Closing the Books on Another Year

For all nonprofit organizations with fiscal years ending at midnight tonight, congratulations on making it through a tough year.

Now that you’ve managed to stanch the hemorrhaging, drain the festering wounds, and stabilize your vital signs, we can go ahead and take a look at that broken bone. This won’t hurt a bit.

We all know that there’s really nothing magical about the start of a new fiscal year. Our accountants just need to place a marker to signal that one period is done and another is beginning. Art organizations will not wake up tomorrow morning to find that their bank accounts have been replenished by the Funding Fairy*. We just start up all over again in the unending struggle to meet budget goals.

*Note: The Funding Fairy unwisely invested funds with Bernie Madoff, ending up in the condition seen below.

In a recent article, The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that nonprofits are feeling the “stress” of the recession. According to recent studies, the hurt has been felt most in small organizations; 70% of those with revenue under $1-million reported that finances had worsened in the past six months (compared with fewer than half of larger organizations).

More troubling is the finding that nonprofit leaders working at theaters and orchestras are sweating the economy the most. Whereas only 13% of all respondents said they were worried about organizational survival, the percentage of pessimists among orchestra leaders was 24%, and among theater managers a whopping 33%. Let me repeat that last figure: One-third of leaders of nonprofit theaters surveyed said they were worried about survival.

(More troubling is that 97% of artistic directors reported being "Very Concerned" when asked "Are you concerned that there won't be enough affordable one-person shows available to fill your season?").**

The co-author of one of the reports, William Foster, looked for the silver lining in all this: “The economic tightness is forcing nonprofits to do things that would be healthy habits in any economic time. If we’re going to come out of recession smarter than we came in, it will only be if tough decisions and thoughtful economizing has taken place.”

Tomorrow morning, tune in to OPB (91.5 fm) at 9:00 when the “Think Out Loud” topic will be “World Class Arts?” The question mark at the end of the title implies that there is debate about Portland's ability to sustain the number of top-notch arts institutions we now enjoy. Barry Johnson wrote about this at Portland Arts Watch a week ago, reporting that Doug Stamm, Executive Director of the Meyer Memorial Trust, had posed the question as to whether Portland can support all five of our top arts groups ... or even try. (The top five are the Portland Art Museum, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Portland Opera, Oregon Symphony and Portland Center Stage).

It’s a legitimate question, though I find it troubling that the head of one of the region’s major foundations would ask it in a way that implies the answer might be “No.” How about if we rephrase the question to give it a more positive spin: “What do we have to do to sustain the arts at a level that Portland deserves?”

Barry followed his original post with an interesting thesis about the role of true democracy in how we run arts organizations. It’s a thoughtful post packed with arguments and contentions worthy of lively debate. It’s long, but not “Infinite Jest” long if you're one of those people who are participating in "Infinite Summer" and have committed to read the David Foster Wallace opus in its entirety between June 21st and September 22nd.

** This part isn't true.


culturejock said...

First, thank you for parsing out the difference between what could have been a legitimate question from Doug Stamm but came off as a negative rhetorical statement. Since the Meyer Trust hasn't funded the Portland Opera, for example, since 2002 -- one of the healthier arts organizations in town -- I assume they have already decided that foundations can't really afford five major arts organizations and are happy to imply that Portland as a whole probably can't afford them either. Phooey!

Second, this term "world-class" is confusing to me. I am afraid that the phrase is being used interchangeably with "major arts organizations," i.e., the five kinds of large organizations that every major city in the world has, so we like to compare them to each other. But "world class" should be based on quality, not size, and some of our city's best arts organizations are not large at all.

I dare you to call into the program and say YES WE CAN support Write Around Portland and Portland Taiko and Mary Oslund Dance!

Congratulations, though, to all of you artists and arts administrators who survived the mess that was FY09, and happy new year!

MightyToyCannon said...

Oh, don't get me started on the topic of what happened to the Meyer Trust's interest in the arts. Perhaps it will be addressed on Think Out Loud -- one of the guests will be Barbara Gibbs from the Trust. The Trust still funds arts and culture projects, but it seems that it used to be a true champion for the arts and to understand the need for ongoing support. Of course, the priorities of the Trustees can shift, and there are always new and different societal needs to be addressed. Whether the economy is sucking or soaring, all nonprofit organizations should be asking "what's the right scale?" and "what level of service or program can we sustain?" But to imply that Portland can't sustain five major arts organizations just because some are having trouble in the middle of a bad recession strikes me as unthinking, if not irresponsible.

MightyToyCannon said...

Addendum: In case the Meyer Trust is using Google Alert to tell them when bloggers are writing about it, let me just direct this to the Trust: I am deeply grateful for grant support the Meyer Trust has given to arts organizations with which I am or have been associated. Also, thanks for keeping me in business as a grant writer for arts organizations all those years. As you've embraced social networking and new media, I'm sure you understand that bloggers can get a little hotheaded from time-to-time, and say impertinent things.

culturejock said...

One hopes that the good folks at Meyer would accept criticism and frustration on this issue without blacklisting anyone who dares raise the issue.

It's 9:06 and I'm listening in; the program is about to begin. I see that Barbara Gibbs is no longer listed as a guest.