The Future of the Arts: Sustainability and Resiliency

Future of the artsIn the world of memes, mashups, popups and flash mobs, is there still a place for the traditional cultural arts? A panel convened to discuss that for Campbell & Company’s recent webinar, The Future of the Arts: Strategies for Sustainability. Joining the discussion were Robert Alpaugh, Senior Consultant at Campbell & Company; Carroll Joynes, Co-Founder and Director of the Cultural Policy Center, Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago; and Ben Cameron, Program Director of the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Examining the financial situation of arts organizations is not a recent phenomenon, and the question of stability in the arts is something that we’ve been dealing with for decades. In the 1980s the National Arts Stabilization Fund originated, encouraging arts organizations to look beyond their missions and start examining their balance sheets. And more recently the Hauser Center at Harvard University launched a three-year initiative, SustainArts, to collect data on the resources being funneled in and out of the arts.

Yet lately a number of factors have been converging on the arts. “The economic downturn had a significant impact on discretionary income and charitable giving,” said Robert Alpaugh. But we’ve also been relying on an aging population to support our dance troupes, theater companies and symphonies. That isn’t to say that there is a pervasive disinterest in arts and culture. Just the opposite. We are seeing a renaissance of sorts in art. However, that art is taking a different form, one that might not be recognized as art by those of us used to thinking that culture is something that has to take place in a formal venue like an auditorium or a museum. 

Renewed interest in the arts. As Ben Cameron pointed out, higher education institutions are experiencing record number of new art student applications, young people from all types of backgrounds who wish to pursue the arts as a career. “Even though attendance may be going down [in traditional venues], arts participation – people writing their own poetry, composing their own songs or singing in choirs, writing their own plays, making their own movies – is exploding in exponential rates.”

Then what’s the problem? Perhaps we are failing to connect our historical views of art with this new, explosive demand. These new artists aren’t presenting their creations in traditional venues. They’ve figured out that social media generates greater exposure, and immediate feedback. Poetry on blogs, photography on Instagram, popup art installations on street corners, highly choreographed flash mob dances on YouTube. This is the world of art for a new generation of patrons, who fund arts initiatives through crowdsourced investment sites like Kickstarter. As Carroll Joynes added, “We need to understand their taste and preference much better than we do now. How do people go about selecting what to do, what to view, what to participate in? Alternative ways of accessing culture is forcing arts institutions to change.”

Mission adjustment. Institutions that take a serious look at their missions, and perhaps adjust those missions, will have a better chance at succeeding in this changing environment. “I question whether a mission to produce the plays of Shakespeare is enough of a hold on a community’s attention,” added Ben Cameron. “Thoughtful organizations will have mission statements that place the audience at the center of the mission rather than as an afterthought. There is a children’s theater group, whose original mission was to produce children’s plays that changed their mission to ‘bring joy into children’s lives’. The second they made that switch in their mission orientation, it transformed their connection with the community and the community’s response to help it.”

Of course, maybe it also means that some organizations have run their course and should quietly exit the stage. If a mission is no longer needed, if an organization is no longer financially viable, should it keep limping along? “It makes me wonder why we treat arts organizations differently than other organizations,” said Carroll Joynes. “People may be distressed that a hospital or school is closing, but they close for a reason, and others come in to fill that gap. But there is something about an arts organization that makes people think of baby harp seals. They just simply cannot stand the idea that it will go out of business. Yet, if nobody can offer up a persuasive answer about lack of demand, maybe it is time to close down in an orderly fashion.”

Endowments vs. reserves. Does having a large endowment ensure stability for arts organizations? As Robert Alpaugh pointed out, “We’ve seen many arts organizations that have drained their endowments because they needed cash. Much to the displeasure of their donors.” To that end, Robert believes organizations should have several layers of financial reserves. “Reserves can avert a crisis. These are accessible funds to be drawn against in the event of unsuccessful exhibits or an economic downturn,” he said. “I advise my clients to have three to six months of cash totally liquid.”

Despite the hardships that many organizations have experienced during the past several years, all of the panel members were optimistic about the future, even if that future looks different from the past. And as Ben Cameron pointed out, interest in the arts in America has weathered cycles over time. “People do value the arts very deeply. In fact people are connected to the arts now more than ever. The question isn’t whether the ballet can flourish in the community. It’s whether the ballet organization can flourish within its current format.”

Be flexible and willing to take risks. “One way to assure the future of the arts is to make sure that organizations are flexible and are willing to take risks,” Robert Alpaugh said. Carroll Joynes referred listeners to an article in the November 8, 2012 Washington Post, Naxos’s 25 years of reinventing itself,” about a record label that has succeeded in a rapidly changing industry. “Organizations should be market sensitive, seek diverse audiences and be honest with their outreach and community engagement,” he said. Ben Cameron envisions an art world that is consciously evolving, supporting a range of activities and diverse shareholders. He added,” How we connect what we have historically done as a producing entity with the new kind of explosive demand is a whole new terrain and would be an interesting future discussion.”

Campbell & Company has worked with hundreds of arts organizations, helping them to achieve their fundraising and talent management goals. To learn more about Campbell & Company's services, please Robert Alpaugh at


Arts & Culture Trends

Rebecca Gschwend

Rebecca Gschwend is a Marketing Associate and is responsible for managing Campbell & Company conferences and speaking engagements, company-produced webinar series, and social media strategies.