Guest column – Arts need to change with times

By Harriet Sanford

It’s time for cultural organizations to accept the fact that life is different. Endowments are hemorrhaging, staffs are shrinking and public funding is dwindling or even disappearing in many states.

Gone are the days of flashy corporate sponsorships, million-dollar benefactors, soaring endowments, instant and relative easy-to-secure financial support, limitless funding sources, individuals with plenty of disposable income, and countless bold, creative, newly wealthy individuals.

The uncertainty gives us a tremendous opportunity to focus on the basics and really think about our core functions, what it is each one of us does best. In what ways can we really impact our communities while advancing our body of work? What will it take to allow us to achieve excellence and be relevant or not, but still be financially stable?

A truly successful cultural organization is not about overnight success or unlimited funds or even unsurpassed creativity. It’s about defining a clear mission and vision, crafting an effective organizational structure, building a strong donor and audience base, and doing it day after day, year after year.

We’ve got to have a deep understanding of our audiences, a focused marketing strategy, and a talented team that can articulate what we do and why people should want to come and be a part of it – as a donor, an audience member or employee – and then produce the work that matches the rhetoric.

It takes more than an expensive marketing brochure, a discount offer or a cocktail party to build the kinds of relationships — with an individual, a local company, a foundation or even an elected official — that will weather the economic ups and downs that we inevitably will face.

We have to be creative in developing strategies to connect, on a person-to-person level, with our donor base and ensure that donors understand how each individual contribution makes an impact in our organizations and their lives.

This takes time. A performing arts group might need three to five years or more to transform an individual from unknown to audience member to season-ticketholder to volunteer or in-kind supporter to, ultimately, top-tier donor.

Today’s cultural organizations also must be willing to make a long-term commitment to reach out to new and diverse audiences.

Going back to the same individuals, corporations or foundations over and over with outstretched hands stunts our growth and shortens our organizations’ life spans.

These lessons in real time also apply to recruiting and retaining staff, rolling out new programs and services, managing endowment investments and deferred-giving strategies.

We have to be flexible, responsible, strategic and realistic if we are going to succeed.

It’s true that “times are a-changin’,” but for cultural organizations and leaders willing do their homework and due diligence, invest in smart, cost-effective marketing and audience-development strategies, and work hard at cultivating meaningful, lasting relationships with a diverse donor base, the show can go on.

Harriet Sanford is president and CEO of the Arts & Science Council in Charlotte, N.C.

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