Why Does Nonprofit Performing Arts Programming Lather, Rinse, Repeat?

Chatting with Judith Bowtell of Australia's Milk Crate Theatre.

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Is your performing arts business strategy just lather, rinse, repeat?

In business (arts or otherwise), people use “Because we’ve always done it that way” out of laziness, lack of curiosity, or plain ineptitude, and to end uncomfortable conversations. It is the most infamous of toxic business phrases. It signals that inevitable paradigm shift: “time to close the doors.” If nothing else, people who use it should be challenged. “Why have we always done it that way?” “Is there evidence that the way we’ve always done it is the best way to do it?”

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How do we respond when this gold standard of toxicity is applied to programming at nonprofit performing arts organizations? Do they limit themselves to being lazy, incurious and inept — along with stubborn and routine? Here’s a test. You tell me if the following at all familiar to you:

  • Season starts in September with last year’s Off-Broadway smash hit;
  • Then a well-known drama starring your company’s institutional diva;
  • Then A Christmas Carol;
  • Then something happy to start out the year;
  • Then something for students (maybe Shakespeare, a well-known one);
  • Then a musical comedy or other comparable crowd-pleeezer-with-three-e’s that can be extended as the last play of the season in May or June.

Of course that scenario is familiar to you. Because we’ve always done it that way. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But wait. If that phrase describes your nonprofit performing arts organization, should you — or your organization — be fired?

Judith Bowtell

“In a world meant to celebrate creativity and innovation,” said Judith Bowtell, CEO of Sydney, Australia’s Milk Crate Theatre (MCT), “it seems amazing that we even need to have the discussion about encouraging these qualities in performing arts and theater companies.”

I recently talked with Bowtell about the nonprofit arts industry [both in Australia and the US] and its caste system — the haves, the have-nots, and the complicity on both sides that keeps that from changing. As for MCT, its productions are acclaimed, but its impact does not rely on artistic excellence. Rather, it has been using the performing arts to change the usual trajectory of homelessness, giving its participants creative opportunities to build confidence, performance-based and life skills, and social connections. MCT, then, is about empowerment. In the last four years, 78% of the company’s participants report measurable, positive changes to their lives.

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Bowtell also has a company of her own, Albany Lane, that provides coaching, mentoring and strategic consulting to individuals and organizations in the arts and in government.

“In Australia,” she told me, “we continue to have the debate about whether putting the majority of our cultural subsidy into the same 30 or so companies for more than 30 years, to produce works for the same audiences, in same venues, often with the same artists, is a good idea. It raises the same level of disbelief as our recent ‘referendum’ on marriage equality or whether the country should boot out Her Maj as our head of state and become a republic.

“But in not-for-profit companies led by the elite and privileged, they — even with the best intentions in the world — continue to see the world through the eyes of the elite and privileged; they play it safe. And they keep the books balanced by repeating the works of the dominant culture. In Australia that is white, middle-class, able-bodied, male and aging.”

The Sydney theater scene, Bowtell explains, is divided into various categories. First is The Major Performing Arts (MPA) group, then the Small-to-Medium businesses, and then the Independents. Each category is funded differently; funders often compel strict adherence to their own priorities. Not unlike the US, a few companies — that is, those in the MPA — receive most of the funding, with the rest fighting for scraps.

We can compare this to Seattle, WA, where ArtsFund — mostly a corporate-supported fund typical of many cities — announced in July 2018 that it had granted $2.48 million to 60 institutions, of which 10 of those organizations received over 60% of the funding.

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Milk Crate Theatre’s “That’s the Spirit.” Photo: Patrick Borland.

“Australia created the policy about 30 or more years ago,” said Bowtell. “The government deemed a group of companies ‘the majors’ and said they required special funding arrangements, given their role in supporting the overall ecosystem of the arts. The Small-to-Medium businesses are not-for-profits that may have a multi-year commitment of funding from the government, as MCT had, but are much smaller in operation and serve niche audiences.” (In Seattle, that would parallel the 50 companies fighting for 40% of the grants.) “Then there are the dozens of worthy organizations receiving no funding at all — the Independents who sit outside the funding programs.” They fund their work through “crowdsourcing, donations of goods and services, grit, determination — and a lot of favors.”

So I asked her a leading question: Is it a level playing field?

“Oh God, no,” she replied. “There is no way that MCT can compete with Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir when they have close associations with Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush, huge development and marketing teams, and budgets. The result is that we fight like rats in a bag for scarce government resources, criticize each other’s priorities, and gossip about who’s doing what to whom, even if we all end up going out for drinks afterwards.”

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The notion of performing arts programming “because we’ve always done it that way” is thus a threat many companies’ survival — and an obstacle to their progress. “Anyone reliant on box-office and subsidies,” Bowtell says, “needs to keep [funders] happy with a known product done in a not-too-threatening way. Yet they keep asking for ‘innovation.’ So you have competing KPIs for financial sustainability and innovation. Not surprisingly, innovation often loses on that scale.”

Innovation? I asked Bowtell to tell me what innovation in the arts means to her. These were some of her replies:

  • “Innovation in the arts is not about being self-serving to those in power and privilege to keep your infrastructure and bottom-line comfortable.”
  • “Innovation is not programming a work written by an Indigenous writer and getting a white person to direct. Neither is commissioning work by ‘emerging’ women in a program that has always been developed by a man.”
  • “Innovation is not about programming to keep your existing audiences.”
  • “Innovation is not the core business of ‘infrastructure’ and ‘heritage’ companies that need to keep the engine of work turning over to provide employment for 10,000 workers.”
  • “Innovation is in the small labs and spaces, in the artists reinventing themselves to use their skills in commercial and social enterprises.”
  • “Innovation is providing leadership opportunities to diverse people, who reflect those that live, work and play in your community. Innovation is constantly questioning what you are doing — evaluating, monitoring, researching your impact. And then having the bravery to step outside the box of ego and make change.”

Arts nonprofits usually seek to grow their audience while maintaining their current one. It is a practice borne of institutional insecurity. It paralyzes them into an illogical thought loop:

If we just continue to do what we do, only harder,
somehow new people will come.

But, argues Bowtell, “In a world of scarcity, everyone is fearful of losing what keeps them safe. [Yet] any business innovation is hampered when you work from fear rather than possibility.” Lack of programming and experiential innovation can end up being painful to potential new patrons when organizations execute their actions as they do “because we’ve always done it that way.”

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The entitlement danger of “because we’ve always done it that way.” Photo: Daily Mail.

“I was literally hit over the head the other day about how the ‘elite’ arts experiences in Australia are for a very privileged class,” Bowtell added. “After listening to well-heeled baby-boomers talk about how convenient it is to get the ferry from their multi-million harborside homes to the Sydney Opera House, I was whacked over the head by an older woman for daring to send a text before the concert started. Just think about this. This woman felt so empowered as a subscriber to an elite arts company that she felt free to hit another woman in a public space. For sending a text. Before the concert started.”

Change is not something inevitable. It is something to be sought. “To quote Macbeth, you need to be ‘bloody, bold and resolute’ to lead a revolution,” Bowtell said.

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“If you have not seen it yet, make sure you see the 2017 Palme d’Or winner The Square. This film viciously satirizes the commodification of the arts and parodies elitist values. What happens when we slip when challenged by those that do not abide by our manners and codes? When we disrupt our self-satisfaction and positions of privilege?”

In the US, as in Australia, nonprofit performing arts companies will continue to program in a cyclical way because — well — “we’ve always done it that way.” Yet artists, for the most part, rail against inequity among people, especially financial inequity. Even so, many nonprofit performing arts organizations, especially those that would benefit from innovation, default to the status quo in the name of security.

One day, in downtown Montgomery, AL, I walked on the sidewalk to a meeting. An older African-American man walked toward me on the same sidewalk. Seeing me, he took off his hat and walked off into the gutter. I reached out to help him back onto the sidewalk. I told him that he never had to walk in the gutter just because a white man was approaching. He smiled and said, “Y’all ain’t from ’round here, are you?” (Ironically, this incident took place directly in front of the Rosa Parks Museum.)

For positive change to happen — in business, nonprofit performing arts, politics, life — we cannot afford to do things “because we’ve always done it that way.” Too many people issue that response without thinking. Too many more accept it for exactly the same reason.