Each neighborhood, city, or region includes an ecosystem of various kinds of anchor institutions such as colleges and universities, hospitals, community foundations, and other entities which are ”rooted in place.” These institutions, therefore, have a vested interest in the future of their surroundings; they are interdependent with the quality of life of their localities and their inhabitants.
Arts and culture organizations too can take on the mantle of anchor institutions. Around the world, enduring enterprises including museums and performing arts centers, theater companies and community-based arts centers employ artists, engage companies, activate community, and pursue social justice issues through deep engagement while also driving important economic impact as well as secondary benefits through ancillary expenditures.
As we look ahead to reopening venues, much will be different, much will need to change, and anchor cultural institutions will be called on to play a major role in reactivating the sector and reanimating communities. The thoughts that follow suggest that, like recoveries from other significant disruptions, the path forward will be long, have many steps, with unforeseen challenges as well as unexpected, but potentially positive outcomes. By suggesting a framework to consider possible strategies and actions, our goal is not to define the path; rather to stimulate a conversation and embolden forward thinking.
To meet these challenges, we need to recommit to purpose (why we do what we do). For decades, the arts and culture sector has been focused on “mission,” or what we do, and doing that to the very highest standards resources will allow. Success has enabled the work of many to increase access for some, but not to for all. It has engendered more diversity, but not enough. It has engaged more people, but not all who are interested and could enjoy arts and cultural participation. It is time to recommit to the core of our work: enabling artists to tell stories, to reveal meaning, to bring people together in a space where they can share in the experience.
As we look forward, we must reimagine how we connect with people (artists, employees, board members, partners, audiences and communities), redesign programs and services, and reinvent business models. Along the way we must also reframe our place in community, serve as anchor institutions, and shift perspectives from beneficiary of recovery to partner in recovery.
We are at the beginning of the road to return and the journey is unprecedented. It will be necessary to reimagine our organizations and set a course forward with new outcomes in mind. By defining our desired destination, while being agile as we adapt to new realities, we will be able to measure progress and shift and rebalance resources as we learn. We have already witnessed the wrenching reality and triage required to bring an entire sector to a near stop. As observers and advisors, we believe there are five stages to successfully restarting the arts and culture sector: Resilience, Readiness, Reimagination, Recapitalization and Return.
Stay engaged and connected. Sharpen the focus on your core purpose. Challenge assumptions.
Build on expanded engagement, study the market, gather data, explore new scenarios.
Design and implement a different future.
Communicate and advocate a new value proposition, new business models and new partnerships.
Scale up and meet our communities where they are, over time.
The sector was imagining future opportunities including deeper community entanglement, broader engagement and continuing to fulfill commitments to equity and inclusion. In just a blink of the eye that all turned inside-out. The sector’s first action to assure long-term continuity has been to focus on our most important assets: people and places. Already, initial triage actions are giving way to strategies to provide broad, while ad-hoc, community engagement and virtual content.
We need to pivot to reexamine our essential “purpose” and become laser-focused on staying connected to our communities (whether local, regional, or global) while the route back becomes clearer. It is a time to affirm our commitment to engage the full breadth of our communities in all its diversity; from artists to audiences, to residents to visitors, to communicate value broadly and enable recovery. This effort is critical to underscore the sector not only as an economic force but as a force for social good.
From managing public regulations to ensuring the comfort and safety of those who participate with us; to creating and delivering content, it is going to be a long and likely slow process. While the sector was turned off quickly, the switch back on will require ‘a long runway.’ Getting ready will require working with artists, producers and other partners to develop multiple operating scenarios that recognize the complexity of an incremental return to operation. Scenario planning will be essential to understand the leadership, human, and financial resources required to be ready to return. These efforts will not yield results immediately but are necessary prerequisites to success.
Rethinking the essentials will call for innovative solutions to meet the challenges of a successful return.
We can anticipate that many, if not most, arts and culture organizations will be necessarily smaller when they return. It will be critical that each organization is clear about its purpose and focuses scarce resources on what it does best; not what it has always done.
It will be essential to deleverage and recapitalize entities and the sector. There are four areas to be addressed:
The sector needs to develop new strategies that will enable art-makers, producers and presenters to focus on core functions while creating new mechanisms to incentivize reinvestment and recapitalization. While reduction in scale and institutional consolidations are also a likely outcome, it will be important to develop systems that provide broad opportunities for expression and participation.
Traditional, independent structures may give way to new ‘shared-risk/reward’ models that both reduce the initial exposure and incentivize positive results.
While the for-profit sector has the benefit of the “efficient capital markets” to create capital, it will be imperative to create a similar system for the not-for-profit arts and culture sector. The return is public value; assuring that our communities are places where people want to live and work. Social venture philanthropy and impact investing will be part of the solution. Foundations and the public sector, with their access to significant capital, will be essential partners in recovery. It will be important to recognize there will be intense competition for resources. A clear focus on compelling purpose and evidence of community benefit will be essential. As we work toward economic recovery, cultural recovery can be a full partner – driving employment and creating lasting value alongside other sectors.
While there are those who will, without doubt, be ready and willing to come together to share and celebrate quickly, it is already clear that others will take more time to return to galleries, theaters and performance venues. It will take time to recreate the critical mass of participation required to realize the level of earned revenue that ‘makes the math work.’ This means that the arts and culture sector needs to design an on-ramp that scales with time, and access to resources in the context of local and regional demand. There are many levers: how much we do, how frequently we do it, how we do it, and through what spaces (and technologies) we choose to deliver it.
It seems reasonable to imagine that there will be a period before full confidence is restored, (perhaps not until a tested and broadly available vaccine is in place), that will call for a more modest level of distribution, leading to a time when more usual operations and a more typical scale of activity will be possible. There will be difficult decisions to be made about what can return and when. During that evolution, we will be challenged to be realistic about managing our resources while at the same time needing to recognize that our decisions will have real impacts on the livelihood of many artists and administrators. Constant monitoring and revaluation of how the sector rescales will support reimagining how community-based anchor institutions fulfill their many roles.
The reality is that economic capacity and participation will ebb and flow. Being smart with supply and realistic with forecasting will be critical. The case for the important role of the arts and culture sector, and specifically the essential importance of place-based anchor cultural institutions, is well documented, but much will change.
Creative, thoughtful, and innovative strategies are required to drive the return to success. This calls for careful, thorough planning and new partnerships that will deleverage and recapitalize the sector.
This will take time. The time is now.