Teaching Arts Administration

I spoke at the Association of Arts Administration Educators(AAAE) annual conference at Claremont University, in Claremont, CA last week. Since I taught in a masters in arts administration program for 12 years and chaired an undergraduate performing and visual arts department for four, I was delighted to be part of this conference and to attempt to connect my current world of arts philanthropy with those who are teaching arts managers and leaders.

It was hard to decide what to talk about because I have a great deal of passion about arts management training, for better or worse. In order not to turn my speech into a marathon event, I decided to focus on the three issues that Grantmakers in the Arts is currently highlighting: financial management, equity in funding and community participation, and arts education. These three issues are not new to the nonprofit arts community. In fact, they have become like chronic diseases with no miracle cure in sight. But, the eternal optimist in me believes that we can look at the past fifty years and see what hasn’t worked, attempt to correct poor practices and assumptions and right our course. Here are some ideas shared at the AAAE conference.

If I were queen of arts administration programs, budgeting and financial management would be part of every course from marketing to governance to public policy. Honestly, we need stronger financial managers who understand economic markets, what it means to be fully capitalized and are not quite so influenced in their budgeting process by “filling the gap” by increasing contributed income that is based on a wish and a prayer. Some simple rules:

  1. Breakeven is not financial victory.  Cash reserves, risk capital, facility and equipment capital and endowments are all important elements. Each organization needs to determine what it needs to be capitalized but all need operating capital and cash reserves. Yes, we can all save money even if it’s a little at a time.
  2. Organizational budgeting should take a long view as reflected in balance sheets. 12-month cycles do not reflect financial health.
  3. There is no benefit to under-estimating indirect costs of programs including staff and overhead in grant applications or with boards of directors.
  4. If you build it, it does NOT mean they will come but it does mean expenses and debt will increase.
  5. Boards are not financial saviors and cannot, in the long run, save an organization that is not fiscally and artistically aligned with its marketplace.
  6. Artistic vision is crippled by financial weakness.  “A good balance sheet means artistic freedom.”
  7. For profit business accounting programs do not adequately prepare arts administrators to act responsibly in the nonprofit world.

There is much talk these days about equity. There are many issues that can be discussed through an equity lens: audiences, artists, arts organizations, funding. For both arts groups and funders, we need to clearly understand whether our missions are fulfilled when defined by who is in the audience or by the artform we are presenting. We are in a time of great uncertainty and change. We have a nonprofit sector that is, in many ways, stuck in a structure and culture created in the 70s and 80s, solidified by the economic growth of the 90s. Technology, changing audience behaviors, competition for entertainment time and the lack of arts education in schools are challenges we need to embrace and respond to in new and innovative ways.

The arts have for many years existed on the periphery of public policy. We believed it was just a matter of money, advocating when we needed that money. We are overdue, both funders and nonprofit arts organizations, to get involved at every level of policy development, local, state and national. Nowhere does that manifest itself more seriously in our industry than in our public schools. In most cases, our schools are offering fewer hours and courses taught by art specialists than they did thirty years ago. Even the US Department of Education acknowledges that poor schools often offer no arts classes whatsoever. We have to organize supporters and parents, promote inequities in schools when we see them and come up with solutions for a system that is broken.

I encourage arts administration educators to push their students to be bolder, unapologetic and clear about the place of the arts in community.  In this time of uncertainty, those who are operating based on systems of the past are in trouble. Those who are willing to step out of the past with new ideas grounded in community involvement will succeed.