Monthly Archives: April 2011

A Way Forward? Rethinking the Distribution of the Arts.

Following so closely on the heels of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s bankruptcy, the sad news this week is that the wonderful Intiman Theatre Company in Seattle has gone dark for the rest of the season.(The hopeful news is that its board hopes to raise enough to re-open in the fall.)

I found the Intiman news that crossed my desk yesterday to form an interesting juxtaposition with a news release I received from Fathom Events. Fathom is the HD movie distribution company that brings us the Met at movie theaters around the country. And lately, its arts product has started to expand. This spring, for example, there are New York Philharmonic and L.A. Philharmonic HD concert/
productions. And they are also presenting – in movie theaters – two great Broadway productions, Memphis, and the Importance of Being Ernest. Locked as we are in this interminable spring of miserable weather, the prospect of Saturday or Sunday afternoons at the cinema over in the mall sounds pretty nice. And the ticket prices are painless, certainly compared to Broadway.

What Fathom is offering with its slowly expanding fine arts schedule is just the beginning little stumbles, I think, toward what could and should be something much larger – something that could eventually be a revenue generator for the struggling theater companies and symphony orchestras of this country. I have problems with Fathom because it is such an insiders-and-in-the-know thing. There is no marketing outside of Fathom or the Met or other institutions’ email lists, and it is so hit or miss. Just because my local cinema airs Fathom’s Met broadcasts is no guarantee I’ll get to see anything else. For example, I would love to catch the LA Phil’s all Brahms concert the first week of June, but no luck.

Let’s imagine, though, that the marketing was much better and that the product line up was there. One week the Met, the next week LA Phil, maybe the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the week after, maybe New York City Ballet the next, and so on. Pretty great, right? And imagine, too, that you didn’t have to even go to your local theater. As of this month, you don’t.

Roku, that little black box you can buy for $59.99, now lets you have access to free and unbelievably low-cost classical arts programming via its new ClassicalTV channel.(http://www.classicaltv.com) When I say low-cost, I mean it. You can catch the opening night gala from the 2009 Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Phil for the rental cost of $1.99 for 90 hours. (I know what I’m getting my mother for Mother’s Day.)

So we are on the cusp. Imagine making Saturday night popcorn and choosing what orchestra concert you want to see. Or spending Tuesday night’s pizza dinner in front of the opera broadcast of your choice. We are right there.

What will this mean to the repertory theater companies and the symphony orchestras and the ballet companies in your city and mine? The challenge and implications, and the prospective benefits and losses are all huge. For the finest – where the artistic product can stand up to the scrutiny of the screen – the benefits are incredible. For the others, it is clearer than ever that audience development will have to focus on the social and community aspects of attendance. (Why buy a ticket to an iffy production when you can gather your friends around, and enjoy a great evening at the Royal Shakespeare for about a dime a person? Clearly, the social aspects of actually “going” will have to be stupendous to balance that five-star event at its ten-cent-per-person cost.)

If this takes off – and I bet it really will – our entire arts world will be remade in front of us. We’re going to be rethinking everything about who our audience is and why people attend. And arts organization leaders everywhere are going to wonder anew what the opportunities and implications will be for product development.

The real excitement here is the chance to rebuild the market for the arts. As ever, the old question of “What is this, a pencil or a communications device?” is fresh. We may not be going to “live” performances and our performing arts centers may have to rethink their business models. But for those arts organizations that see opportunity through a new distribution mechanism and for the audiences that love arts, this is the dawn of a golden age, not the end of an era that one might think from all the recent bankruptcy news.

If this isn’t a blip, just what is it?

The news about the bankruptcy filing that will be made in Philadelphia court tomorrow by the venerable Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra has stirred angst around the globe. But the bigger news is hidden in the comment made by the American Symphony Orchestra League’s Jesse Rosen: “This is not a blip.” No, it isn’t, and that’s the real story. So far this year, both Honolulu and Syracuse have seen their orchestras go bankrupt. The eyes of the arts world have been on Detroit for months now, waiting to see if the inevitable will happen there as anticipated. Louisville’s fine orchestra filed for bankruptcy in December, not even making it to the New Year, bailing before those critical last few weeks of the calendar year when big donors in search of tax benefits often save nonprofits. Rumors swirl that the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, another wonderful ensemble, may not be far from taking the big step. And there are many other cities large and small throughout the United States where business and civic leaders, board members and donors are having plenty of sotto voce conversations about just what to do when the inevitable hits their back yard.

Bankruptcies aren’t new to the performing arts. Every recession in recent history has forced a few organizations that are under-endowed and over-contracted to face the music. Theater companies, ballet companies, opera companies, orchestras and performing arts venues themselves have all been victims.
But now that we all see the world in the post-Wisconsin-public-employee-union-pension world, different questions are being asked about the long term viability of performing arts institutions.

This is an industry that is firmly union based. When they are asked to save performing arts organizations from bankruptcy, many donors know that what they are really being asked is to maintain union agreements – often agreed upon in far rosier days – and in some cases to preserve or potentially bail out union pension funds. With the Philadelphia Orchestra – as with most of the organizations that have gone to Bankruptcy court before and those that are contemplating the move today – overly generous union contracts that can’t be met in today’s economy are the central issue. Sound familiar?

If you read last week’s post to this blog – and a lot of you did – you’ll remember that we’re thinking a lot about the sea changes impacting the arts. So rather than look at the Philadelphia Orchestra bankruptcy as just another blip, we’re pretty convinced that it is potentially, tragically, better described as a “new normal.” Simply put, too many contracts have promised too much that can’t be met. Too many pensions are underfunded, and depend on the continuation of current generous contract agreements to fund past agreements. Also, endowments are restricted in purpose and can’t be drawn down to meet crises. (Though, truth be told, plenty have been borrowed against steeply enough to cause their own set of problems.) At the same time, performing arts halls that have also granted their own unions lavish contracts – such as the Kimmel, the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra – need to charge every penny possible to stave off their prospective bankruptcies. Operating costs are through the roof. For large systems of performing arts organizations and their halls, the performing arts financial model is barely working, and only for those with the very largest endowments.

At ArtsMarket we’ve been increasingly asked to examine solutions to these developments in many different markets. Business leaders who are increasingly shaking their heads and refusing to bail out individual institutions are seeking larger, systemic adjustments. We’ve heard from many – corporate leaders in particular – that they’ve had it. Many understandably worry at the signals they send to their own employees when they step in to bail out arts union jobs providing six figure wages and generous pensions for jobs that often allow for or even further additional earning opportunities at universities and conservatories. Politicians feel the same way: How can tax payer dollars go to bailing out private sector union workers when public sector unions are up against it? Donors feel it, too. When institutions as venerable as the Philadelphia Orchestra declare bankruptcy – potentially making it possible to liquidate endowments that were never to be liquidated – why would any individual of means write that seven or eight figure check for an endowment meant to keep organizations safe forever? Why not give those dollars to something more pressing, more immediate, and possibly more honest in intent?

Are there solutions to this mess? Sure. But just as the citizens of Wisconsin have learned over their season of public employee union battles, the adjustments are nasty business, no matter what side you are on. First, you have to face reality, hard and uncompromising as it is. As the old saying goes, you have to raise the dragon to slay the dragon. One of our field’s many dragons is that we want a mid-20th Century performing arts system in a 21st Century world. We don’t want the pain of recognizing that our consumer tastes, interests, budgets, and technology have so dramatically and fundamentally changed our arts consumption and behavior that we aren’t ever going back.

We’re living in a time warp of about 1975. Are we ready to live in 2011? Because if we are, and we recognize that this Philadelphia story is not a blip, we better get busy in rethinking the entire financial and operational model of the performing arts while it is still possible to restructure outside of bankruptcy court.

Privatizing Community Quality of Life: Coming Soon to a Community Near You

Imagine this scenario: by 2020 your parks, your performing arts centers, your community art gallery, your neighborhood community centers, your soccer fields, your local walking trails, your zoo, maybe even your library will be operated on contract by businesses that find ways to make a profit. Those businesses will form the nucleus of a growing new economic sector of real profitability to America. Some of them will no-doubt even trade on the NY Stock Exchange. Too strange to believe? Not any more.

Cities across America have spent decades upping the ante on investment in livability as their mechanism to up the tax revenues they have received, and it has been a profitable strategy. Build the aquatic center, the new tennis courts, the lovely performing arts hall, the zoo, the botanical gardens, the gallery complex, the fabulous library and then reap the rewards with high property values and a desirable community that in turn attracts businesses and on-going economic investment.

Don’t accept any of it as a given any more. In fact, anticipate and get out ahead of the ways where quality of life investment has been and will continue to evolve.

In the past few months there have been all sorts of interesting RFPs for private management of civic assets, and the tempo seems to be increasing, not slowing. “Private management company sought for pool complex.” “ Private management sought for community neighborhood centers.” “Private management sought for arts centers.” “ Private management sought for operation of city parks.” “Private management sought for zoo.” Not “local nonprofit” sought. Not “local partner” sought. Private management sought.

It is a sea change, and it could be coming to a neighborhood near you before you blink twice. Cities are actively soliciting and searching for profit businesses to take on many of the quality of life assets that are not producing. Basically, they are dumping responsibility for under-performing or deficit-causing assets while still seeking ways to benefit from the property tax revenues all municipalities need to earn through having a comprehensive set of quality of life offerings. And in the process, they don’t want to become once again potentially saddled with bailing out non-profit operators that would stand to become permanent arms-length extensions of government. No more “hand over the arts center to a nonprofit that you’ll end up, in turn, having to fund to operate the arts center.” Cities have had it with that shell game. Instead contract a management company to run it and let them figure out how to craft a financially viable model. And they will.

What does it mean?

First, it means a real civic fatigue with the given assumptions of subsidy is a norm. Debt is just too big to be willing to enter into partnerships that are simply going to remove direct red ink from one column only to put the red ink – in the form of operating grants, for example – into another column. Frustration with subsidy-as-norm approaches is over the top.

Governments are looking for something better. They want flourishing, brightly lit and well maintained public amenities that work for the facility operators – who, ideally, make a profit – and that aren’t a drain on public resources. They want a win-win out of a dead-end.

What are the results of this trend?

Chances are, citizens will be paying more out of pocket to use those assets. Have you had to pay for your kids’ music or sports in school lately? Steep, right? Well, expect the same thing for swimming classes at the pool this summer or for art camp for your eight year old in August. Expect the same thing for the water color class you always wanted to take through parks and rec, and anticipate paying commercially competitive rates to rent the neighborhood center for your family reunion. Your library card? How’s $25 a year for one person or $40 for a family?

Really affordable “public” amenities are going to disappear. It will be pay-as-you-go. Your first graders’ soccer team will pay to rent the soccer fields. You’ll have to pay a competitive “for profit” rate to take your pottery class. Your community band will pay more to rent the performing hall.

The businesses that contract to operate these once-public assets aren’t stupid. They know they have to find the price points for their markets and still be able to turn a profit. There will be different prices at different locations. Looking for a way to save? You may drive to the other side of town to get a better deal than your own softball fields offer. Chances are, these new service-merchants will focus only on what can sell, and sell out. Rather than broadening the offerings, they may limit the camps, sports classes, arts classes and after school programs to those that have a large enough popularity to work.

Does it have to happen? Will it be terrible? Or, will it be at least be tolerable?

It probably does have to happen, because we as a society have let it happen. We’ve just assumed and assumed that more amenities can be added every year, no matter the cost, and that somehow it will all work out fine in the end. Too much red ink and too many required subsidies later, our elected officials are drawing lines in the sand.

As for how terrible it will be depends on your perspective. Chances are there will be some real messes out there. But maybe we are in for a complete redo in the way we think about delivery of amenities, and in the process there may be an entire new industry of service providing businesses that excel and thrive and grow to become a valued economic sector. Maybe we’ll find out that a lot of the amenities we thought needed subsidy don’t, and that we’ll all pay for those amenities we value.

If we look at it through the lens of the American entrepreneurial eye, the benefits can be huge. Why not? “Zoos, Inc.” as a Fortune 1000 company. “Arts –n-Kids” as a national provider of quality arts learning in summer camps at parks in 500 cities across the country, and growing. “Community Center, Inc.” as the leading provider of facilities and program management for neighborhood centers in the northeast. You get the idea. It has happened in higher education. Our community amenities could possibly move from subsidy rolls and taxpayer responsibilities to businesses with values that attract investments and shareholders. And, possibly, there is something attractive about seeing quality of life elements that had no determinable financial value potentially transformed into businesses that could provide share-holder benefits to thousands.

Stay tuned. I have a feeling we won’t have to wait too long to find out.