Thursday, August 19th, 2010

What Is the Real Function of an Arts Organization?

According to an article in D Magazine, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is in financial trouble:

There’s no doubt that the symphony, like many nonprofit groups in North Texas, is struggling to make ends meet in the teeth of a still-sputtering economy. The DSO’s plight is especially vexing to many Dallas businesspeople, however, because of the symphony’s importance to the business community as a symbol of the city’s cultural standing….After four straight years of balanced budgets—and a 70 percent increase in its endowment, to $120 million—the DSO ran into difficulty two years ago after its then-president and CEO, Fred Bronstein, left to head the symphony orchestra in St. Louis. Battered by the stock market crash and the so-called Great Recession, the DSO’s endowment would plummet to $84 million.

Local donors are hesitant in a tough economy and Dallas is having difficulty raising funds. What I find interesting is the juxtaposition of the endowment decline with the $1 billion the city just invested in a performing arts complex:

It is clearly one of the most impressive collections of new arts buildings in the country, designed by some of the finest contemporary architects – Renzo Piano, I.M. Pei, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Foster + Partners, Rem Koolhaas and Brad Cloepfil, whose Arts Magnet High School could provide the daily doses of populist energy that the district needs.

How can a city invest over a billion in buildings but not support the on field product? It reminds me of a previous post on Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the performing arts, whose price tag could have created an endowment that would have funded the entire operating budgets of the symphony, opera, and ballet in perpetuity.

Obviously art is not the primary role of these organizations play in their community, but something else entirely. That’s not to say that expenditures on buildings that seem excessive to some or to have no rational purpose is a bad thing. Man does not live on bread alone. Throughout history great civilizations have raised monuments of a questionable nature that nevertheless continue to inspire to this day – from the Pyramids of Egypt on down. A city that did not have such aspirations, that created a purely utilitarian environment driven entirely by the iron law of cost benefit, would be a place in which the spirit of man was atrophied. Few such places ever achieve greatness.

But there’s a balance to be had. The greatness of Athens was not in the Parthenon, nor Rome in the Coliseum. It was the intellectual, cultural (and yes, military) pursuits that happened in those places. Dallas is a great commercial success. It’s now looking to harvest the cultural benefits that can come from it. But Dallas would do well to heed the lesson of earlier boomtowns like Chicago. As Chicago got wealthy, it didn’t just build imposing Beaux-Arts monuments, it populated them with world class institutions. To this day the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago are among the finest in the world.

Dallas, Kansas City, and others looking to elevate their recognition level and quality of life through the arts should recognize that first and foremost it’s about the art. Building world class buildings populated by second rate, financially starved institutions would send a message to the world about a city alright, but I’m not sure it’s the one city leaders hoped to create.

Topics: Arts and Culture
Cities: Dallas

11 Responses to “What Is the Real Function of an Arts Organization?”

  1. Ed says:

    I would argue today that people are much more impressed by a striking, expensive building than they are by symphony orchestras or other performing arts. These art forms were far more robust in the late 19th century than they are today.

    I suppose it would be too cynical to build a performing arts center and put nothing in it at all. But then cities without professional sports teams have build sports complexes, in fact I think you praised this in a previous post on Indianapolis.

  2. MainStreet says:

    The following link is interesting as a former Boeing CEO explains how Millinieum Park and the Arts was one of several factors in Chicago winning out over Dallas for Boeing’s Corporate move.

  3. Poor Art says:

    I work at an arts institution (though not the DSO), and see this problem all the time. Walk into the offices of any arts institution and I’m sure you won’t see any bronze plaques on the copy machine, the mop closet or the file cabinets.

    Funding the operating budgets of our institutions is increasingly difficult each year. National and state funding has dried up and organizations are forced to rely on the generosity of individuals, foundations, corporations, and their endowment if they are lucky enough to have one.

    In 2009, The Community Foundation of Detroit gave away grants that could be used for operating funds, but I’m sure that won’t happen every year.

    Aaron, though it’s a different industry, this story is the same thesis you pose for transit funding. Many organizations are willing to build something and put their name on it and take credit, but no one wants to pay for the more burdensome, anonymous, long-term operating costs.

    *Apologies for posting anonymously, but I don’t want this to to be misconstrued as seeming ungrateful to the wonderful supporters of my employer.

  4. Jim says:

    Aaron, idealistically you are right that any city desiring to trot out the arts as a key component to quality of life should understand the arts holistically and not just as an economic engine.

    The arts almost have themselves to blame in some aspects. Having worked in the arts management field for 10 years, particular during the time that the sector decided to heavily pursue economic indicators to make their case for value when handing out corporate and government monies, the whole argument has almost tipped into irrelevance. What got lost in the fever to make a case statement that the arts drive the economy as much as the “other guys” is that the importance of the art form itself has been greatly diminished.

    Most eyes gloss over now when economic indicators are presented. Don’t get me wrong, the data supports that the arts do very much matter economically, but that message doesn’t do anything to differentiate the arts from every other sector trotting out numbers. It just becomes a bucket of numbers without much context.

    The other message is that the arts are valuable because they make you smarter. Its all about education. We relevant because we help make kids smarter. I know that is a reductionist version of many of the well-researched data points, but again, that message has worn thin. It is necessary, but not a differentiator.

    I have contended for years that sports have trumped the arts at their own game. The sports industry has understood that sure the actual game is important, but if that is all they would have focused on, the sports industry would never have grown past the core who care about wins and losses.

    Sports picked up on the key component of storytelling and pushing the dramatic element behind sports. The opened up every element of the “drama” of the game. The script is repetitive, but it works. How else could 24-hour television shows, radio programs, Web sites and numerous other media exist. What do they talk about all day long? The drama behind the scenes. Will Brett Favre come back or won’t he? Will he be accepted by team members if he does? Will he again, bruised and battered and aged, lead the team to a Super Bowl?

    The arts should own storytelling and of course drama. Instead, the message usually comes from a place of the underdog…the me too group. “We’re important too. Really.” Not the most compelling message. A good example last year in Indianapolis, there was a rally to basically say the arts matter. Ho hum. Preaching to the choir will never expand your reach.

    I love the arts, have great admiration for artists and would love it if everyone appreciated the value the same way I do. Data supports that the audiences are shrinking and there isn’t anyone whose job is related to audience development that isn’t looking at the eventual death of the older generation as a huge hole to fill in the future. It won’t happen within the next five or even 10 years, but if the arts don’t figure out how to tell their own story better, it is going to be rather difficult to support the current business models, especially of the larger organizations.

    The arts do matter in so many ways to our communities. Hopefully, the sector will step out from its me too approach, learn to tell its story better and truly show itself for the strength and beauty it is. And once and for all, quit comparing yourself to sports. It comes across as a message of we are inadequate. If feels like High School.

    The two areas may both have audiences, but the more the arts compare themselves to sports, whether through economic data (no matter how sound), the more the message comes across as pathetic and weak. Sports will always have more money based on a completely different business model. Go out and do what only the arts can do. In film, the writer and director know that they have to show, not tell the audience the story. The arts need to show why it is important. The sector needs real collaboration on this issue. Leverage the strength that you have in meaningful ways.

    Okay, much too long of a post, but you struck a chord.

  5. mullen says:

    Minneapolis/St. Paul is a metro that excels in the arts, both in physical infrastructure but most certainly in decades of sustained program excellence. Everything here is always in the context of Chicago. The twin cities is the true midwest benchmark, a place where quality arts are organic and lived as part of the collective DNA. How can Kansas City ever compare with Chicago? It’s not a mega city with the advatages that come with that reality. Expecatations would be better served by taking notice of success stories with less fanfare and self promotion.

  6. Attrill says:

    “How can a city invest over a billion in buildings but not support the on field product?”

    Simple answer – look at the campaign contributions developers make to the politicians who decide where to spend the money.

    I also think Poor Art’s comparison of Arts funding to Transit funding is an apt one. Another similarity between the two is a belief by some that projects need to prove their “worth”. Federal Law requires that Federal dollars only go to capital improvements. The main intent of this is to ensure that there is a local demand for the service. I think for some people the same is true of Arts funding – why pay for a symphony orchestra if no one is going to go? I don’t agree with this line of thinking, but it is very common. Especially in Texas.

  7. Poor Art says:

    @Attrill, you are exactly right with identifying the “won’t go, won’t pay” attitude. That strain of selfishness alive in American politics today is so virulent and damaging. I believe it to be the product of multiple generations growing up in a culture that is over-focused on the mechanics of capitalism. Mostly, I think, because it is increasingly harder to remain/become middle class and to a smaller extent because of a culture of greed, as evidenced by Wall Street most recently.

    Just like science and math, appreciating the value of the arts takes concerted effort by parents and teachers throughout elementary and secondary education. The problem is that over the last 20 years, those very programs have been gutted from curricula. Cultural institutions are out there proving their worth every day. Since so many schools no longer have these cultural appreciation classes, local institutions have stepped up their children’s programing to fill the void.

    The importance of our cultural institutions is so much more than any individual program that is offered though. Every cultural institution is such am amazing collection of individuals and resources that, as a whole, are irreplaceable. It takes years and years to build up a good symphony. Noteworthy art collections often take several decades to build, if it is possible at all. While math and science define the mechanics of life, art and music provide the very essence of living.

    Anecdotally, a great artist once told me that a true artist will still make art even if stranded on a desert island. That even without traditional art supplies, an audience, or any survival incentive, a true artist cannot help but make Art.

  8. anon says:

    Great post from the Urbanophile. It needed to be said. An art museum is the collection, not the building that surrounds it.

  9. Unfortunately, any discussion of a contemporary art museum seems to start with the architecture of the building. The Denver Art Museum is one example–I think I’ve read more about the structure of the place than the pictures hanging on the wall. Here in Portland, OTOH, where we’ve got an art museum that’s second rate IMHO, many of the proposals to address this seem to start with “it needs a new building”.

  10. And as a followup to my previous point, a bit of advice to museum curators, orchestra conductors, theatre directors and the like who are on a budget:

    Customers don’t buy tickets and memberships in order to enjoy or appreciate the building–much of that they can enjoy for free if they like.

    They buy tickets to view the collection, or hear the performances, or watch the productions.

    What may be needed is for an influential curator or director to explicitly and publicly refuse to join the my-house-is-more-avant-garde-than-yours game; and instead proclaim a devotion to improving the art, rather than the architecture.

    A second bit of advice, from the sports world: Much of the money made in major-league sports, at least in North America, is from the corporate skybox–private rooms leased out to big businesses for annual six- or seven-figure rents, entitling the tenant to entertain clients/investors/whoever whenever there is a game or show at the facility. When skyboxes were introduced in the early 1990s, literally dozens of stadiums, ballparks, and areans were instantly obsolete. The most glaring example was the Charlotte Coliseum, aka the “Hive”, which was a state-of-the-art multipurpose arena when it was built in 1988, it nevertheless lacked this crucial amenity and was demolished less than 20 years later.

    Perhaps leading fine arts institutions might figure out better ways to tap into corporate expense accounts beyond the traditional avenue of sponsorship.

  11. John says:

    The DSO’s plight is especially vexing to many Dallas businesspeople, however, because of the symphony’s importance to the business community as a symbol of the city’s cultural standing….

    This seems like part of the problem to me. Shouldn’t a symphony be more than a symbol of cultural standing? Shouldn’t it be something that people actually enjoy, attend, and support? Do you really need it if it’s just a symbol? It reminds me of the urban youth who think they need an “ice grill.” Do you really need bling on your teeth? Of course not. It’s just a symbol.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures