Is the Great Recession Over for the Arts?

By Steven Libman

As we all know, the Great Recession that began in 2008 was the worst economic disaster to hit America and the global economy since the Great Depression. While the Great Recession is technically over as measured by economists, millions of Americans are still out of work or have stopped searching for work and some sectors of the economy still have not recovered.

What about the arts? Clearly much of the information may be anecdotal, but a conversation with a few experts yields some comments and statistics that are worth mentioning. According to David Snead, vice president of marketing and communications for the esteemed New York Philharmonic, “My short answer is the recession is over for us pretty much the same way it is over for most other sectors. Things are better than one to three years ago, but not back to pre-recession.”

The “not back to pre-recession” comment can signal that the landscape has changed forever for the arts community in much the same way that a natural landscape, i.e. a beach, is permanently changed after a major hurricane.

Americans for the Arts has just released a major study on the National Arts Index that indicates the national arts community continues to slowly recover from the Great
Recession, but is still not back to the levels attained in 2007, the
year before the recession began. The national arts community continues to slowly recover from the Great Recession, but is still not back to the levels attained in 2007, the year before the recession began. The study goes on to state that the arts as an industry are lagging behind the economy as a whole – the report states, “it appears that the economic recovery, which started in 2009, does not positively affect the arts sectors until 2011.” In 2007 the National Arts Index had a score of 103 and by 2011 it had dropped to 97, the lowest index score.

However, all is not lost. Economist and report co-author Dr. Roland J. Kushner of Muhlenberg College noted that “over the years, the National Arts Index score has been tightly correlated to overall charitable giving and total employment. We’ve seen broad improvements in the economy, employment and philanthropy since 2011, all of which suggest that the arts are poised for higher Index scores in the years to come.”

Randy Cohen, co-author of the Index and vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts, said, “Because the National Arts Index spans all of the arts industries, it serves as an arts atlas, showcasing where the industry has been, but more importantly where it can go. As such, it’s a powerful tool that can and should be used to stimulate public dialogue about how the arts can stay vital in a society that needs a healthy arts sector for its own overall vitality.”

Now, what about the possible permanent change in the landscape? Mark Nerenhausen, director of the Janklow Arts Leadership Program at Syracuse University, feels that a permanent change may have occurred. “We in the arts are desperately trying to take things back to the way they were,” he stated. “We are assuming that somehow one point in time was the way things were supposed to be. We fail to understand that our environment, like a coastal community, is always changing, the sands are always shifting. In our effort to get back to what was and our focus on that process, we miss out on an opportunity to create what could be.”

A simple look at the huge union issues facing the Minnesota Orchestra, Indianapolis Orchestra, San Francisco Ballet, and Carnegie Hall clearly point out the desire to return to a time, a pre-recession time, when organizations were operating with greater margins, philanthropy was flourishing, and annual wages could be counted upon. That may no longer be the case.

Perhaps what is needed is the equivalent of a disaster tool kit for the arts? Has the landscape changed? And some tough questions should be asked. Here are some steps to take and ideas to contemplate:

  • Are arts organizations entitled to perpetuity? Does there come a time when it’s okay to acknowledge the past accomplishments of an organization and then allow the organization to “die with dignity”?
  • Establish a process of transparency in the new economy. Communicate often and honestly with your staff, board, funders and the community.
  • Create a new paradigm – smaller boards to streamline decision making, include union leadership on boards and in the strategic planning process.
  • Learn and master branding just as companies do in the for-profit sector. And allocate the financial resource for branding.
  • Establish cash reserve funds to help sustain organizations during economic downturns.
  • Constantly measure what your audience is telling you about the art you create.
  • Never ever reduce the marketing budget during an economic downturn — that’s the plan undertaken by staff and boards that panic and not organizations that need to maintain a presence.
  • Always remain true to the mission of the organization.
  • And so, what is the answer to the question: “Is the Great Recession over for the arts?”

It is over, sort of, kind of, but the landscape has changed. There remains a long slow climb to reach levels of success achieved before the recession. Perhaps we need to leave those previous goals behind and focus on the future by establishing new benchmarks for measuring success,   because we never really will get back to where we were. We need to create a new robust future for the arts community.

Steven LibmanSteven Libman is president of The Libman Group and co-founder of the public radio show, “The Voice of the Performing Arts.” A highly successful and respected executive with over 30 years of experience leading major arts organizations Libman has extensive knowledge of producing dance and theater, and presenting multi-disciplinary performing arts series. He is nationally recognized for developing an entrepreneurial and creative approach to strategic planning, programming, branding, marketing initiatives, institutional growth, and problem solving.

Libman served as the managing director of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre for 14 years. He also served as the managing director of the Tony Award-winning La Jolla Playhouse, producing more than 300 performances per year. Most recently he launched the new $175 million, three-venue Center for the Performing Arts in Indiana. Libman is currently consulting on a major performing arts center project in Bermuda.


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