Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A new gig, 30 days in

Minneapolis, Minnesota

When I assumed duties as executive director of the Southern Theater in Minneapolis 30 days ago, I added a new port of call to the harbors of arts management that I have called home. The time has passed in a whirlwind of 38 meetings and an avalanche of information that requires absorption on a daily basis. If asked six months ago – and I was – I would have said it was impossible to imagine myself in this job. Yet, it feels like what I should be doing right now.

Just today, a long-time friend asked if I was enjoying myself. The politically correct response would have been to say "yes." However, in this economic climate, anyone who purports to lead anything would be crazy to say that he or she welcomes the conundrums that visit every enterprise, whether non-profit or for. What we can say, honestly, is that we welcome the opportunities to solve major problems and wrestle with large challenges. None of us would consciously choose the environment in which most individuals and places of business find themselves.

The Southern Theater faces challenges similar to many, larger than some, and fewer than there could be. Some of the challenges got broadcast far and wide along with the news of my hiring (see: Star Tribune, MinnPost, and Minnesota Public Radio). This scrutiny places us under a magnifying glass in the public eye, but grants us a certain freedom that eludes other arts venues and organizations: because everyone knows we have problems, we can speak about them more openly and solicit solutions more broadly. Other venues and organizations have our same problems, some larger, and some more deadly. Many of our colleagues remain in willful denial or abject terror about their prospects.

All of us need to keep our heads and focus on the step-by-step basics before us. We must raise more money than we spend and spend less money than we have. To accomplish that, we must understand and control our true costs of doing business and price our products and services with that information in mind – balancing certainty with acceptable risk. Easy enough to say, but it will be hell to accomplish. The times present us with an array of undesirable options. Our survival depends upon our ability to choose.

We also need to engage with our community of users – artists and audiences – about the need for subsidy over-and-above the cost of tickets. At the end of a day, someone somewhere must pay the bills. This, too, is easy enough to say, but will be difficult to realize.

Many organizations that engage in the same or similar activities must set aside their competitive instincts and have the conversations that explore ways to share services and costs. Maybe even artistic products. (I know, I know the horror of all that – but if our largest, arts-friendly foundation can use that terminology, so can we!)

We can take heart from the month's-long uptick in the stock market: it has restored much, but not nearly all, of the portfolio value of our arts-centered grant-makers. We will not be out of the woods, however, until rates of unemployment and underemployment get reduced substantially. To the extent that the arts rely upon the discretionary income of individuals and households for most of their revenue, we will be under siege for some time to come.

Cyncis have – and will – lament our prospects and dismiss our progress. It is both a blessing and a curse of my life that I remain, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, an eternal optimist about what can be accomplished.

On March 1, 1910, the Southern Theater threw open its doors to the – largely – Swedish community that built it in the Snoose Boulevard/Seven Corners neighborhood of Minneapolis, overlooking the Bohemian Flats that border part of the Mississippi River. The founders of 100 years ago built their theater with faith in themselves and in a rich future. We have the opportunity to renew that faith today.

Join us on Saturday, Mar. 6, as we celebrate the beginning of the Southern's second century of embrace and engagement with the community that gives it life. The Southern Exposure 2010 gala promises a worthy evening of remembrance and re-commitment. If you can't make it that night, pick a performance from the schedule that appeals to you and resolve to attend it with a friend.

Look for me in the lobby. I want to see new and old friends in this new port of call!


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