Predicting the “future”

by Jini Stolk

I’ll go out on a limb here. My prediction for 2015 is that arts organizations will adapt to new funding, producing and audience realities by moving away from expecting/assuming that healthy organizations are characterized by growing seasons, expanding budgets, and ever more senior corporate board members. Instead they’ll move towards accepting/embracing the reality that the healthiest organizations will be open and nimble, changing structures and tactics as necessary to support the work that needs to be done.

Oh wait. That’s already happening. My prediction is that it will continue. (For an insightful view of how the U.S. arts sector is responding to a similar reality, read this post written by Eileen Cunniffe almost exactly a year ago.)

Running an arts organization has never been simple (there was no easy recipe to follow.) But what used to be complicated (a difficult process with rules and techniques one could learn) has become more and more complex (where the future is unknowable, the situation changes constantly, and the only way to move forward is continuously to evolve.)

Many of us learned these concepts – and their importance to arts and non-profit management and organizational dynamics – from Brenda Zimmerman, a leading Canadian researcher, teacher, writer and innovative thinker who died way too soon at the end of 2014. Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, which she co-authored, is an inspiring guide for people involved in innovation and social change.

Independent artists and small companies are rethinking the most basic assumptions of what makes a “company.” Many are no longer trying to form the traditional “nonprofit corporation” structure, and are creating artistically focussed producing models based on collaborations and non-traditional spaces. They’re more loosely structured, with part-time, multi-talented and entrepreneurial producer/managers. At a Business for the Arts workshop a while back, I was truly surprised by how many attendees were managing two or more companies.

STAF, one of the cultural community’s original “shared services” organizations, is responding by transforming itself from a place that provides subsidized administrative services to one that builds the skills and capabilities of independent theatre producers.

Large organizations, too, are rethinking their size and programming, opting for shorter runs, and incorporating commissioning and presenting as essential parts of their artistic mandate. In October 2012 Canadian Stage was called “The Incredible Shrinking Theatre Company” in The Globe and Mail for its radical changes to reel in costs and become more artistically flexible. Two years later, they’ve become an exhilarating and compelling cultural force.

We all have a role to play in shaking off resistance and removing the barriers to change. Both funders and those of us who might find ourselves on peer juries, have to understand the value and real costs of change, supporting those who are searching for new ways of working. As a community we should be providing time and assistance to people creating new business plans and artistic platforms.

In the words of one of our very smart colleagues, “If we wish to have a vibrant theatre community that reflects many visions we will have to push ourselves and our peers to operate ‘beyond our walls’.”

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