Author Archives: Mitchell Weiss

NONPROFITS

What’s wrong (and right) with our nonprofit theaters and arts organizations?

When asked why he chose not to produce The Elephant Man, producer Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival (at one time the most successful non-profit theater company in the world), said he just didn’t believe that non-profit monies should be used on projects that could easily find a commercial producer. “That’s not what non-profit monies are for,” he said.
During his career, Mr. Papp produced free and ethnically-diverse Shakespeare in Central Park, hundreds of inexpensive new and experimental works at the Public Theater, an annual Latino Festival, film and jazz programs. He transferred dozens of important original works to Broadway because, “they deserve a wider audience.” Many of those plays and musicals seemed risky at first, and are now classics in the American dramaturgy.
What is your non-profit theater producing? What do our non-profits do that’s so special that they deserve a tax exemption? Do your leaders indulge their own egos, or a greater social mission? What makes a good non-profit administrator and where do they learn their craft? Do your leaders consistently spend more than they have, or do they first define a plan while maintaining fiscal responsibility?
One great show a year may affect our culture more than twenty shows of no consequence. How high can we set our standards as an institution? If our mission is to educate, how do we do it better than anyone else?
A theater’s educational programs can have great power, based on anecdotal evidence. A group of troubled teen refugees were encouraged to write their own plays based on their lives, and the results were transformative. This is good use of nonprofit money! And it is very inexpensive. This can’t be the source of a non-profits constant debt. There should be no pride in a sustained legacy of being in debt.
Artistic directors argue for more money to produce their dream shows. Meanwhile the public is asked and sometimes hounded for large contributions (tax deductible) to keep the non-profit company alive. On the surface, this does not appear fair, equitable, or necessary.
In addition, many leaders lack experience and/or training in crisis management, and tend to leave one failing institution to be hired by the next and the next. Universities have been teaching arts administration for a few decades, yet none of them teach crisis management at is most difficult. Arts administration is a creative field and needs people who have been trained to think outside of the box.
Teaching our future arts administrators Quickbooks, finances, and basic marketing is not enough upon discovering your theater is losing $100,000 each year. Hiring a company manager to take care of housing, transportation, and parties, but failing to provide training before they start work is not acceptable. Our best leaders do not come from the classroom or most summer internships. We learn from the most inspired among us.
Finally, we all know that raising money is very difficult. I have founded my own non-profit theater and managed others. I have struggled to raise funds from foundations, government agencies, and private citizens, while maneuvering our mission to respond to the grant-givers requirements.
I honestly believe that theater, music, dance, and art can make a difference in our lives, but our goals must be guided by the highest standards, all within a reasonable and sustainable budget.
Bigger is not always better. Funding capital campaigns does not make the work of an institution better. It may actually divert the institution from the mission. Along with the rest of our society, we need to live within our means, and do excellent, not average, work.
I have found the quality of original work of a handful of non-profits to be thrilling. It’s overwhelming how much money is needed to present this level of quality work. They are the true reason for 501(c)3 status. The other nonprofits are just beggars.
I suggest that the Board members at these many institutions take a hard look at their programs. Perhaps fundraising will take less effort because of their importance to the community and our culture.

  • Mitch

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Education

Trashing our educational system seems to be a popular pastime. Yet so many of us consider ourselves well-educated and well-rounded. How did that happen if the system is so bad? What important information did we miss out on? (Does this dangling participle matter?) What can be done in the current unionized and politicized state of American schools?

 

First of all, there’s a lot of learning available to everyone outside of the school walls, but it is not evenly scattered across America. Appalachian children have no access to New York City museums. Detroit children may never see a Broadway musical or witness the making of a Hollywood film. Some children are not given accurate textbooks or have access to the Internet. And yet, we invent ideas, art and businesses with and without these so-called advantages.

 

No one system of learning works for everyone. It seems to me that 75% of America can learn almost everything even while standing on their heads in the corner of a classroom. It’s the other 25% of America that suffers significantly under our public and private school systems. Of course everyone, from genius to average to challenged, deserves an improved and more relevant learning process, if we can agree on it.

 

I have visited “A+” schools with a team of dedicated, smart and effective teachers and administrators. They are well-funded with excellent tools including up-to-date technology. This is expensive and tends to exist in only a few communities. I have also witnessed crime-ridden schools of “lost” students and teachers fighting to maintain decorum and sneak in a bit of worthwhile learning while being regulated by irrelevant curriculums.

 

It’s not about creating “equal opportunity” of schools, but more about finding the best ways to teach real and worthwhile lessons to people of all ages so that they want to continue to learn and grow and improve as human beings. Everyone is different. Everyone learns differently. The skills and knowledge that sticks is either drilled into our heads (i.e. multiplication tables, “1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue”) or learned from our peers (i.e. survival, smoking, bullying and pop culture).

 

Here are my thoughts on the most troubled aspects of our school system.

 

1) We are all defensive and fearful. Teachers are afraid to lose their jobs. Administrators are defensive about the hard work they have put into making a good environment. Parents are defensive about their children. Let’s be clear: all children have problems. So do all communities, families and schools. This is not the important issue. The discussion must become: how does my child learn and can s/he learn more relevant and supportive information?

 

2) Teachers must know more than their students. Not every teaching applicant should be allowed to teach. Finland is credited with the world’s most effective schools due to the high level of expertise in the teacher’s field. American college professors must have advanced degrees in the subject…but not public school teachers. Why not?

 

3) Junior high school and the early years of high school are about social development, and yet we either ignore it or we aren’t good at addressing it  “Moby Dick” is a great book but is rather irrelevant to a 14 year old who is being bullied. We must focus on the student’s strengths at each age and adjust our curriculum to their capabilities.

 

4) In 2014, no one can succeed in America without a computer and Google. A classroom has its value, but understanding how to use the Internet to find information, knowledge and wisdom is essential for life skills. It is no longer an option, but a basic necessity.

 

5) Survival skills education has not progressed much further than “Home Economics”. How do you budget your life? What value is the stock market to keeping a family afloat? How do you save money if you’re being paid minimum wage at McDonald’s? How do you balance a checkbook? How can you not drive your parents crazy, and should you? Should you read newspapers (online or printed)?

 

6) History is often white-washed. My public school history courses included three years alternating between European and American history and never ventured past World War II. The Korean and VietNam Wars, and current events were minor blimps in the curriculum, probably for fear of too much political controversy. Immigrant history and the slave trade were discussed in conversation but there was nothing about the rich history of African, Native, Hispanic and Asian Americans. The old adage that without the study of history, we are destined to repeat it, seems to hold no weight with some school boards.

 

7) American culture is a melting pot and a powerful force throughout the world. Yet arts education is designed as a fun after-school program rather than the essence of American business, science and teaching arts. The same collaborative skills taught by team sports is available through theatre, dance and music. And the lifelong tools from these subjects can be used in every job. Additionally, the visual arts and creative writing have great powers to heal emotional turmoil and develop the soul.

 

8) Science is not the devil. Neither is faith. When school boards deny the possibility of evolution, climate change, sexual health issues and religious faith as valid avenues of study, then education fails us all. Education should discuss everything and anything. And parents should be invited into every classroom (they have much to learn too).

 

9) No one learns reading or comprehends mathematical concepts at the exact same age. Some teachers encourage parents to hold their children back from first grade until they mature an extra year in order to prevent the stigma of failing at such a young age due to no fault of their own. Many parents don’t heed this advice because of the “social stigma” of having an older child in first grade. The concept of grade level expectations is wrong. A student progressing  at their own pace is a better idea.

 

10) Grading is a terrible idea. There are many reasons for not being able to complete a course of study, including family and personal problems. Why penalize students with a permanent mark against them? Other options: take the course over, written evaluations, personal discussions. Evaluation is helpful. Grades are not. But this is a competitive society, you say, and students must learn ‘survival of the fittest’ rules. A youngster does not need to believe s/he is a failure, but must learn to be the best and do the best s/he can in every situation. I believe that’s a better spirit of competition…from within.

 

To be continued….

  • Mitch

 

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