Chad Bauman, Executive Director at Milwaukee Rep made a post on LinkedIn today where he acknowledged that making a change in a business model can threaten the existence of an organization, but that changing times and expectations often leave you no choice. While he is talking about the current challenges performing arts organizations face, he cites a series of decisions Milwaukee Rep faced in its early years that nearly saw the end of the theater.
Milwaukee Rep had a similar crisis nearly a decade after its founding. In its earliest years, it built a large audience based on the star system bringing big stars to Milwaukee to perform. In 1961, the star system was abruptly ended and a resident acting company was founded. In less than a year, the theater lost 60,000 patrons, or two-thirds of its audience. It took seven years for the theater to rebuild its audience and it nearly went bankrupt on multiple occasions. The decision was a correct one as the theater would eventually grow to more than 150,000 patrons, but it almost collapsed along the way.
The star system was common practice in theater in the late 19th century that waned rather than something Milwaukee Rep specifically was doing and decided to end. While the star system is most frequently associated with film studios, they adopted it from theater which apparently borrowed the concept from P.T. Barnum.
I have seen stories similar to this in which arts organizations made decisions 10-15 years ago to make changes in their business models or change their programming mix to include segments of their community which were underrepresented in their audience and casting. They too came to the brink of closing.
There is obviously a bit of survivorship bias to some of these cases. Those that didn’t succeed in the shift weren’t around to talk about it later. With all the closures, downgrading, layoffs, etc that arts organizations are undergoing, we are hearing of many more stories of arts organizations who are having difficulty continuing their existence than we did 10-15 years ago. Some of them were in the middle of trying to effect change, others were trying to stick with what worked in the past so there is no clear indication about which approach may be better in these times.
Some that haven’t closed completely may reorganize and continue on as Milwaukee Rep did. I am sure no one wants to be faced with the prospect of it taking seven years and several brushes with bankruptcy to make a successful transition. From one perspective though, it might be better to fail while trying to do better for your community rather than attempting to preserve the status quo for as long as possible.