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Nonprofit theaters can, and do, thrive ~ Keys to Viability

(Opinion piece published in the Arizona Republic, August 25, 2012)

Nonprofit theaters, indeed the performing arts in general, are waging an uphill battle for survival. What are these organizations doing to stay afloat, and what should we as a community do to ensure their vitality? 

Kerry Lengel describes a marketplace where the rules of the game have changed and nonprofits must learn new plays to stay afloat. (“Non-profit theaters face ‘new normal’,” August 19, 2012). He’s half right.

The “new normal” that Lengel describes is not so new. It is more of the “same old same old” – echoes of the habits of past recessions where the “tried and true tricks” of austerity that are prevalent today end up as short-term fixes. Nor does the assertion that the “business model is broken” hold water. The problem lies not in the “model” but rather in failures of governance and implementation. 

Too many boards of directors – all too often unclear about their responsibilities and accountability, and all too often guided by artistic visionaries who are not necessarily adept managers – are unprepared to adjust to the realities of recession. In flush economic times, they tolerate inefficiencies, ignore the financial red flags in their balance sheets, and succumb to the temptation to overextend beyond their capabilities. When downturns occur, these acts are debilitating if not fatal. The prescribed remedies, as Lengel notes, generally turn to urgent appeals for financial help, demands to do more with less, and calls for collaboration. They play well, but only for the time being, until things ease up and bad habits return.

The reversal of these recurrent misfortunes lies in honoring the “business model” and rigorously monitoring the organization’s progress in achieving its key elements: generating a balanced base of contributed and earned income; developing adequate financial reserves to address special needs or potential disruptions in cash flow; delivering quality productions; and building new audiences.

However, even when the model is purring, the basic economics of nonprofit theater, indeed of the arts in general, require long-term philanthropic and governmental subsidy. The question for patrons, public policy makers, corporations, and nonprofit leaders centers on what strategies are appropriate and feasible to create an environment that encourages preservation of theater as an art form; that invests in infrastructure, incubators, and affordable venues for rehearsals, recitals, and productions. The problem is that when efforts have been made to address these questions – whether the ill-fated Maricopa Partnership for Arts and Culture or the well-intentionedArizonaTown Hallof 2011 – they have failed to gain traction, saying something about the depth and durability of the region’s commitment to its own cultural health.

Yet, like Mr. Lengel, I am optimistic because there are good examples of theater companies (and other performing arts) that belie the nonsense of the “new normal” – Theater Works, Childsplay, Valley Youth Theatre, Desert Stages Theatre. They govern well, live within their means, perform to scale, cultivate their constituencies, and stay true to their artistic vision. They practice the business model the way it needs to be done – despite the odds.

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