Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Clinging to the Wreckage

I am writing this as Hurricane Irene has finished her rampage up the east coast, causing great loss of property and more than 40 lives. This major meteorological event ironically coincides with a topic I had intended to address at this time in any event: nonprofits coping with adversity, even disaster.

Fifteen years ago I contributed to a Museum News cover article “Fixing it, Repair and Revival of the National Endowment for the Arts.” At that time (FY 96) the NEA’s appropriation had been cut over 38% from the previous year - a residue from the “culture wars”- and there was talk of restructuring the agency, adding private fundraising, etc.

I opened my piece by recounting the anecdote that inspired the title of John Mortimer’s (of Rumpole fame) charming memoir about his father entitled Clinging to the Wreckage. A venerable British yachtsman was asked the secret to his longevity despite years of dangerous voyage. Of a shipwreck, he counseled “clinging to the wreckage” and waiting for rescue rather than trying to swim to shore and surely drowning. I used that as a metaphor for a survival strategy for the NEA (it did).

In 2011, in a deep recession and feeble economy we see around us evidence of roiling seas for nonprofits. In the arts world, the Philadelphia Orchestra declared bankruptcy, the American Folk Art Museum is on the verge of collapse, and a number of orchestras have folded or foundered, as have some theatre companies. The New York City Opera has announced it will abandon its long-time Lincoln Center home just two years after a $ 127 million renovation. Last April the renowned Tony-awarding winning Intiman Theatre in Seattle was forced to cancel the remainder of its season and lay off its entire staff.

There are a number of reasons cited for such dire actions, ranging from the effects of the economy on fundraising – a neutral view - to the more confrontational charges of mismanagement, sloppy financial stewardship and even a nefarious attempt to renege on pension obligations through bankruptcy procedure. In the case of the American Museum of Folk Arts the culprit would appear to be, alas, the not uncommon “reach extending grasp” effect regarding a sexy and expensive new building and the difficulties of sustaining it on an annual basis.

Reasons aside, the question remains is: what to do? Here is where I return, somewhat loosely, to the “clinging to the wreckage” metaphor. Several of the organizations I have mentioned are struggling to retain their core expertise but within a new, slimmer model. The board of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy (liquidation) last spring. But now its musicians have created a new organization “Symphony Syracuse,” which its leader called a “lifeboat organization” (thanks for the nautical reference) for the 77 unemployed musicians and is working to create a performance season. The New York City Opera announced it would be staging operas at a number of smaller venues throughout the city and although facing harsh criticism will at least keep to its mission of producing opera and hope to re-build from there. The Intiman Theatre, thought to be lost, recently laid out a blueprint to re-open, with a “micro season” that returns to the theatre’s “core impulse” of an artist-based organization, with a new director and business plan.

Only time will tell if these initiatives will work. But in resisting the option of going under and electing a form of re-invention they show fortitude and imagination – and a determination to survive. They await rescue, most desirably in the form of a sturdier economy. If history offers any clue, that will come. When is anyone’s guess but in the meantime one hopes the power of core mission will keep these organizations, and other non-profits, afloat.

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