Four Ways Arts Nonprofits Weather Tough Times

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August 12, 2011; Source: Washington Business Journal | Back in 2009, when the recession was in full swing, the Washington Business Journal did a story on five new nonprofit theaters in the Washington, D.C. area: The Hub, Doorway Arts Ensemble, Ambassador Theater, Factory 449, and theHegira.

With more than 70 other local professional theater companies in operation and competing for arts dollars, the article highlighted how these five organizations “defied the recession” by making it through their first year. Now, two years later and with 12 additional theater companies in the area, a recent follow-up story provides an update on these theaters, all still in operation, and offers a list of four tips for small arts organizations navigating similarly challenging courses:

Grow gradually: The Hub had to cancel a production in the 2009-2010 season because of lack of financing but has since gotten a line of credit and a credit card as a safety net.

Fundraise creatively: Doorway Arts Ensemble recently launched a successful silent auction featuring actual items from productions.

Partner for space: Two theaters, The Hub and Doorway Arts Ensemble, partnered with local educational institutions that have given them access to space.

Establish a clear organizational niche: Forging a recognizable artistic identity has been an important way for each organization to avoid overlap with other theaters and to develop a base of support. For example, theHegira features work by women of color.

Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, suggested in a recent piece in the Huffington Post that it is small arts organizations—as opposed to the giants such as the Kennedy Center—that are “more often the crucibles for new exciting artists and art forms.” That makes it all the more important that small arts nonprofits learn how to survive these tough times.—Anne Eigeman

  • tm

    I agree with Michael Kaiser that small organizations are more agile and closer to their communities to pick up on emerging trends and directions. Here is an abstract to an article I wrote in 2005 and one can see how consistent it is for the nonprofit sector:
    Museums are seeing decreasing resources along with increasing competition (such as the entertainment industry’s recent foray into the education arena) for their market share (TiLE, Oct 2002). The prevalent perception that nonprofit institutions as a sector are mismanaged also requires museums to become more businesslike in their management and their marketing (Kotler & Kotler, 1998; Andreasen & Kotler, 2002; Salamon, 2003). Although larger museums have more access to human and economic capital, this article demonstrates how the flexibility and agility of smaller institutions positions them well to leverage their resources with creativity and innovation. To give credibility to the museum examples, the discussion recounts how the American wine industry rose in prominence both at home and abroad by sidestepping traditional marketing research methods, using instead an approach that was more like art.


  • Helen Pafumi

    Just to clarify, The Hub did not cancel a production, rather we changed productions to one with a smaller cast and production needs. I say this to make clear that I believe that producing is the only way to move forward, even during tough financial times. The theatre we create is our one and only product, so simply canceling was never an option. Thanks for picking up the article and all the best to the arts organizations eking it out on small budgets. Keep creating and keep sharing it with audiences.