Event Recap: “Strategies for Sustainability: Arts Administration During the Pandemic”

By Christine YuHsuan Chuang (ARAD ‘21)

The Arts Administration program (ARAD) kicked off the public events series of the 2020-2021 academic year with a timely panel discussion entitled “Strategies for Sustainability: Arts Administration During the Pandemic.” The event was led by the program director Dr. Gemma Mangione, joined by four leading data scientists, researchers, and arts advocates to discuss how cultural organizations are responding to the challenges of our contemporary moment. The panel speakers include Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President of Strategic Foresight and Founding Director of the Center for the Future of Museums of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM); Zannie Voss, Director of SMU DataArts and Professor in Arts Management at Southern Methodist University; Jen Benoit-Bryan, Vice President and Co-Director of Research at Slover Linett Audience Research, and Diane Jean-Mary, Partner and Chief Strategy Officer at LaPlaca Cohen.

Dr. Mangione highlighted that one of the core missions that guide the Arts Administration program is the belief that arts administrators must be adaptive to their external environments and changes. The COVID-19 pandemic and turmoil over racial injustice have posed unprecedented crises of our time, and the art world and the communities that it serves are facing a high level of uncertainty, with situations changing almost minute by minute. It becomes more relevant than ever to pay attention to trends and reflect on arts organizations’ own internal realities. The panel speakers presented the most cutting-edge data research about arts organizations’ response to COVID-19, how cultural consumers’ behaviors have changed, and the implications for organizational planning. The discussion also highlighted the alignment of community engagement and DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion).

Elizabeth Merritt introduced the key topline findings from the “National Survey of COVID-19 Impact of United States Museums” done by AAM. She focused on assessing the financial impact of the pandemic on the arts organizations around the country. AAM’s survey was sent out to arts managers in mid-June this year amid the nationwide indefinite closure of arts organizations. Ms. Merritt pointed out that since one-third of the museums in the US rely on earned revenues from admissions, the shutdown pushed museums’ financial sustainability to a precarious state with an ongoing loss of operating income. In the survey, one-third of the respondents expected to lose 20% of their income and 37% of respondents expected to lose 21-40% of their income this year. More than half of the museums (56%) reported that they have less than six months of operating reserves. The field expressed a lack of confidence in the survival of the museums, with 33% of museum leaders believing that they are facing a significant risk of closing permanently in the next 16 months.

While there has been additional funding from organizations like the Mellon Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services since June, it is not enough to mitigate museums’ financial distress. Meanwhile, some museums are facing a bigger financial risk for closing for a second time, while others have used up loan funds and laid off staff. Despite the harsh environment for the museums, Ms. Merritt noted that she was inspired by how some museums are finding new revenue streams in creative ways such as the Cincinnati Zoo’s inspiring program of Facetime with the animals via Zoom. She also hinted that there have been some signals of change in governance in the museum sector. A close observation of how the nonprofit landscape is shifting during this time when smaller museums are seeking new parent organizations or going independent might lead us to discover new opportunities for resources, innovation, and organizational development.

Ms. Merritt concluded with two important points: First, it is important to analyze the factors both outside and inside our control and plan on different potential scenarios. Second, to strengthen the museums’ sustainability, we should keep ourselves informed of the long-term impact of the pandemic on museum-going and the changes in public expectations for cultural organizations. While focusing on the impacts of the pandemic to the sector is crucial, Ms. Merritt suggested that we should all proactively think about “what kind of post-pandemic futures we want to live in” and make decisions that could lead us to that future. 

Aligning with Ms. Merritt’s idea of having a broader view of how the sector might look like beyond the current crisis, Dr. Zannie Voss suggested a strategic approach of reimagining the future and realizing financial sustainability. Dr. Voss discussed the data from the “Arts and Cultural Organizations In It For the Long Haul,” a report recently published by SMU DataArts in partnership with TRG Arts and commissioned by the Wallace Foundation. It evaluated arts organizations that outperformed their peers in financial management during the pandemic and what strategies they adopted. The report found that there are no short-cuts to success. The leaders of the high-performing arts organizations during this time all constructed a clear “mental map for how success happens” to pivot community-oriented programming and stakeholders’ relationships to establish a solid foundation for a forward-looking strategic approach.

Synthesizing the insights from extensive quantitative and qualitative research, Dr. Voss suggested a model built upon value, revenue, and people to link strategy to financial sustainability. She argued that arts organizations should “innovate and reconfigure” by determining the organizations’ mission, visions, strengths, and the external environmental factors to concentrate on the meaningful core values for the community they serve. This community-focus mission alignment across the organization becomes key to sustainability when the rising social injustice is prompting urgent needs for change. It requires active listening to increase the relevance of the programming with the communities. Dr. Voss hopes that through the adaptive transformation of the arts organizations, we will be able to serve more slices of the audiences, to heal the wounds of social conflicts, and to reach reconciliation.

Changes in public expectations for cultural organizations and changes in arts participation patterns, both highlighted by Ms. Merritt and Dr. Voss, are explored in LaPlaca Cohen’s special edition of Culture Track, “Culture and Community in a Time of Crisis” in collaboration with Slover Linett. As Diane Jean-Mary mentioned, Culture Track started in 2001 in the wake of 9-11 with a vision “to get into the hearts and minds of audiences and communities around this nation.” Not unlike the 9-11, the crisis that we are facing today also possesses an unprecedented high level of uncertainty.  

In Culture Track 2020, researchers found a disparity between cultural participation among White and other races. According to the research, the core community’s needs for culture involve a great deal of emotional and psychological factors such ways as to stay connected, to heal, to relax, to hope, and to escape. These emotional motivations for cultural participation have been demonstrated in the previous edition of Culture Track from 2017, but this year’s results are further characterized with the public’s expectations for cultural organizations to be a vehicle for social change and to better serve their communities by being friendlier and welcoming more diverse voices to be heard. 

Along with the communities’ rising expectations for diversity and inclusion, the cultural landscape has been affected by an accelerating pivot towards digital during the lockdown. Jen Benoit-Bryan pointed out that digital has to some extent helped cultural organizations reach diverse audiences across different ages and races. For example, those who are non-recent visitors to orchestras but have experienced digital content from orchestras were 15 times more likely to be African American and three times more likely to be Gen Z. The implication of this shift underscores the potential of digital to democratize the public’s access to arts and culture.

During the Q&A session, the global implications of the research was raised. In response, all the speakers agreed on the approach of comparing the similarities and differences between different countries and cultural contexts while also acknowledging the limitations of the comparison due to a fundamental difference in areas such as policy infrastructures, data collection protocols, and philanthropic landscapes. Ms. Merritt mentioned that she is always looking for transferable examples that she can bring from other countries to help develop strategies for our own challenges.

Another line of questions focused on the implications of the data about digital engagement in the arts. According to the data presented in the Culture Track, while 76% of respondents have seen cultural organizations’ digital offerings during COVID-19, only 13% have paid for one or more of the digital offerings. The adjunct faculty of Arts Administration program Kirsten Munro and I both raised questions about the barriers and data available for arts and cultural organizations to monetize their digital and online programming and what the tensions between accessibility, equity, and financial stability are. Ms. Merritt highlighted that it is important to know what your priorities are, whether it is to maintain connections to the audiences or to directly monetize the offerings for revenues. She also concluded that it is challenging, but essential to have “an integrated digital strategy” to achieve different ends.

Liliana Guerrero, a second-year ARAD student, asked whether the speakers think that the high participation in the online cultural and art programming among diverse audiences will translate to a more diverse makeup of the visitors in the physical space when arts and cultural organizations reopen. Drawing from 15 years of research from Culture Track, Ms. Jean-Mary thought that it would not be an organic transfer from digital to physical. She believed that the number one barrier for cultural participation is the audiences’ perception of certain arts and cultural activities are “not for someone like me,” highlighting that a drastic transformation is required to make the physical experience less intimidating for the less privileged groups. While the structural change requires incremental revolutions, community-oriented strategies suggested by the panelists would help make progress in this area..

The extensive range of research and data highlighted in this event showed the importance for arts administrators and their organizations to be adaptive and actively listen to the communities they serve. Looking at AAM’s approach towards the future of the museums, SMU DataArts’ strategic suggestions of mission alignment and financial sustainability, and Culture Track’s illustration of the arts’ role during the nation’s “declining social cohesion,” the panel discussion posed several thought-provoking questions based on not just numbers but also what our communities are trying to tell us. “We need places and ways to gather and still have joy and pleasure in our lives. Places, even if virtual, to comfort each other and feel human, humane, and normal,” a participant in the Culture Track survey wrote. What the data is trying to tell us is more than the trends, but how the world is changing, how people are thinking and feeling about arts and culture, and how we as arts administrators and arts organizations can move forward in solidarity.

A recording of this event is available on the Archive section of the ARAD Events page.

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