Prepare for Feast in Famine

As much as I talk about what a bad turn things have taken of late, I do want to advocate cautious optimism unless you are in immediate danger of closing your doors. This may be a period of retrenchment and delaying activities, but it probably is not good to abandon long term plans entirely.

For one thing, your supporters may be more optimistic and energetic than you give them credit for. As you may remember, I am providing feedback on the design and construction of a performing arts center in Bellevue, WA. Within weeks of our group site visit, everything really went to hell on Wall Street with Lehman Brothers and many banks failing in the space of a week or two. I was praying that the finances of those who supported the performing arts center construction weren’t too entangled in these troubles. My fear was that the next email we got from the arts center administration was that they decided to scale back given the financial woes.

I was quite pleased when the next email brought news that everyone was excited by suggestions that came out of the site visit and that the plans were getting a little more ambitious. Around the same time, the local Indian community, undeterred by the emerging economic problems announced their intent to raise $1 million and were already $400,000 along. Last month, another support group held a benefit that raised $450,000. Given that the same event in 2007 raised $320,000, staying ambitious and optimistic in a faltering economy seems to have yielded some results.

Now I don’t expect everyone will realize a $130,000 gain by thinking positive. I am sure a lot of ground work was required over the intervening year to realize that sort of success. It’s the ground work, relationship building and planning that you can’t allow to falter if you decide to put activities on hold. In my theatre we are planning for a renovation. We know the renovation is going to be further off than it was last year but we are still moving ahead assessing the work that needs to be done. When things turn around and money becomes available, we want to be ready with a plan. Not having a plan at the time might mean getting passed over for another budget cycle or two.

Even if you aren’t building something physical, you can use the time to meet key decision makers to gauge what their agendas are so you can make effective proposals when they are more open to receiving them. It is also the time to research and learn new theories related to your long term plans. True, arts leaders have little time to engage in research as it is. The necessity of putting action on hold allows you to research periodically over a longer interval than trying to cram it into a short gap before implementation. Or even worse, neglecting to be up on current practices and theories while executing a program.

Certainly tough times bring their own problems which displace our ability to engage in any of these practices. Yet, we do have the ability to be constructive even as we may choose to defer construction.

NB-Since this entry first appeared, I have corrected my math 😛

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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