When it comes to the fine arts, things are really, really rough all over. Yet another major regional orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony, is now publicly grappling with a debt crisis (it's nearly $20 million in the hole) exacerbated by high labor costs that threaten the ensemble's existence. The situation, says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is "increasingly dire." Meanwhile, a growing number of much-admired performing groups, including Palm Beach's Florida Stage, have been forced to shut down permanently, while others, most notably the New York City Opera, have chosen instead to gut their operations to the point of unrecognizability.
That's why everybody in the art world is now talking about the Detroit Institute of Arts, a world-class institution that just came within inches of closing. Instead, it's now more financially stable than at any time in the past quarter-century.
The DIA, as Judith H. Dobrzynski recently reported in the Journal, no longer receives public funding from the city of Detroit or the state of Michigan, both of which have been hit brutally hard by the current economic downturn. Because the museum's operating endowment is so small, more than half of its operating expenses are directly funded by its donors—a model that, as Ms. Dobrzynski wrote, "is simply not sustainable." DIA director Graham Beal responded by hacking away at the museum's budget and raising enough money to retire its current debt. But he knew that the DIA was doing no better than running in place, and that the fiscal road ahead would soon grow sharply steeper.
What to do? Mr. Beal went to the voters, asking the residents of Michigan's Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties to pass a modest 10-year-long dedicated property-tax increase known as a "millage." It would supply up to $23 million in public funding each year for the next decade—91% of the DIA's annual operating budget—thus buying time for Mr. Beal and his colleagues to build up the museum's operating endowment to the point where it can bring in sufficient income to pay the bills.
Sounds great, huh? But how do you get suburban taxpayers to pony up in support of a museum located in the heart of a city on which most of them long ago turned their backs? That's the beauty part: Mr. Beal announced that the residents of every county that passed the millage would be admitted free to the DIA. Otherwise, he said, the museum would be forced to close on weekdays and lock the doors to half of its galleries.
Having offered voters this stark alternative, Mr. Beal and his staffers rolled up their sleeves and started working the phones . . . and all three counties passed the millage.
What lessons can other arts organizations learn from the DIA crisis? To begin with, the DIA showed it was serious about money by slashing every thimbleful of fat out of its budget. It simultaneously showed itself to be responsive to the wishes of its patrons by undertaking an imaginative reinstallation of the museum's permanent collection that was both user-friendly and artistically responsible. Then, when the DIA asked for public funding, it sweetened the pill with an equally imaginative free-admission plan that targeted not just Detroiters but local suburbanites.
Contrast the DIA's approach with that of the Atlanta Symphony, which is opting for innovation-free budget cutting instead of root-and-branch institutional transformation. Or the New York City Opera, which has "transformed" itself into a mini-NYCO that has as much in common with the old company as today's pre-shrunk Newsweek has with the once-healthy magazine of a quarter-century ago. Cutting is not enough. You also have to think creatively and be willing to take risks, as the DIA did when it asked the people of Detroit and its suburbs to agree to a tax increase.
Yes, Mr. Beal's three-legged plan was museum-specific, especially the free-admission leg. But the thinking behind it has universal applicability. To wit:
• Don't ask the public for more money unless you can prove that you're not wasting the money you're already spending.
• Keep the needs of your clientele in mind at all times.
• When the world changes, change with it.
That last commandment is the toughest to embrace, as well as the most important. Symphony orchestras and theater companies, for example, continue to cling to the old-fashioned subscription model that provides them with a yearly cushion of "front money." But a fast-growing number of under-50 Americans are too busy to commit in advance to attending specific performances on specific dates. According to the Theatre Communications Group, the number of subscription tickets sold by America's nonprofit theaters plummeted 15.1% between 2006 and 2010. That's not a trend—it's an avalanche.
No arts organization, however important it may be, is entitled to succeed. It must keep on proving its worth to the public, year after year. But Mr. Beal and his colleagues have clearly accepted the iron necessity of finding creative new ways to engage in the business of high art. As a result, they now have a shot at long-term survival—and they've earned it.