Friday, April 17, 2015

Adventures in Cultural Planning

New York City has recently been engaged in a debate around cultural planning. The New York City Council is developing legislation that would mandate that a cultural plan be created and then updates every few years. Details are still in development, such as whether a plan might be required every ten years, twenty years, etc., and how much detail should be in the legislation in terms of mandating specific components be included in the plan.

Because of the enormous scale of New York City and its cultural sector, this effort has provoked considerable conversation and even contention. Tom Finkelpearl, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, is working to ensure that this plan does not end up creating a complex and expensive "unfunded mandate," and also wants to avoid Council specifying in too much detail the structure or process the plan must use. And a local coalition of funders, led by New York Community Trust, has been working to support the concept of a plan, creating the New York City Cultural Agenda Fund, and organizing a recent public panel conversation that I participated in. A great summary of the session can be found here.

Above is the video of the panel discussion, which in addition to myself, featured Roberto Bedoya of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, Julie Burros, the new Chief of Arts and Culture for the City of  Boston, and San San Wong of the Barr Foundation, also in Boston. Michelle Coffey of the Lambent Foundation and NYC CulturalAgenda Fund moderated. City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer made welcoming remarks - he chairs the Council's art and culture committee which is drafting the cultural plan legislation. The session was held at BRIC - my first time there since leaving New York in 2008, so it was a great opportunity to see a wonderful community arts organization and facility in action. Also was great to get a tour of Urban Glass. When I was running the New York State Council on the Arts's Capital Funding Initiative back on  the late 80's early 90's, I was involved in funding the creation of their Brooklyn home. Beyond the great panel discussion itself, it was such a treat to reconnect with so many old friends from the New York City arts world.

I found it to be a great conversation, thoughtful and wide ranging. So many issues to explore, among them:

  • What are the different forms a cultural plan might take?
  • Is an outside consultant really necessary?
  • How do you engage the community, the citizens, so you are not just serving arts organizations with the plan?
  • How do you integrate individual artists into a plan?
  • Should the plan also address the for-profit creative sector?
  • How do you address issues of equity, and growing diversity of the population that may not be matched by cultural philanthropic resource allocation?
  • How do you tackle cultural planning in a city the scale and complexity of New York City?
  • How often should a plan be re-done? Especially in a world that is changing so rapidly
I did my best to share both my experiences in Philadelphia, and in Denver, informed by my long and deep immersion for the early part of my career in New York. Denver's Imagine 2020 plan is available here. Philadelphia's Creative Philadelphia Vision Plan can be seen here. And Boston's new plan is well underway - here is a great article in the Globe.

For all of the challenges, I think it is very exciting that New York is embarking on this process - the Mount Everest of cultural planning!

[Update: This week, the New York City Council voted 49-0 to support a bill mandating the creation of cultural plan for the City of New York, supported by Tom Finkelpearl, Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs. Here is a link to the New York Times article.] 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Is it a problem when an arts group is too dependent on a single donor?

Dancer Jin Young Woon of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
source: Cedar Lake Facebook page, photographer not credited
The recent case of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in New York City shuttering as a result of the withdrawal of support from their major benefactor, Nancy Laurie, an heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune, has sparked a dialogue around the pitfalls of over-reliance on a single donor. The New York Times wrote about the dance company's closure here, and Michael Kaiser addressed the larger issue in a blog post here.

Clearly, significant dependence on a single donor by an arts group poses serious challenges, and adds to institutional risk. On the other hand there has been a significant growth of arts institutions, largely in the visual arts, that are the creation of single donors/collectors. Would the excellent Neue Galerie in New York be able to survive without the support of Ronald Lauder and his family wealth? Unlikely.

And many of our now-great institutions with diverse funding began as the creature of a major benefactor. Carnegie Hall, of course, was the creation of Andrew Carnegie and his wife, and after his death came very close to disappearing.

It seems to me over-dependence on a single donor has been a phenomenon within the arts since the dawn of "the arts" as we know it, going back to court patronage. In many instances we need to look at largely single donor entities as creatures of their donor, that depending on the donor's desire, or lack thereof, for the entity having sustainability beyond their support, will either disappear based on the choices of that donor, or survive, based either on the careful work of the donor to wean the group off their support, or the efforts of other donors and leaders to sustain the organization.

Thirty years ago, when I became the first Managing Director of the Vineyard Theatre in New York, it was heavily dependent on the support of founder Barbara Zinn Krieger and her family. She, however, clearly understood the necessity of the organization building a diverse base of support, and during my four years there we steadily reduced her share of our philanthropic support from about 75% to 25% (if my recollection of budget numbers from so long ago is accurate). Now the theatre is thriving and fully independent of its founder's support.

But success in weaning an arts group of an unhealthy reliance on a single donor, is often dependent on that donor being committed to the effort, and sometimes needing to force the issue by establishing a predictable schedule for the steady reduction of their support. When an organization is known for being largely dependent on a single donor, this can lead to other donors being reluctant to provide significant support because of the perception that the major patron will always "pick up the tab" as well as the sense that the major patron will also not (intentionally or not)  "share the limelight" with other supporters interested in donor recognition. And development staff can get complacent as well, further exacerbating the situation.

I think the lesson is that if you are the major patron, and you want the organization to survive beyond your support, you need to "own the problem" and be willing to engage in some planning and, if needed, tough love. Or the major patron (and the staff) need to accept that the organization is the creature of that donor, and will exist only as long as they desire it to, and there is nothing wrong with that.