Still Pining For Increased Government Funding?

The 7/30/2015 edition of The Stage published an article by Alistair Smith (h/t Musical America) that reports on high levels of anxiety throughout the UK’s arts organizations in the wake of national elections that generated candidates supporting substantial cuts to existing arts funding.

George Osborne [the UK’s counterpart to US Secretary of the Treasury] announced last week that non-protected government departments should start preparing themselves for two scenarios – cuts of 25% and 40%. Clearly, either of these levels of cuts will cause major upheaval if passed on to Arts Council England [ACE] and then to the companies it funds. And, it’s worth pointing out that after a series of cuts to both the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and ACE’s administration, one would expect a greater proportion of any reduction to be passed on than in previous spending rounds.

So, what would a 40% cut mean for the arts? Closures would be inevitable. There would have to be a new approach to arts funding from the arts council. A rehashing of the status quo would not be an option.

Adaptistration People 118It should come as no surprise that government funding is just as tenuous as private donor and investment revenue streams but that doesn’t seem to stop those in the US nonprofit arts sector from salivating at the bell of increased public arts funding.

And for those with long enough memories, there are examples of groups that caught in the snare of government funding that fell through in the eleventh hour. One of the biggest dollar examples in the last decade is from the mid 2000’s when the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO), then under the executive leadership of Allison Vulgamore, saw its ambitious capital campaign project for a new Santiago Calatrava designed concert hall fall apart thanks to a funding plan that hinged on 1/3 of total funding to come from combined government sources (spoiler: the support fell through).

We examined that scenario when it unfolded as well as the subsequent impact. In many ways, that high risk plan which depended on securing government funding served as the catalyst for a downward spiral that ended up with the ASO enduring two bitter labor disputes and a series of budget reductions.

In the end, this example alongside recent concerns in the UK simply reinforces the understanding that no single revenue stream is foolproof and organizations have the best chance to survive and thrive by remaining flexible and diversified. Think of it as the arts org equivalent of eat less and exercise; sure some folks will swear by the Paleo diet but in the end, it doesn’t replace the fundamentals.

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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