New Arts Facility? Why Sometimes We Just Say No

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Even though the nonprofit arts clients that hire our firm usually profess to being objective and open to our professional opinion, often they have already invested in the plan to move forward with a project. Such clients — from government to developers, schools and arts groups — are generally bent on building some kind of community facility or performing arts center. And when we come back with a negative answer, these folks are often disappointed, or even insulted.

This is understandable. Feasibility studies are generally considered only after some combination of public and private sector leadership has hatched a plan and taken it out into the community. These early advocates make the case for something based on what they’ve seen in other communities and heard in their own town. Then someone pops up and suggests that outside experts with the necessary skills, experience and objectivity ought to test their idea. That’s where we come in, and it all tends to go very smoothly until the day we come back with our findings and recommendations.

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Human nature being what it is, we find ourselves tempted to just say yes. It’s momentarily the path of least resistance, and it’s the generally the response that makes the most people happy — including the architects, theater consultants, acousticians and other collaborators. They are standing by to offer their planning and design services for a feasible project. And the crazy thing is how much harder we have to work to talk people out of building or renovating rather than talking them into it.

So what does it take for us to make the messy choice of suggesting that a project (as conceived) may not be feasible? Aside from the obvious answer that that’s what we’re hired to do, there are several important issues. First of all, we recognize that there is limited capital (human and financial) available to the arts sector, so it is incumbent upon us to ensure that capital is deployed where it is most needed. Too often we’ve seen giant performing arts center projects take all of the philanthropic funding out of the market, leaving organizations and other facilities scrambling for support.

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Getting to “don’t do it” on a feasibility study means that we have reached negative conclusions on some combination of three important questions:

  • Is there demand for a new facility on the part of audiences and users?
  • Are there gaps and deficiencies in the current supply of facilities that can be filled with a new or improved one?
  • Will this project move the community towards broader goals and objectives (i.e., economic development, quality of life, cultural tourism, etc.)?

It’s too complicated to apply a simple score to these answers, and it sometimes happens that one strong positive outweighs two mild negatives. But it is the close and careful examination of these three issues that leads to what is ultimately the right answer. Horror stories of minimal activity and mounting deficits can prevent capital from coming to good projects for years to come.

Failing arts facilities are bad for us all.

Saying no gives necessary legitimacy to the feasibility study process. Many of those clients who hate it when we say no to their project ask how often we have said no to other projects. It is therefore critical to our practice that we can show ample evidence that we are not strewing our rubber stamp about town.

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The good news is that we are rarely in a position of having to tell a client that they are flat-out crazy for having even considered developing a cultural facility. We can frequently help in one of three ways:

  1. Recommending a better concept — one not based on a set of flawed assumptions about cultural facilities (e.g., bigger is better).
  1. Suggesting things that can be done before developing (or renovating) a facility, such as to strengthen the groups for whom a facility might be developed or training the next generation of private-sector funders.
  1. Stepping back to understand the motivations and objectives that led to this particular facility concept, which might then allow us to propose other ways to achieve those same goals.

Fundamentally, we hope to move through a credible and inclusive process that leads to a better idea that is embraced by the champions of the original project as well as the wider community. This is easier said than done, especially when elected officials and others attempt to use our work for political gains.

Oh, the tales we could tell.