During the COVID-19 pandemic, WolfBrown refined and focused our communications channels to help arts leaders navigate the crisis. With this issue of On Our Minds, we return to a familiar format. Each newsletter features three of our consultants who share their independent reflections and ideas stemming from their work in the cultural sector. From time to time, we will produce thematic issues on specific topics. This is our way of staying in touch with WolfBrown’s extended family of clients and friends, and sharing what’s on our minds.
Joe Kluger, Tomorrow is Another Day
Dr. Thomas Wolf, Tomorrow is Another Day – Take Two
Kathleen Hill, Will Arts Classrooms Meet Censorship Challenges in 2022?
Scarlett O’Hara’s last line in Gone with the Wind has two interpretations. The optimist will view “tomorrow,” not just as another day, but one that will surely be better. The procrastinator will view it as a chance to defer addressing difficult challenges. Arts and culture groups that apply both interpretations to the impending (we hope) end to the disruptive COVID-19 pandemic, and assume things will gradually return to the way things were, may be in worse financial shape than they were during the shutdown.
In some respects, there are valid reasons to be optimistic about the non-profit arts and culture sector. Although many artists and staff lost work and income, most of the organizations that employ them are now stronger financially than they have been in many years. Reducing program and production costs during the pandemic, while maintaining philanthropic support, created balanced budgets, if not surpluses, for many groups in FY2021. The infusion of significant government funds strengthened their balance sheets, providing working capital reserves that will enable many groups to cover FY2022 operating losses caused by the reinstatement of fixed program costs for audiences that—while thirsting for a return to the live, communal arts experience—have been significantly smaller than anticipated (even before the Omicron surge).
The real challenges will come in FY2023, with the costs from the resumption of a full program schedule, coupled with the exhaustion of reserves, and the continued reticence of at least 15% to 20% of the audience to attend live performances. While this is not a cause for despair, it does suggest that now is not the time to put off until “tomorrow” the adoption of strategies that will enable our organizations to weather a challenging post-COVID environment.
In an inspiring, yet provocative keynote speech for the recent virtual APAP Conference, Ben Cameron, President of the Jerome Foundation, poses three questions that arts and culture groups might consider in preparing for the end of the pandemic:
1. “What is the dominant mindset that is shaping our return?”
Ben posits that, if your pre-COVID trends were on the upswing (e.g., reaching larger, younger, and more diverse audiences, increasing revenues, etc.), you might reasonably expect COVID to be a temporary interruption and be well positioned to return to whatever the new “normal” world will look like. Most arts groups, however, faced stagnant or gradually declining pre-COVID sales trends, low or negative working capital, and were using philanthropy to cover an increasingly greater share of expenses. These groups will likely see the future amplification of these trends and should use this time to reinvent what they do, to make sure their programming is not merely high quality, but relevant to their community.
2. “How are we positioning ourselves for the next disruption?”
Ben says that, while the future is uncertain, arts and culture groups are likely to face other crises, whether from natural or human causes. The strategic issue is whether arts groups are trying to achieve stability to withstand changes in the external operating environment, or are trying to build resilience and nimbleness to adapt to whatever the future brings.
If arts programs are planned 18 months out, there needs to be a mechanism to change them on short notice. Anticipation of future disruptions requires living within our means, diversifying revenue streams, budgeting surpluses, including contingencies and reserves (and avoiding overly optimistic revenue projections). To withstand disruptions, arts and cultural organizations need to have an internal culture of making data-driven, collaborative decisions that connect goals and strategies to the interests of external stakeholders.
3. “How are we preparing for the fundamental revolution in our internal cultures that lies ahead?”
Finally, Ben identifies two major trends that are transforming how arts and cultural groups operate. The long overdue call to racial equity is requiring arts groups to demonstrate a commitment to DEI that is not just institutional rhetoric in response to external pressure, but a fundamental shift in the balance of power and the allocation of resources. The other seismic change in organizational culture is driven by the generational shift in the core values of younger people, who reject siloed, hierarchal decision structures, expectations of no work-life integration, and are less willing to work for discounted “non-profit” wages.
To thrive in a post-COVID environment, arts groups must be committed to both artistic and civic purpose that is defined by more than “nice to have” instrumental benefits, but demonstrates the essential value of our work to our community. These arts groups must also be grounded in what Ben calls a “spiritual purpose” that reflects the moral and ethical principles or core values that “will be the unifying mortar that will bind your staff across generations and race.” He believes these spiritual values and civic purpose are more critical to organizational success than consensus around mission.
There is a golden post-pandemic opportunity to use the arts to bring people together again, in a communal setting that replaces the virtual experience of endless Zoom meetings and streaming digital content with the emotional connection that comes from experiencing the arts together in the same room. The challenge for arts leaders is to create compelling experiences that will motivate audiences to overcome the lingering fears many will have once COVID becomes endemic. This opportunity will be realized only by those who plan for “tomorrow” with both optimism and a willingness “never to let a good crisis go to waste” by taking advantage of opportunities to do things you could not do before.
Tomorrow is Another Day – Take Two
By Dr. Thomas Wolf
My colleague Joe Kluger’s decision to base his piece on the quotation “Tomorrow is another day” is timely. In my own practice focusing on strategic planning, it is always difficult to predict what tomorrow (or especially next year and the year after) will bring. For me personally, there has been a greater challenge in the past year. I have been preparing the 40th anniversary edition (the sixth) of my textbook, Managing a Nonprofit Organization. The last edition came out in 2012 and was written two years prior to that. With a time-horizon of more than a decade, some of the things I wrote earlier have been superseded. How does one decide what students and practitioners will need to know and do a decade hence?
Some topics are easy to predict. Certainly, a book on nonprofits must include discussions of governance and the role of boards, personnel issues, marketing, and philanthropy/fundraising. Other topics that will carry over from earlier editions include such things as strategic planning, organizational evaluation, leadership, and sustainability. But while the general topics seem clear, many of the details and subtleties do not.
Take an area that will receive its own chapter for the first time in the new edition: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB). Earlier editions mentioned the topic but not with the kind of focus it clearly deserved. But as DEIB experts who assisted me pointed out again and again, putting this topic in its own chapter can lead to its own set of problems—diversity, they said, must penetrate every aspect of the organization and this required rethinking all other chapters in the book.
A perfect example of this issue has to do with personnel. Earlier writing stressed the importance of organizational culture and strategic fit in hiring decisions. It is important, I had written, to determine how new employees will mesh, get along, and work well with their colleagues. An organization where work is done communally, where problems are solved jointly, where people tend to socialize with one another, and/or where leadership rewards cooperation and conviviality may be looking for one type of individual. Conversely, an organization where people tend to work independently, where there is more of a spirit of competition and individual achievement, and where social relations between staff are minimal may be looking for another.
But as my advisors pointed out to me, that earlier writing needed to be tempered by other considerations. There is a danger of using “strategic fit” as an evaluative yardstick in hiring—that is a new employee’s ability to “fit in.” It may preclude attempts to find people who will diversify a homogenous staff that requires a richer pool of backgrounds and perspectives. How often does “strategic fit” exclude people whose differences are just what the organization requires?
Even the terminology I will be using to describe different types of individuals changes. Earliest editions of my book beginning in 1983 used the term “Afro-American,” later editions “African-American,” and the current edition will use the term “Black.” To indicate categories of sexual orientation, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) was the much-utilized convention that I felt comfortable using previously but many today prefer the more inclusive LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Pansexual, Transgender, Genderqueer, Queer, Intersexed, Agender, Asexual, and Allied communities).
From language to management practices to predicting the kinds of challenges that nonprofit organizations will face in the future, I can only hope that some time in the future, there will be another opportunity to look at all these issues and terms with fresh eyes and contemporary sensibilities.
Will Arts Classrooms Meet Censorship Challenges in 2022?
By Kathleen Hill
As conversations surrounding what can and cannot be taught in classrooms persist, with some state legislatures going as far as to draft or sign into law legislation that limits how race and gender are discussed in classrooms, I’ve been considering the ripple effects.
The truth of the matter is that these topics are not only present in conversations about the past through history lessons or textbooks. They appear in other subjects as well and, for many parents, school boards, and legislators, that’s the sticking point. They believe that America’s past is marred by racism and sexism. Its present and future, however, are not. (I think that as long as people have reason to fear perceptions of difference, we will continue going nowhere fast.)
As of February 24, “41 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis. Fourteen states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues.” Recent research from SurveyUSA and Stand for Children shows that these attacks have consequences: among 2,000 teachers surveyed, 37% have said they are more likely to leave the profession at the end of this school year if a push for laws that “prevent honest teaching and conversations” impacts their classrooms. At a time when schools are already experiencing the pressures of burnout and staffing shortages, particularly for substitute teachers, it’s a difficult blow.
So what does this mean for arts education—a subject area that is often defined as nice but not necessary as it still fights to be valued and prioritized as a core academic subject?
Arts classrooms, across all media and disciplines, are places for students to explore and discover who they are. Over the course of a school year, students are encouraged to tell their own stories and listen to those of others—their peers, their teachers and mentors, influential creators of the past, etc. To limit students’ abilities to express and question the fabric of their lives and their communities is to limit their understanding of who they are and who they want to be.
By extension, to strip arts classrooms of topics and themes tied to identity is to render them sterile and dull. I worry that impressions of, and the desire to participate in, the larger cultural sector will meet the same fate…and what will happen then?
Truthfully, I don’t know.
For the sake of transparency, I will say that I am not a parent. I have not been inside of a K-12 classroom since the weeks before my high school graduation. I will say, however, that the teachers that I remember and credit with expanding my understanding of the world were often the ones who taught beyond the pages of their textbook, who dared to ask hard questions and let an uncomfortable truth linger. They didn’t proselytize. They simply opened the discussion.
I suppose that’s the most important question to consider: not what will happen to our sector, but what will happen if students aren’t even exposed to these ideas, aren’t trusted with these truths and given safe spaces like arts classrooms to grapple with them?
Has this been on your mind? Send me an email. I’d appreciate the opportunity to learn and discuss further.