Steven Libman
is President of The Libman Group with 30 years of experience leading major arts organizations. The Libman Group helps arts organizations build audiences, maintain relevance and stability, and improve quality of governance.
Public arts funding

Is the Great Recession over for the Arts?

We hear economists and elected officials touting that the recession has ended and yet we all know far too many people still out of work, and for those of us in the arts, we know of too many organizations that have filed for bankruptcy or have never recovered from the recession. Its important to carefully read through the hype and honestly determine the status of the arts, and when we do, what we see is a landscape that is less rosy than the one painted by economists.
As we all know, the Great Recession that began in 2008 was the worst economic disaster to hit America and the global economy since the Great Depression. While the Great Recession is technically over as measured by economists, millions of Americans are still out of work or have stopped searching for work and some sectors of the economy still have not recovered.

What about the arts? Clearly much of the information may be anecdotal, but a conversation with a few experts yields some comments and statistics that are worth mentioning. According to David Snead, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for the esteemed New York Philharmonic, My short answer is the recession is over for us pretty much the same way it is over for most other sectors. Things are better than 1-3 years ago, but not back to pre-recession.

The not back to pre-recession comment can signal that the landscape has changed forever for the arts community in much the same way that a natural landscape i.e. a beach, is permanently changed after a major hurricane.
Americans for the Arts has just released a major study on the National Arts Index that indicates the national arts community continues to slowly recover from the Great Recession, but is still not back to the levels attained in 2007, the year before the recession began. The study goes on to state that the arts as an industry is lagging behind the economy as a whole the report states, it appears that the economic recovery, which started in 2009, does not positively affect the arts sectors until 2011. In 2007 the National Arts Index had s score of 103 and by 2011 it had dropped to 97, the lowest index score.

However, all is not lost. Economist and report co-author Dr. Roland J. Kushner of Muhlenberg College noted that "Over the years, the National Arts Index score has been tightly correlated to overall charitable giving and total employment. Weve seen broad improvements in the economy, employment and philanthropy since 2011, all of which suggest that the arts are poised for higher Index scores in the years to come."

Randy Cohen, co-author of the Index and vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts said, Because the National Arts Index spans all of the arts industries, it serves as an arts atlas, showcasing where the industry has been, but more importantly where it can go. As such, its a powerful tool that can and should be used to stimulate public dialogue about how the arts can stay vital in a society that needs a healthy arts sector for its own overall vitality.

Now, what about the possible permanent change in the landscape? Mark Nerenhausen, Director of the Janklow Arts Leadership Program at Syracuse University feels that a permanent change may have occurred. We in the arts are desperately trying to take things back to the way they were. We are assuming that somehow one point in time was the way things were supposed to be. We fail to understand that our environment, like a coastal community, is always changing, the sands are always shifting. In our effort to get back to what was and our focus on that process, we miss out on an opportunity to create what could be.

A simple look at the huge union issues facing the Minnesota Orchestra, Indianapolis Orchestra, San Francisco Ballet and Carnegie Hall clearly point out the desire to return to a time, a pre-recession time, when organizations were operating with greater margins, philanthropy was flourishing and annual wages could be counted upon. That may no longer be the case.

Perhaps what is needed is the equivalent of a disaster tool kit for the arts? Has the landscape changed? And some tough questions should be asked. Here are some steps to take and ideas to contemplate:

  • Are arts organizations entitled to perpetuity? Does there come a time when its ok to acknowledge the past accomplishments of an organization and then allow the organization to die with dignity?
  • Establish a process of transparency in the new economy. Communicate often and honestly with your staff, board, funders and the community.
  • Create a new paradigm smaller boards to streamline decision making, include union leadership on boards and in the strategic planning process.
  • Learn and master branding just as companies do in the for-profit sector. And allocate the financial resource for branding.
  • Establish cash reserve funds to help sustain organizations during economic downturns.
  • Constantly measure what your audience is telling you about the art you create.
  • Never ever reduce the marketing budget during an economic downturn -thats the plan undertaken by staff and boards that panic and not organizations that need to maintain a presence.
  • Always remain true to the mission of the organization.
And so, what is the answer to the question Is the Great Recession over for the Arts? It is over, sort of, kind of, but the landscape has changed. There remains a long slow climb to reach levels of success achieved before the recession. Perhaps we need to leave those previous goals behind and focus on the future by establishing new benchmarks for measuring success, because we never really will get back to where we were. We need to create a new robust future for the arts community.
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