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Ensuring an encore for arts nonprofits

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Geri Thomas

Geri Thomas

Geri Thomas

The news that cultural nonprofits are struggling to survive the recession is hardly news.

Faced with lower endowment income and decreased discretionary spending by ticket-buying audiences and visitors, coupled with smaller donations and cutbacks by government agencies, arts groups are on a financial battlefield.

But there are key steps arts organizations can take to prepare themselves to weather the recession.

Proactive arts managers should re-energize staff and expand funding sources, potential audiences and supporters in their communities.

Remember that recessions are cyclical. In the mid- to late 70s, many cities and municipalities were broke or on the brink of default.

That climate, however, encouraged new and experimental art forms, from grassroots theater to the inclusion of more women and people of color in museum exhibitions and gallery representation.

The recession of the mid-90s affected state arts councils, causing them to cut funding to many arts groups.

In response, arts groups sought out collaborations and multi-disciplinary programming to attract new audiences and funders.

But while each recession has its own characteristics, this one feels deeper and more profound.

Yet, according to Giving USA’s 2011 report, there has been a marked rise (5.7%) in giving to arts and culture organizations from 2009 to 2010.

Contrary to popular belief, now is not the time to follow the corporate sector by taking out the dreaded budget ax, hacking away at programs and dismissing staff.

Your employees are your most important asset. Collectively, they have valuable institutional memory and are the creative engine of the organization.

Tap into their experience from previous recessions and mobilize them on community outreach, programming and development efforts. Letting staff go should be the last, not the first, resort.

Audience is primary. Make new connections and enhance ongoing relationships. Continue to be relevant in your community; invite leaders of groups to events where they can network and socialize.

Include private and public schools, as well as senior centers in your outreach; your physical space and expertise are valuable resources because these groups seek alliances also.

Aim for sustainability, but not at the expense of mission-driven activities, creativity or innovation.

Revisit plans for exponential growth and be realistic. Organizations must focus on what they do best to service audiences and gain their support programmatically and financially, casting aside growth for its own sake.

Re-engage your board of directors. Beyond their fiduciary responsibilities, the board sets the vision that the executive director implements.

Convene a group strategy session (or two), and speak to each board member one-on-one. Individually, and together, have board members commit to reach out to their networks.

Directors are ambassadors to the community who can bring in external resources and promote the nonprofit outside the institution’s four walls.

Be transparent internally and outwardly. Assess the strengths and challenges of the organization and involve the board, staff, funders and other stakeholders in the conversation.

Tap your hidden resources. Re-connect with previous funders, former board members and past employees. Their insights and institutional memory, as well as their ability to advocate for your organization, offer latent support.

Continue to advocate for the arts.

Encourage city council members, state and congressional representatives, and other political officials to recognize that participation in and support of arts and culture aligns with the arts organizations’ role in education and as a force in the local economy at a basic level.

Studies have shown that exposure to the arts improves cognition and a range of life and academic skills. Arts training leads to a high state of motivation, sustained attention and memory improvement, among other skills.

Moreover, consumers of the arts use public transportation and park their cars in nearby garages. They eat and drink in area restaurants, coffee shops and bars before and after the performance and museum visit.

Employees of arts groups are local residents who shop at area merchants. Recruit these vendors and commercial neighbors as advocates for political support and public funding.

It’s easy to scale back and restructure; the harder work is to dynamically re-vitalize, confirm alignment with the audience and re-engage the board, community leaders and elected officials.

We in the arts sector excel at achieving the difficult and having a positive outcome for our community. Recession or economic growth aside, now is our moment to continue inspiring our audiences, communities and each other.


Geri Thomas is president and founder of Thomas & Associates, which offers staffing, consulting, and leadership, management, and professional-development services for museums and art businesses, with office in New York and Chicago.

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