Tough Times Bring Not So Strange Bedfellows

I have often written about what I felt was the very likely need for arts organizations to start partnering in some manner, be it booking artists or sharing the cost of bookkeeping. The approaching/continuing financial crisis seems bound to force some arts organizations into such arrangements if they want to continue operating. In the Chronicle of Philanthropy, there is a piece about the distress the Charleston Symphony Orchestra has been going through as a result of their past administrative decisions.

The one thing that grabbed my attention was a quote from the Coastal Community Foundation following the mention of Charleston Stage and Charleston Ballet Theatre having similar problems.

“For the longest time, each of the organizations thought they were alone in having financial difficulties,” says George C. Stevens, the foundation’s chief executive. “When they began to realize that, no, their partner down the street is also having the same challenges, then they started saying, ‘Well, how can we work together?'”

The organizations’ first step: a $30,000 joint marketing campaign to promote their holiday performances. The city of Charleston covered the cost of the campaign.

The community foundation created a Web site to complement the advertising, and media organizations threw in donated ad time and space on top of what was purchased.

The effort seems to have paid off. The symphony sold more than 90,000 single tickets to its holiday performances, exceeding the goal it had set of 76,000.”

I am not going to claim partnering will solve problems by increasing attendance, etc. In fact, there is no mention about how well the ballet and theatre did as a result of the effort. The entire story might not be wholly positive. Still, I applaud the Coastal Community Foundation for organizing and facilitating the marketing campaign.

I also won’t claim that I know the status of all my neighbors in the arts. However, I do work together with other arts organizations to put our seasons together. For all the areas in which I wish our partnership did better, I will say that I am aware of the troubles other arts organizations are having. Frankly, I would never have listed our frequent communications on various details as a benefit of membership but in light of these Charleston groups feeling they were alone in their troubles, I guess it does assist in placing one’s situation in a larger context.

About three years ago, Andrew Taylor had an entry on his blog suggesting arts organizations be open about things that went wrong with a program on grant reports. Though you might imagine other arts organizations in your community are just waiting in the wings like hungry wolves ready to drag you down at the first sign of weakness, the stakes probably aren’t really that high. Chances are you would find it beneficial to talk about some of the significant and not so significant challenges you face.

Also—it would probably help me personally if you all would be a little more open. When people email or ask me how things are going, I am fairly open about some of the challenges we face in a general sort of way. I talk about the annoying and sort of troublesome, potentially cause for concern, but not so dire stuff. I get the sense from people’s reactions that I sound like Marvin the Paranoid Android. Okay, well maybe I stray into cynicism a little. The whole romantization of martyrdom a Catholic upbringing affords you and all. But really, once people realize half the stuff they are experiencing is actually the status quo, franker folks like me don’t come off as such downers.

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. (

My most recent role was as Executive 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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