Watch video: Managing the Performing Arts in Times of Economic Crisis

April 07, 2009

Pictured (l-r): Murray Horowitz, Luca Zan, Anna Harwell Celenza, Joseph Volpe, George Daly

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With smaller audiences, dwindling donations and shrinking endowments, the performing arts and culture industry has been hit hard by the economic downturn. Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business hosted a panel on "Managing the Performing Arts in Times of Economic Crisis" March 16. Moderated by award-winning lyricist and arts manager Murray Horwitz, the panel featured veteran arts industry practitioners. Georgetown University Chair of the Department of Performing Arts Anna Harwell Celenza, former Metropolitan Opera General Manager Joseph Volpe, and University of Bologna Director of the Program on Management and Innovation of Cultural Innovation Luca Zan discussed how innovation, education, and organizational restructuring and strategy might be used to rejuvenate the flagging culture sector.

Horowitz opened the discussion by setting the agenda. "[The panel is convened] to focus on strategies and case examples of how to cope and change management radically in what is now known as the Great Recession," he explained.

Speaking from her experiences at Georgetown University, Celenza said that art managers should constantly evaluate their mission and focus on ways to ensure continued audience patronage. "We have to ask, 'Why are we here?' How can we continue to engage our audiences?" she said.

Zan argued that the Italian arts industry, which is wholly reliant on government funds and the Italian political agenda, faces different challenges than the one of the United States, which relies heavily on donations. According to Zan, Italian arts companies need to focus on organizational restructuring. He cited the case of La Scala, which despite having had its budget slashed by nearly 10 million euros retained its entire staff. "In Italy, no one can even approach the human resource issue effectively," he noted.

Meanwhile, Volpe stressed the need to develop a strategic plan for the performing arts that is aligned with economic projections. He proposed that arts institutions review their budgets and short-range activities in terms of their endowments and cash reserves, make necessary staff reductions, and implement immediate and creative ways to cut costs. "Some ballet companies have eliminated paid vacations in exchange for the promise of future severance pay for their employees," he said. Volpe also discussed the importance of creating an events schedule that appeals to audiences and suggested managers should "keep an eye out for low sellers and be open to innovations in programming."

The panelists also talked about the importance of arts education and answered audience questions on how to make the performing arts more accessible to the elderly, how bad management has exacerbated the effects of the crisis, and the opportunities for collaborating with pop and hip-hop artists. The panelists agreed that the performing arts sector is vital to society and should remain a priority even in times of economic crisis. "Money is a factor. But ultimately, in our industry, we spend imagination," said Volpe.