Monday, 28 November 2011

Crise oblige? (i) Some questions

In times of crisis, financial or other, many people find in the arts, and culture in general, a shelter. A book, a film, a theatre play, a song, dance, painting, writing open windows, show us the way, help us find a sense, bring beauty, serenity, inspiration, enthusiasm, motivation. In countries like Argentina or Greece, theatre attendace rose significantly during the times of crisis. Not only because people looked for that ‘shelter’, but also because theatres and theatre companies were able to address that new reality ‘repositioning’ themselves, adapting to their socio-economic environment. Yorgos Loukos, artistic director of the Athens Festival, when interviewed by The New York Times last summer together with the directors of other festivals, referred to the sale of an extra 35.000 tikets (a 24% rise compared to the year before; the performance of Richard III with Kevin Spacey sold out at the Epidaurus theatre, with a 10.000 seat capacity) and to the greek governement´s commitment to support the festival again in 2012. Other festivals also registered high attendances last summer, but their directors are conscious of the impact the financial crisis will have on culture and the need to face it.

A year ago, after the first announcement of cuts, many of us were saying that the crisis could (and should) be an opportunity. Twelve months have passed and we are probably at the same point: reacting to the cuts, asking (as we must) the State for more and better, but not duscussing, at the same time, alternatives to a model which, just as it is, it hasn´t been functioning for a long time. The hope expressed by some people responsible for portuguese cultural institutions that the cuts will affect ‘just’ the programming, makes us think: what kind of relatiosnhip can these institutions maintain with the audiences, with society, should they abdicate, in the first place, from their main activity, from their true mission, from their raison-d´-être? And what are the alternatives?

In these difficult, confusing times, that bring about a certain desorientation, that force us to adapt in order to survive, it´s good to go back and read Michael Kaiser. His structured and clear thinking reminds us of what is essential to remain healthy and relevant.

Michael Kaiser has been responsible for the ‘rescue’ of a number of dying cultural institutions, about to close their doors due to financial trouble. In his book The art of the turnaround: Creating and maintaining healthy arts organizations (which I read for the first time three years ago as if it was a novel) he shares his vast experience and presents five case studies: Kansas City Ballet, Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Foundation, American Ballet Theater, Royal Opera House e The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Michael Kaiser´s experience does not only relate to the american and british realities. He has worked as consultor in many countries around the world. From his book, I would highlight here three important lessons:

- The problem with most arts organizations is revenue and not costs. Actually, arts organizations have learnt how to do a lot with little. Organizations that focus simply on reducing costs will continue to get smaller and smaller and will never create the economic engine that is required for long-term stability and growth (p.6).

- When one cuts artistic initiative and marketing, one cuts the very reason people supply revenue to the arts organizations – buying tickets and supporting them financially. Audience members and donors are attracted to exciting work. When art and marketing are sacrificed to balance budgets, the organization virtually always suffers a loss in revenue (p.xi).

- Many arts executives have suggested it would be foolhardy to plan further into the future since the future seems so uncertain. And yet, if one does not plan far into the future, it is virtually impossible to develop the large, exciting projects that will reinvigorate the audience and donors (p.7).

How can Michael Kaiser´s lessons help us face our specific reality? I believe that some of the questions we should be considering are the following:

- Just like it happened in other countries, many people will continue attending cultural activities, live performances in particular. Actually, as Argentina and Greece have shown, the willingness may even grow and ‘infect’ more people. Nevertheless, due to the lack of money, they will be even more careful when choosing where to invest. And in cities like Lisbon, they have a lot to choose from. How is the current crisis going to affect programming? Considering the needs and interests of people implies limiting, conditioning the quality of the programming? Would it make sense to share this respinsibility, of programming, with people who represent actual target audiences and who have the knowledge that is necessary in order to contribute? Would we be risking becoming populists, compromising our mission?

- Michael Kaiser believes that the main problem in most arts organizations is revenue and not cost. Especially, I would say, in countries like Portugal, where public cultural organizations are not particularly worried about it (neither about income from ticket sales nor about fundraising from individual donors, for which there is no tradition). Will the cuts force us to consider different management and funding models? Can we do it without compromising (financial) access to our offer? What should we demand from the State?

- We do want to plan in advance. But how, when we don´t know how much money we are going to have? When, even after we have committed to the production of certain projects, we are surprised with cuts? Where to cut and how to cut? Should we sacrifice the programming in the first place? Could employees themeselves have a role in the development of a trategic plan for the future?

These questions, which are not new, came up once again when I heard the news about the cuts and the increase of VAT for live performances (from 6% to 23%). I am thinking about them and they are raising even more questions. Mission, funding, programming, management are issues which interconnect. There are urgent aspects, which need to be handled in the short term; but there are also structural aspects, that refer to a more distant future (but which is still going to be our future) and should start being considered right away.

This 'coming back' post, written a few weeks ago, is especially dedicated to AL, CF, CR, HH, MP, MS, MT, NS, SA. With my most sincere thanks.