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


Filed under Just Learn Something, Mitch Weiss