of specialty.  When I offer suggestions based not only on best practices but things that really should be done, like separating contributed from earned income on the Form 990 or keeping records of grant expenditures, most of the time I’m ignored, unless I volunteer to do it myself.”

This has been my experience too.  A few years ago, I had a conversation with a volunteer board member whose summer arts education program had underperformed.  The woman was a respected artist and the programming was first rate, but several sections had to be canceled for under enrollment.  She just didn’t understand…she had printed twice as many postcards as she had the year before.  I suggested that perhaps we do some research, try to find out why people weren’t attending.  Was the timing wrong?  Were there barriers?  Was the price point correct?  What would attract new audiences?  Her response was that she didn’t think they needed to research, they just needed to “market harder.”

At that point I didn’t feel as though I could point out that doing marketing research was an important part of marketing, and didn’t she want to “market better” instead of “marketing harder.”

I’ve also spoken to two different individuals in the past few weeks who were overwhelmed with the enormity of the management tasks that went along with their artistic plans.  Both were theatrical professionals who were in the process of mounting summer shows, and well along into the artistic process.  Both were frustrated because they had to take time away from rehearsals to get a poster designed, compile program information, schedule rooms, and other administrivia.  Both had essentially given up on finding sponsors and donors, it was just too complicated, so both had enormous pressure on ticket sales income. And yet, neither had prepared ahead of time by including an arts manager on the team.

I know that artists often have an artistic dream and the passion to make it happen, and go full steam ahead without thinking of mundane matters like IRS regulations and data bases.  It’s been that way since the beginning of time.  But heavens to betsy, why does it seem like it’s so endemic to ignore management best practices?  Why do we hear about so many organizations struggling and saying that “we need more funding” before they are even able (or willing) to put together effective boards, plan strategically and attend to the infrastructure that supports the art?

And more importantly, why am I training talented and enthusiastic arts managers when the very groups that could most use their help don’t seem willing to use them?  And why are arts managers asked to be on boards when those boards don’t want to use their expertise?

I’m thinking of initiating some formal research on this, but help me out.  What do you think is causing this disconnect?


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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