There’s A Reason Why So Many Of The New Model Discussions Are Dead-ends

We hear the term “new model” so often these days that it almost guaranteed to produce eye rolls, sighs, and mass shoulder slumping. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: all but a handful of new-model conversations are really just the same old-model wolfs in new-model sheep’s clothing.

Adaptistration Guy 008Simply put, those old school discussions are more about gaining dominant control than sustainability, structural deficits, artistic excellence, or any other popular spin points (a topic we explored in greater detail in an article from 2/28/2011).

There’s always a stakeholder that claims to be fighting for the future of the organization because s/he cares about the mission, community, etc. But the part you might find curious is why are those same people willing to tear an organization apart in order for the opportunity to prove that their theory is correct? Why not simply leave and start up a new performing arts organization using a model believed to be most successful?

If the idea has merit and is implemented properly, then it will likely thrive.

There are good reasons why we don’t see vast swaths of board members, musicians, and yes, even groups of arts administrators strike out on their own by embracing a startup mentality and founding a new performing arts organization. My professional intuition as someone who has built multiple successful startups (both arts oriented and not) is the models proposed simply aren’t as capable of producing the expected results as purported.

Consequently, it’s easier to take the fight internal and pound a square solution into a decidedly round institution.

To get an idea of just how much disconnect exists between genuine startups and perceived ideas about how most new model would operate, check out a terrific article from 4/30/2013 at by Clayton Weller titled Why every artist should work at a startup (h/t You’ve Cott Mail).

What’s particularly useful in Weller’s post is the differences in internal work culture and the focus on growing an audience. But I’m curious to hear what you think so go give Weller’s article a read and weigh in with a comment.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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11 thoughts on “There’s A Reason Why So Many Of The New Model Discussions Are Dead-ends”

  1. Startup mentality is good, but arts organizations expect to sustain. And Weller’s article is all about the startup, not about the results. He doesn’t have any yet. Just a month’s worth of yee-hah.

    At look at this data suggests 70% failure is likely within ten years: (There is no arts category, but information category failure is highest.)

    As one who created and ran a tech startup (which made it into its 8th year before failing), I think this is a useful approach for short-term arts projects, but not a solution for organizations whose very purpose needs to be the long view. Many projects take more than a few years to complete. I also ran a successful arts organization for five years, but all of our projects were, like startups, one-time events with short lives. We couldn’t compete with a large, endowed organization in the creation of substantial (and expensive) projects.

    I don’t argue that it’s impossible, but rather that it invites a shallowing of substance. Let me see Weller’s record in ten years, or even an equivalent of an “unshallow” startup success in the arts world that’s been around for a decade.

  2. Drew, you’re spot-on in your critique of those who insist it’s the model that needs to change. And Clayton’s piece highlights an essential element that’s missing in arts organizations: communication and responsiveness. Deborah Rutter of the Chicago Symphony also called this out, saying that if a board, artists, and audiences aren’t talking to each other, you can go badly astray. Here in Minnesota, we’re living out this nightmare in a particularly vivid way.

  3. Drew, thank you for saying this! In my experience, when the term “new model” is used, it usually means less pay for the musicians and more power for the management. It is used to get board members excited about being on the cutting edge, which could lead to good fundraising, but budgets tend to shrink with “new models” to the extent that the product suffers.

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