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February 19, 2009

'How Sick Organizations Get Really Sick'

William Triplett's piece on Michael Kaiser in today's Wall Street Journal is a must-read for arts journalists. The Kennedy Center chief discusses his initiative, "Arts in Crisis," as it begins to provide counsel and support to scores of beleaguered arts organizations across the country, but Kaiser's expertise transcends arts management. Like all skilled managers, he grasps fundamental concepts that elude bad managers in every industry. Talking about arts organizations' approach to cost cutting, he could easily be talking about the print media:

"When there are economic challenges, the first things that staffs and boards cut are programming and marketing, and that's the worst thing you can do," he says. "You're guaranteeing yourself you'll have less revenue next year, and that's how sick organizations get really sick. That's why I'm so nervous right now and why I'm doing this."

Cutting budget is obviously necessary, "but where you cut is crucial," he continues. "I cut the free coffee for staff here. It saved us $30,000 a year. I've also cut back on staff travel, including my own. I've never met a budget I couldn't cut, in any organization, no matter how small. But if you start by cutting the programming, rather than everything in the back of the house, you're signing a warrant that everything will just get worse, worse, worse."

Mind-boggling, no, that his staff had been drinking $30,000 worth of coffee a year at the office? These things do add up. But as Kaiser points out, so does the self-mutilation that organizations stubbornly engage in, hoping against all reason that they can attract the same audience -- even a bigger audience! even a younger audience! -- with an inferior product, and less of it. Such delusions grow more tempting as financial straits worsen, but they're delusions nonetheless. And Kaiser is right: Managers who fail to understand the value of their product, who cut content first rather than last, sign a death warrant for their organization. (Okay, he didn't go quite that far. But I'm willing to extrapolate.)

There's no chance that the parallels between arts management and media management are lost on Triplett, whose poignant tagline hints at his personal experience as a victim of budget cuts: "Mr. Triplett was the head of the Washington bureau of Variety from 2005 to the end of 2008." His tenure expired when Variety closed its Washington bureau and laid him off.
February 19, 2009 9:22 AM | | Comments (1)


Content and style are both part of the fundamental appeal of art; and to compromise content is to diminish the purpose and the appeal of art, of culture, as the article referred to suggests. I recall, too, that Nabakov is reported to have said something like, "A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me," and while I don't agree with all of that statement, I do think that art is first important to the individual, and then--through its effect on her (him)--it becomes important to society. It is a source of pleasure and human understanding; and it is comfort for one's woundedness and inspiration for one's development; and it is important as reflection on and for insight to social relations. Both artists and critics remind us of the value of art, but, as others have argued, it would be great if there were a prominent official representative for the arts at the highest levels of government, such as a culture minister or secretary for the arts, someone to advocate on behalf of the arts, draw further connections among them, remind us how important they are to the economy and to social well-being...

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