Even before SARS-CoV-2 emerged as a threat to public health, attendance figures for many arts organizations were stagnant or declining, a report from the Wallace Foundation and SMU DataArts finds.
Based on the experiences of twenty visual and performing arts organizations, the report, The alchemy of high-performing arts organizations (33 pages PDF), found that organizations able to outperform financial expectations in substantial ways did so in large part because their leaders, both professional and volunteer, committed to and executed a strategic vision that inspired confidence and excitement among staff and the community the groups serve. A number of internal factors enabled the organizations to translate strong branding and community buy-in into positive short-term outcomes including mission alignment, a healthy culture, investments in marketing and fundraising, and a multiyear planning horizon. While short-term outcomes provided a feedback loop that reinforced the organizations’ strategic vision, the immediate outcomes also led to the financial sustainability that disciplined organizations could translate into long-term success.
Split between organizations with long histories of high performance and those that had successfully engineered a turnaround over the past five to seven years, the report found that nearly every group in the study had been a turnaround organization at some point in its history, and all but one of the turnaround organizations had been or nearly were insolvent in the past. Since the genesis of the organizations’ problems had been identified as internal, the catalyst for turnaround was changes in leadership. According to the report, even in the face of unprecedented events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, an organization with strong leadership and a clear plan is best positioned to overcome existential challenges.
“Our research has shown that success is not accidental or haphazard — it is achieved through a strong vision linked to a series of strategic decisions and outcomes,” said SMU DataArts director Zannie Voss, who was a co-author of the report. “While individual organizations are facing their own set of challenges, we hope this report will inspire new thinking about possible ways forward, while providing guidance to organizations for recovery and long-term sustainability.”