July 2014
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Executive Director's Column
Rescue Failing Arts Organizations?
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Legislative Update
FY2015 Budget Progress in Congress
State to State
Showcasing SAA Ingenuity
Research on Demand
How SAA and NEA Grants Overlap
More Notes from NASAA
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Executive Director's Column
Rescue Failing Arts Organizations?
Jonathan Katz

I was intrigued to see a session on the Americans for the Arts annual conference agenda last month entitled "Agree or Disagree: We Should Let Arts Organizations that Don't Adapt Die." It was moderated by our own Shannon Daut, executive director of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and featured Aaron Dworkin of The Sphinx Organization and Devon Smith of Threespot. The session title was clarified by the question, How should arts agencies and funders react to organizations that are not reacting to the changing needs of a community? The clarification seems to take the pressure off and allow the simple answer: By following their guidelines. The session title pushes us more: When it becomes apparent that organizations are failing and their demise is imminent, what factors should determine whether a funding community focuses scarce resources on heroic measures to save them?

I struggle with this question because polar opposite answers sound right to me under different circumstances. In doing research for my dissertation on a literary agenda for the United States, I learned from interviewing the director of each of four national literary service organizations that every one of their organizations had been saved from going under at some point by critical support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and/or a foundation. In the larger economy, we have the models of the Chrysler and GM bailouts, as well as the AIG TARP purchases and loan guarantees, which Bloomberg's Zachary Tracer described as yielding a $22.7 billion net profit after a $182.3 billion bailout.

On the other hand, I have seen political bodies and foundations grant significant line items to arts organizations that ultimately did not survive, and we have other examples such as the $500 million lost federal investment in the Solyndra solar energy company. Nor can one escape the "moral hazard" argument: the experience of heroic intervention might encourage less responsible behavior in the future. One can care a great deal about an organization and a field, and still be perplexed about the terms and policies that should apply to rescuing those that are failing. One recalls NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman considering the growth in number of theaters but not in audience and famously musing, "I'm wondering if there are too many theaters" and whether "if there were fewer theaters, they'd have the resources to pay their artists more."

Where I've landed on whether "We Should Let Arts Organizations that Don't Adapt Die" is not on a general answer, but on a path of inquiry. Every word in the sentence is a station along that path.


Which of us are part of the "we" in this question? What kind of stakeholder relationships apply?

  • state arts agency
  • local arts agency (public)
  • local arts agency (not-for-profit)
  • business community
  • civic interest group (race/ethnic, heritage, neighborhood, demographic)
  • faith-based group
  • foundation (corporate, family, community)
  • private citizens
  • National Endowment for the Arts
  • government agency, not primarily arts, different levels

Arts Organizations

What are the mission and purpose and goals of the "arts organizations" in question?

  • What are the benefits these organizations exist to provide (nature, quality, scale)?
  • Who are the intended beneficiaries (breadth and depth)?
  • What group or groupings of organizations are in question?
  • "Arts organizations" can be about:
    • creation, distribution, presentation of art
    • various arts disciplines and genres or combinations of them
    • learning and practice and appreciation and history and criticism
    • identity of place, community, heritage, demographic group, belief
    • intermediary or service functions

Let … Die

What is at risk of loss:

  • participation and benefits at current levels of investment and operation?
  • in terms of community value and identity?
  • in terms of future potential for participation and benefits?
  • in terms of precedent? How will this decision affect future expectations and behaviors?
  • in terms of enabling preferable alternatives and investment options? (What's the potential for "creative destruction"?)


  • What are the indicators that adaptation is necessary? What's failing?
  • What changes in the environment are affecting these indicators?
  • What kinds of adaptation have the potential to address these indicators on a lasting basis?
  • What kinds and levels of resource are required to address these indicators?
  • What likelihood for successful adaptation would various resource levels provide?

Don't (Adapt)

Have not or will not, and why not?

  • have resisted adaptation: why?
  • haven't opposed adaptation or are divided, but still haven't adapted: why?
  • have no intention of adapting: why?
  • intend to adapt given certain circumstances or resources?
  • perceive themselves as in the process of adapting?
  • believe they have already adapted appropriately?


Given the information and our analysis, what is the action to be taken?

  • From the individual "we" perspectives, what would be the desired outcomes and benefits of successful intervention/investment?
  • Is there a collective perspective on desired outcomes and benefits that "we" can agree on and align resources to achieve? (Collective impact?)
  • Is the support infrastructure (intermediary, service, networking, knowledge, policy development, leadership development, advocacy) sufficient to sustain the benefits of investment, or does its creation/improvement need to be part of the investment?
  • Are the combined resources that are available (a) of sufficient magnitude and (b) of sufficient duration to enable successful adaptation?
  • What are alternatives? Would the resources necessary for the adaptation under consideration be better used to achieve the desired outcomes and benefits a whole other way?

As always, your comments, suggestions and questions are welcome.

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