This past weekend at the Chicago Theatre anti-Conference (#ctac, if you feel like swimming up the Twitter stream), erstwhile arts-administrators-turned-funders Christy Uchida, Boeing Chicago’s Community Investor, and Paul Botts, from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation, gave conference attendees the gift of some hard-won insights through a discussion entitled, “If I knew then what I know now.”  They said several deeply groovy and insightful things about arts administration, and I am here to share them with the 2am community.

They each started with three bullet points, which quickly intersected, split and fissioned into a multi-dimensional Venn diagram of funding, administration, management, and premise-checking.

Christy said:

1.)  Leadership matters.

If funders don’t have faith in the abilities of the artistic and managerial leadership of an organization, regardless of the mission, they are not going to fund the company.  Which leads to …

2.)  Infrastructure (meaning a company’s administrative staff) matters.

It can be tempting in a small company to have actors and designers tag-teaming on administrative tasks, but it is important to remember that passion for the mission of the company does not necessarily translate into administrative acumen (although it sometimes does).  If a particular individual within your company is not up to the administrative task before him or her — even though it is awkward, even though it is hard – it is in the enlightened best interest of the company to see if that person can better serve in another way, or to delegate the responsibility elsewhere.  It can be painful to send an artist packing from his or her administrative rounds, but it becomes a question of what is more important: not bruising those feelings or cultivating the company.  In the long run, and often in the short run, it is hurting the company to have an eager, enthusiastic but ill-equipped individual doing the job.

3.)  The context of an organization matters.

Christy asked “Does what we’re doing matter? Is it really distinctive within the community?” She said it is important to get the “30,000 foot view” of the community, to understand where one’s organization fits into that community and to consider whether it is where one wants to be.  Funders will look at this, and therefore so should we as individual artists and arts organizations.

Paul said:

1.)  A lot of what you think you know about fundraising is wrong.

“You’re operating from an old premise if you think an education outreach program is going to get you grants,” Paul said.  He went on to say that funders are now often suspicious of education programs if they suspect that the initiative is being created solely or principally because it will win grant money.  “Hard experience has taught those foundations that this is a big warning sign of organizational sloppiness, lack of focus, or desperation.”  If the program is integral to a company’s mission, that is one thing, but if it feels tacked on with a sticky agenda, it is not likely to serve the company or attract the funding.

Paul reminded us, too, that something on the order of 81% of donations come from individual donors, not from institutional funders, so we might want to tailor our funding strategies accordingly.  While also remembering that strategies and tactics vary for each type of donor, so don’t woo a foundation the way you might an individual giver of large gifts.

He advised reviewing his article on, here.

2.)  Theatre people often accept myths, folklore as truth.

Paul talked about how we have a tendency in the theatre (and I would add, in the world) to do things the way we do them “because that is how we’ve always done them.”  He exhorted us to get data.  “Is your marketing strategy working? What part? What works? How do we know?”  Jeremy Wechsler chimed in with an anecdote about sampling his way through the components of his marketing strategy, dropping one element for one show, dropping a second one another time around, as a way to explore what was effective and what was simply expensive.  He learned that “a [Chicago] Tribune display ad gets you no more results than one little box ad.” That mighty little box ad is a whole lot cheaper than the display ad, but it is received wisdom that we need the display ad, because … because … because … wait, why is that again?

3.)  Open your eyes.

This felt like an important corollary to item #2 on Paul’s list: challenge your received ideas and cultivate a clear understanding of your organization’s strengths and weaknesses.  Review the way you market, manage, lead, and rehearse “with polite skepticism,” Paul said.  I particularly like the polite part, but the idea of checking one’s premises and thoughtfully checking the premises of one’s collaborators, partners and organization seems like a very good idea.  One might come back to doing some aspects of the work in the same way, but at a minimum, one is likely to gain a richer understanding, perhaps some nuanced revisions to approach.  And it is just possible that logic-based, fact-based reexamination will yield surprisingly effective new ideas.

Again, Jeremy Wechsler provided an example: Theatre Wit conducted a cost-benefit analysis on maintaining costumes, props, set pieces in storage for later use vs. building / shopping afresh and discovered that for them, it would be much less expensive to stop paying to store materials on the off chance that they would use them again in a few seasons.  So now they don’t.  When a show closes, everything goes (to charity, to whomever wants it, to the curb), and they save enough money to fill a small wheelbarrow (which they don’t have because they don’t store props anymore).  They save money by building and shopping anew.  I wondered about the environmental impact of this strategy, but that’s my issue, not necessarily Theatre Wit’s:  they may well post on craigslist or freecycle so that their discards can be reclaimed.

As an Artistic or Managing Director, Paul and Christy agreed, it is your responsibility to educate your Board about truth versus mythologies within our industry because the Board is not generally comprised of theatre practitioners, and may be even more susceptible to theatrical folk wisdom.

Finally, Paul put in a word for the Cultural Data Project, a “groundbreaking project [that] gathers reliable, longitudinal data” for the arts.  It is also his baby.  In keeping with Paul’s exhortation to ‘”get data”, the CDP will help arts organizations do just that.  “Surveys are a mushy basis for decision making,” he said, and the CDP will give theatres a lift in attaining that 30,000 foot view.

I am grateful to Christy and Paul for making the time to share their insights with those of us at CT(a)C over the weekend as well as for their demonstrated devotion to the theatrical community; I hope that the 2am community finds their thoughts helpful / useful / inspiring as well.

  • August 25, 2010
  • 9