Michael Kaiser’s “The Art of the Turnaround”

 In arts administration, arts leadership, Arts management, arts organizations, non-profit boards

Yesterday I was reading a post by Jodi Schoenbrun Carter on Michael Kaiser’s “Arts in Crisis” program that is a follow-up to his book, “The Art of the Turnaround”. I agree one-hundred percent with the sentiment that Kaiser has great ideas, but they are hardly original ideas to most experienced arts managers. You’d be hard-pressed to find any who didn’t agree with him, hadn’t advocated his main principals to their Boards and hadn’t gone away shaking their heads in dismay as Boards failed to listen.

Kaiser says that the quality of art matters, be bold, be brave be revolutionary. Know your Mission and stay on Mission, and spend the money it takes to do it right and market it correctly. You cannot save your way to financial health. He says that the arts are remarkably efficiently run and do not have a spending problem, the arts instead have a revenue problem. Nor can arts organizations win by compromising the art by trying to vie with popular entertainment biz by watering down their season with pop and shlock. Any pickup at the box office will be equalled by loss of donations and funder support.

It makes me tired –as it did Jodi– to hear this touted as new advice. The question in my mind is, “why does arts management common-sense so often fail to be implemented?” And the answer, I believe, is that there is a flaw in a structure which gives governance of our cultural assets to mostly untrained groups of volunteers, with little or no oversight or accountability. I have seen Boards do amazing things from time to time–saving and revitalizing arts organizations. But too often competent arts managers stagger and fail under the weight of dysfunctional boards that– while perhaps composed of well-educated and competent individuals— cannot seem as a group to acquire the knowledge or retain the organizational memory to plan well for their organization’s success, or to carry good plans forward into future years of implementation.

If public funds were invested in building a bridge, and the bridge collapsed, people would ask questions, folks would be held accountable, fault would be found and those at fault would pay real costs. I wonder why we are prepared to invest dollars in arts organizations (and non-profits in general) and yet feel we don’t have the right to hold Boards accountable?

Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers
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