I'd like to buy a vowel...or get immunity.

So I guess there are times in life when it would be nice to be on a reality tv show. The kind where, with some skill and a little luck, you can win an immunity challenge and be somehow protected from the harshness of competition.

But it ain't so. And this economy we're in is taking no prisoners. So while those working in the arts are adding a ton of advocacy work to their already packed plates to lobby for continued support for the work of institutions and artists (and oh, wonders, perhaps even some increase?), the cold hard facts are that, like all businesses in 2009, the arts are belt tightening.

And, as we are fond of saying, our world is about people. So cutting budgets means...you got it. Cutting positions. Today, Portland Center Stage (where I work) was a place where hearts were getting a little cracked and bruised, as 5 staff members jobs were eliminated as a way to try to bring the year in on budget and prepare for a tough year ahead. Already, there is a lot of chatter in the blogosphere about what that means to our mission, who we are as a company, and whether the right choices were made. The reasons for the instant interest are varied, but I would argue that the interest -- even that expressed with mean spirit -- is a by product of success.

One of the positions cut was Literary Director, held by the much beloved (inside PCS and out) Mead Hunter, aka Dr. Fun. Mead is well-known in the Portland arts scene, and rightly so. His intelligence, elegance, generosity and wicked sense of humor are all prized; and he has been a remarkable ambassador for PCS in the community. So there is a lot of sadness, shock and anger about the news that Mead's role at the theater was eliminated -- again, inside PCS and out.

But a little context is needed. FIVE positions were cut today. And while the others may not be as well known outside the company as Mead, they each in their own way made significant contributions to PCS, and making the theater the community asset that it is. And if that asset is to weather this economy and come out strongly the other side, very difficult decisions must be made. As they must in any organization, business or company.

Losing Mead is a tear in the fabric of PCS; the same can be said of the other four positions, in box office, IT, facilities, and artistic. Other positions were reduced earlier this year, in marketing, fundraising, costuming, and production. None were easy, but they were less visible to the outside view.

We are not alone in now being in the position of trying to do our work with fewer resources. But do our work we will, because if we don't commit to that, we're being completely disrespectful to our colleagues past and current; and to the patrons and audiences who are still supporting us and the arts in Portland to the fullest extent they can.

In fact, by many measures PCS is having a great year; subscriptions at a 15 year high, single tickets on pace to be in the top three years of sales. But what we lacked was a crystal ball last spring that would tell us that the economy would go where it has, and tell us not to expect the kind of growth we'd seen the previous two years. That expectation not being met is the root of the problem.

There is no contest we can win to give us immunity from the financial realities of 2009. But we can meet the challenges head on and be here to grow and succeed in the better days that we believe are ahead.


culturejock said...

Thanks for the post, Cyn. I count myself among the disappointed, but I also appreciate the measures that PCS is taking -- being forced to take -- to remain viable. RACC and George Thorn have been counseling organizations all year to comb through every budget revenue line item, both earned and contributed, and be acutely realistic about how much money is coming in the door. Naturally, there are going to be big gaps compared to the budgets we made last summer, so organizations must make prudent budget cuts (usually in the form of staff layoffs) to close the gap.

But then I wonder, how many funders might give a little extra $ to bring some of these people back? And did PCS apply for NEA economic stimulus (job retention) funds?

Boy this economy sucks.

cynseattle said...

thanks Jeff! and yes, we're applying for the NEA funds and remain hopeful that we will be approved.

As for funders giving extra to restore positions...I think that most organizations are challenged to meet their fundraising goals this year, as tied to expenses forecast last summer. So that's the cycle we're in.

MightyToyCannon said...

The news of PCS’s recent round of layoffs deflated my spirits yesterday evening. These cold, gray, spitting days aren’t helping with the gloom. This morning, I was prepared to opine at length on the topic. Now my will to do so is slipping. When the clatter grows to a din and the pitchforks and torches start to appear, my tendency is to step away from the fray. I ask, “Do I really have anything to add to this conversation”?

No I don't. But as one of the authors on this blog, I feel compelled to add a little personal perspective to what Cynseattle and Culture Jock have written. So here are some of my thoughts:

First: This all sucks. It’s suckage at its worst.

Second: It is scary when economic catastrophe creeps close. It becomes less abstract when it hurts people we like and respect, and when it seems like all the frozen sandbags in Fargo aren’t enough to keep this flood from your doorstep. I ask “Who’s next?” and “When is this going to be over?”

Third: Disappointment, disillusionment and skepticism seem to me to be appropriate responses. Rage and blame don’t seem helpful—unless, I suppose, raging is cathartic for you. I believe that this was a very painful decision for everyone involved, even the mythical “powers that be.” Please rail about Chris Coleman's artistic choices and abilities, but spare me the accusations of heartlessness.

Fourth: Metaphorically speaking, cutting PCS’s Literary Department is like General Motors cutting its research and development department, or the State Department eliminating the diplomatic corps. Perhaps unavoidable in these circumstances, but shortsighted nonetheless. Two things have contributed positively to PCS’s “brand” over the past few years: (1) Its home at the Armory (which helps give life to a neighborhood that might have otherwise been a theme park for the wealthy); (2) Its commitment to developing new plays. I may be wrong, but I lay the credit for the latter at the feet of Rose Riordan, Mead Hunter and Megan Ward. I’ll be curious to see what happens with JAW this summer, though it may have plenty of grants restricted to supporting only it.

Fifth (and another metaphor): Like struggling banks that are reluctant to accept bail-out money for fear of being stigmatized, PCS now faces the delicate task of saying, “Things are great!” while also saying, “Things aren’t great!” Last week I heard Greg Phillips give a well-rehearsed and passionate curtain speech that included promises that PCS will press forward boldly and not give in to fear. Then this week happened.

Sixth: I wish all the best to everyone who has been laid off at PCS, as well as to those who remain to pick up the slack. Mead is the only one of the sacked that I really know, and -- even then-- it’s mostly because he’s a blog buddy. For all I know, Mead spent his days at PCS playing online Scrabble, barking insults at coworkers and gleefully shredding unworthy scripts. However, my impression is that he has been a remarkable teacher and a decent man. Lord knows, we need plenty of those.

culturejock said...

Hey MTC. Great comments. I too spent some time last night trying to articulate the difficulty I am having reconciling PCS's "rosey but dire" message. I have a fundraising background so I know that's important to message from a place of strength. But. There are two interesting comments on the Mercury blog entry on this topic. Both help illuminate how these messages are confusing at best, or worse: condescending.

(1 comment says:) "I think saying that "the current situation at PCS is not dire" is a real slap to those getting shitcanned. Tell THEM it's not dire. You can't have it both ways, PCS. You can't tell us in your 10-minute curtain speech that you're not going to retreat in your commitment to quality and you're not going to scale back but move forward and then dump the heart of your organization. It's bullshit and it's disingenuous and it's bravado and it confirms what a lot of us have suspected about PCS for years: image is more important than substance. By firing Mead you are sending the entire national theatre community the clearest signal possible about the financial state of one of the top 25 theatre companies in the country (wherever you pulled that crap from)."

(Another comment says:) "...To those PCSers who are following this thread: it would seem very uncouth and unfair for Greg Phillips to continue with his curtain speeches at this point. It is clear now that PCS is having troubles too. To go in front of your audiences and declare you are "staying the course" seems a little callous, and a lot untrue."

MightyToyCannon said...

I saw those comments, but thanks for bringing them in here. This may be a case study in the importance of transparency in this age of instant media. Of course, the other reality might be that this just isn't on anybody's radar besides those of us toiling in the theater community.

cynseattle said...

To join in again...a couple of additional comments. I think that in fundraising and marketing, we're always questioning our messaging. What is the message that will bring the strongest response from our desired audience? And I think that in order to have any integrity at all, the absolute first step in generating that message is to ensure that it is Truth. "This is the shiniest car you're ever going to drive" can be a great sales message, but if it's a completely dull finish, you've lost your credibility for any follow up messaging.

I know that each of us writing in this blog have jobs that require us to present the best case we have to our constituents which, we hope, includes sharing our best news along with being honest about our most difficult challenges. We all use judgment about the proper balance between the two.

It's hard this week, when people have lost their jobs, to hear through the din of upset and outrage, that there is much good news at PCS. But there is. And that is always what we'll lead with. Deciding the proper timing, and proper audiences, to share the tough challenges is where strategic differences can come in. When is the right time to share with the outside world (outside staff, board, and closest held donors and patrons) that the challenges have grown bigger than anticipated? I think we've all seen fundraising efforts where that timing has been off; too soon (crying wolf) or, god forbid, too late.

We very publicly talked about the cuts we made last fall, when we first saw signs that the economy would be challenging. But no one commented, because the staff that was let go in that round didn't have the public face that Mead has earned. And we hoped that would be enough to bring this year in on budget.

But a continuing deterioration of economic conditions sent us back to the drawing board. And it's fast moving, guys -- one anticipated gift falling through, one show that closes under goal, and the situation changes in a matter of a couple of weeks. And there's no room in this business climate to "wait and see" what effect those twists and turns will have.

Our news this week is NOT news we could release to the wider public until we had shared with affected staff, colleagues, board, etc. So now we have.

Bottom line: it is a delicate balance, coming up with the right message. We could easily veer into "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" territory, and none of us want that kind of delusion. Maybe that's what we're being faulted for now, among other things.

I do think we'll "press forward, and not give in to fear." Fearfulness generally leads to no action. The action taken this week is heartbreaking, but many other companies around the country, both in and out of the arts world, are making the same difficult choices. For us to make no changes at this time would be the height of irresponsibility. It's everyone's right to have an opinion about whether the choices are the right ones; but only time will truly tell.

Tuesday morning quarterbacking is a delightful game.

culturejock said...

I think it's great that a lot of people are talking about this -- not here, so much, but on other blogs. Demonstrates community passion for PCS and its employees.

I think people should be able to express their frustrations and ask smart questions, sorting this all out in their own minds, without being characterized as post-game quarterbacks. I for one am not second-guessing the decisions that PCS has made, but rather exploring the challenges that PCS will have in messaging going forward. Mr. Phillip's most recent statements about "staying the course" felt somewhat like a half-truth to many even before this most recent round of layoffs, and now I don't think a statement like that can be used at all lest people "in the know" be left scratching their heads. The great news here is that lots of people ARE in the know about PCS, and care passionately about the success of the organization, and that is a wonderful thing.

Does anyone have a time machine we can borrow to zap ourselves three years hence? I'm just dying to see how this all turns out -- not only for PCS but for all of the arts organizations that are making painful decisions in an effort to re-balance their businesses and remain viable.