Still More Impact of the Economy

I listened in on another Arts Presenters conference call on the impact of the economy last week. The panel consisted of:

Ken Foster, Executive Director, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Nicole Borrelli Hearn, Manager, Artists and Attractions, Opus 3 Artists
Sandra L. Gibson, President and CEO, Association of Performing Arts Presenters
Maurine Knighton, Senior Vice-President, Program and Nonprofit Investment, Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone

There were many sentiments and examples I had heard in earlier calls so I wasn’t as assiduous about recording them. The basic themes of the call were doing more with less and preventing worries about the current situation from infecting your organization and colleagues.

Doing More With Less discussions weren’t all dire. Ken Foster talked about how his organization was de-emphasizing number of events in a season in favor of exploring extending artists’ stays and having them involved with more while they were around. Nicole Borrelli Hearn spoke of Daniel Bernard Roumain’s New Clef Coalition where Roumain is writing a new work for youth orchestras. Orchestras can buy at a reasonable rate as a commissioning partner and then they will own the piece forever. Roumain gets a residency with the youth orchestra. (Which is really another win for the orchestra.)

There were less positive observations under this subject area. Opus3 has encountered a widespread trend of groups inquiring about cancellations which resulted in a lot of renegotiation. Commenter, Mr. MOJO, told stories of not being able to even give away extra performances to presenters who either were not interested or no longer had the staff to support it.

An observation was made, confirmed by Ken Foster as Yerba Buena’s new approach, that some presenters were scheduling two separate seasons, Fall and Spring. The Spring portion would only transpire if the economy and Fall performances enabled it. This is making performers nervous because they don’t know how to plan or if they can/should keep their company active and creating new works. Foster said committing 18 months out is making less and less sense. He acknowledges that it is a challenging situation artists who are motivated to get their works seen and that presenters’ business practices shouldn’t get in the way of that.

Now I listened to that portion of the recording a few times and I had to wonder if Foster wasn’t suggesting artists do what they have to do and perhaps find a conduit for expression that circumvents the current system.

A comment Foster made was that when times get tough, presenters’ default response is to ask for a fee reduction. I actually made a similar observation in regard to audiences dissatisfaction with a show and defaulting to asking for their money back. If you have driven to a theatre having paid for dinner and a babysitter, is getting your money back really going to make you happy? In the same sense, if you have invested resources into promoting an event, will cancellations make anyone happy? My suggestion at the time, like Foster’s now, was to seek alternatives. Audiences/Artists may provide suggested solutions that may not have occurred to you.

With that mention of minimizing negative feelings, I will segue into the second general topic- don’t let anxiety infect your organization. Foster notes he has a lot of people from the financial sector on his board and many of them project the catastrophe they are facing on to the arts organization. It takes a lot of work and projecting competence and confidence to keep such fears from taking over.

He points out that arts professionals spread negativity as well. When you are surrounded by people who don’t quite understand the business of the arts and what it is you do, there is a great temptation to commiserate when you meet someone who actually has the capacity of empathize. Talking at length about how much stuff sucks brings the whole room down. Foster isn’t saying one should gloss over reality, but he mentions he has an executive coach who is not involved in the industry with whom he can safely talk about these issues and receive guidance without demoralizing anyone.

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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