SMU DataArts - Cultural Data Profile


Three Arts Leaders Discuss How Cornerstones for Success Changed in a COVID-19 World

  • Posted Sep 01, 2020

On August 13, 2020, SMU DataArts, in partnership with The Wallace Foundation, released a report that suggests the cornerstones of success for arts organizations lie in the alchemy between high-quality programming standards and community relevance. While this deceptively simple statement may reflect universal intentions, executing on it, according to these organizational leaders, takes humility and an intensive investment of resources and time.

What is a “high-performing organization” and how is it identified?

Understanding high performance in organizations first requires consistent and careful data collection and reporting. Our reliable, robust dataset integrates data on over 40,000 arts organizations with arts purchase data, public funding data, and community data to provide us with one of the nation’s most comprehensive information libraries so that we can provide insight into top-of-mind questions for arts and cultural professionals. Through employing a technique called stochastic frontier analysis, we identified a group of 20 organizations that have consistently out-performed others along seven financial and operating metrics or successfully engineered a turnaround from low to high performance on these same metrics in recent years. The seven metrics used in our analysis were:

  1. Level of working capital and debt ratio
  2. Level of unrestricted contributed support from individuals
  3. Level of earned relational revenue (i.e. revenue earned from subscriptions and memberships)
  4. Level of community engagement
  5. Level of occupancy expense
  6. Annual surplus/deficit
  7. Revenue diversity, which is related to the IRS 990 public support test


For the purpose of this report, each of these organizations was then interviewed by our research team to answer the following questions: What kinds of strategies were used to achieve this financial performance? And, were there particular contexts in which these strategies seemed to be more effective? Leaders from three of these organizations join us again for a community conversation on the cornerstones for success and how COVID-19 has impacted their strategies.

How is your organization faring right now in this environment? Are there aspects of strategic elements that you find more critical than others during this time? And if so, can you offer any examples of them?

Megan: “I keep thinking that we’ll eventually stop saying how unprecedented these times are, but these times are certainly unprecedented. Looking at the report, I’d say that for us, the two most critical aspects are high program standards and the community orientation section. Having a deep understanding of our assets, of our value, our relevance to the community, and really our differentiating characteristics; also, askingWhat is it about us that makes us unique?” has helped us shift, redesign, prioritize and re-think. For us, we did make the decision to shift our programming from in-person to entirely online for the fall semester. As you can imagine, the risks of having 500 children in one location, at one time, singing, is quite a lot. So, we're in the process of having as much high-quality programming as we can (we're recording more than 300 teaching modules this semester to do that) and redesigning our programs to try to take advantage of all these virtual options. The decision has also opened up many opportunities for us, especially how to solve two barriers to arts participation that we’ve always struggled with: time and geographic location. Now that we're moving virtual, it really means that our singers can access content 24/7 from their own homes."



Within the model, we talk about going from the cornerstones to a sense of getting that first “early win.” Within your organization, what has been that thing where everybody started to say, “Yes, this can work. Yes, we're on the right path,” during this COVID period?

Arvind: “You can try a lot of things and not everything works exactly the way you would like the first time out. In our case, there were a couple of things we looked to really early on for our education work because the education community was moving to remote learning. We were happy to see that we were able to make that move as quickly as we were, but also that our partners throughout the country stuck with us. That rhythm and interaction continued, somewhat unabated, even though the format in which it was happening was obviously very different. On the flip side, for something that didn’t go digital, we have an opera training program and were really committed early in the pandemic to finding ways to continue to provide training experience for these very talented young singers. We decided that we were not going to do the opera program totally online. We brought close to 30 artists from around the country here to our campus. We invested the time and resources to create a quarantine bubble for them to live in and did the training work in a very safe and responsible way much smaller groups, much smaller ensembles, distanced. But we also took advantage of the fact that we have a large outdoor space available to us as the National Park for the Performing Arts, with outdoor pavilions and places where singing can happen in the open air. While we weren’t organizing new productions of operas for paying audiences sitting in a theatre, a side benefit of having this park is that people in the community use the park every day. Probably more so now than usual because everyone is trying to find ways to get out of the house, go out with their children, and just have some outdoor time. Singers rehearsing or working on scenes from some distant pavilion, and you might not even be sure where that sound was coming from, but it provided that artistic breath into the national park – which I thought was a nice way of saying, ‘Even though we might not be able to do it the way we normally did, art was made in our nations art park this year.’ When history is written, we're not going to say we took a total break from the creation and celebration of artistry.”



What has community orientation meant for your organization? How has adopting a community-oriented approach forced you to look at your programming in different ways? Or, how have you had to adapt community orientation to what you may have inherited at your organization?

Suzanne: “When I came in 2011, to what was then the Craft and Folk Art Museum, we really had to build an audience from scratch. I had come from being a director of education, so I was very oriented toward programs and building programs as a way of building audience. Our exhibition budget was miniscule, so the kinds of exhibitions we were doing were pretty DIY at the time and people did not necessarily come to us for our exhibitions. I made the important decision to get rid of most children's programs and school programs. We did not start with that because we knew that building audience would have to come through adults and adults who might support us with memberships or spread the word. We knew word-of-mouth was really important. So, we went really hard on adult programs. My prior boss had given me a wonderful gift of sending me to Dallas when they were doing a Meadows Museum Friday Night program. I fell in love with people making art and drinking at the same time. Nothing warms my heart more than a glass of wine and somebody drawing or doing their art project. So, I immediately brought that here. We are a craft museum after all. We were able to partner with Etsy, which was a great name to be partnered with for these craft nights with wine and beer. We were also able to get beer donations and it became a really great way to start to build community. I had learned in my old job that you had to do programming every month - wake up on the first Thursday of the month and every first Thursday of the month, rain or shine, you're going to have this program. That's really important. Despite a budget that was originally $600,000, we were doing up to 90 programs a year, which we still do. One other strategy that we used was to invite other craft organizations to come and work out of our space. One of them was the Yarn Bombers of L.A. They proposed a community project that was brilliant; it called out for ‘granny squares’ to cover our entire building. We had no marketing budget, but when people drove by, suddenly this building that had been in the neighborhood since 1930 was getting noticed. We adopted this idea of partnering with artists to make our building stand out.”



What do you think makes a successful leader for your community as an institution? What are some key attributes required for this type of success?

Arvind: “I think one of the things that one could point to for Wolf Trap over its 50-year history is a very consistent approach to authenticity in the community. There's a trust that builds amongst the people and the institution. I can say with confidence, that for our audiences in our local area, there's always been a sense that the experience they will have will be free of artifice, that it will not be exploitative, that it will be mutual and mutually benefiting, that there is a partnership that we are creating, and that what we promise, we will deliver on. People feel connected to us, as we’ve seen in this pandemic. We are so humbled and grateful for the continued support of so many of our patrons and donors and benefactors, particularly when we're not really delivering on the core of the concert experience. I think it's because for many years, if not decades, their families have had a relationship with us as a family. It's the consistency of treating our audiences like family, with respect, not as a source of ticket income or purely as a donation, but rather a relationship that they feel positive about wanting to support and nurture and ensure that it exists for their children.” 



What are some suggestions on a best first step to helping board and staff shift to community orientation?

Megan: “I think it's very important to make sure that everybody is aligned on expectations and also what you're trying to accomplish. Again, that mission, that true north, that guiding factor always being touched and always reflected on by the board, the staff, and yourself is one of the first important steps. For us, we spent a lot of time that first year at a long board retreat talking about community, talking about orientation, talking about impact, and kind of doing a ‘Class 101’ on why that's important and how that could strengthen the organization as a whole. Sometimes I think that we tend to gloss over some of that board education that is really important to make sure everybody is aligned on expectations and rules and standards. We also have a confidential board report card that allows each board member to self-evaluate at each board meeting. It lets them check all of these things that we've agreed upon about community orientation, about development and fundraising, communication, and networking. It's a good reminder that they have to grade themselves on how they had done since the last meeting to espouse those values and keep it at the forefront of their mind.”



Envisioning a post-COVID-19 world, how do you think your institution will change? Will it revert to pre-COVID strategy or has COVID changed how your institution performs and is viewed?

Arvind: “Wow! Thinking about a post-COVID-19 world is a great thing to think about. I think, of course, we’ll change. The things that we’re picking up and figuring out how to do now, that we might have done to some degree before but are leaning into now, particularly on the digital side, will create some change. I think we’re all tired of talking about pivoting you know, if anyone tells me to pivot again, I’ll probably lose it – but we have created new skills, we are doing things differently, and I think it adds richness to what we were doing pre-COVID. I hope, if there is any silver lining in all of this, that when we come out of this, we will be able to marry some of the new ways of engagement, particularly on the digital side, with the core of what we do. Which I think will always be the in-person experience and the bringing together of society. I think the lessons learned, the lessons about adaptation and working through crisis, will make us stronger as professionals in the future.”


Suzanne: “It’s not just COVID-19; we’ve had several crises over this period of time. One of them has called upon museums and arts organizations to look at all of their practices, especially as it relates to anti-racism, access, and inclusion. I think that a lot of what we'll be doing when we go back is keeping community outreach at the top of the list in ways that are probably new.”


Megan: “I do think we will be a different organization as we move forward through this. We will probably go back to some of our core programming, but there's the question of maybe there are additional opportunities now that we hadn't done in the past. Those are two unicorns, time and geographic constraints for arts participation, that a lot of us are having to solve right now because we have no choice but to solve that right now. Reaching into those new communities, reaching into the places where we haven't been able to get before is a big opportunity for all of us. I hope that this really leads to more collaborations and more partnerships within the nonprofit sector, and between the nonprofit and for-profit sector. We might not have the tools as a small staff but someone we know might have those tools, and building those programs together, I hope, is something that stays as we move out of the COVID-19 crisis and the other crises that we are facing right now.”


Suzanne Isken joined the Craft Contemporary (formerly the Craft and Folk Art Museum) in February 2011, where she has led initiatives to support the creation of contemporary craft and build audiences by developing a sizeable program of hands-on experiences for the public. Under her direction the museum has presented landmark exhibitions including This is Not a Silent Movie: Four Contemporary Alaska Native Artists; Betye Saar: Keepin’ it Clean; Man-Made: Contemporary Male Quilters; Paperworks; and The US-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination and Possibility.  Previously she served as the director of education for 10 years at The Museum of Contemporary Art, following 10 years of service as coordinator of school and teacher programs and gallery educator. Isken received an MSW degree from the University of Southern California in 1977. She attended the Getty Leadership Program in 2008. Awards include recognition as the 2004 Pacific Region Art Educator of the Year by the National Art Education Association.



Arvind Manocha has served as president and CEO of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts since January 2013. From major pop acts to children’s shows to opera and more, Manocha directs Wolf Trap’s year-round performing arts programming – among the most wide-ranging and diverse in the music business. Additionally, he oversees the full scope of the Foundation’s educational activities, including its nationally recognized arts education programs, which are implemented at 18 affiliate sites and in 30 states nationwide, and Wolf Trap Opera, one of the nation’s premier rising artist training programs. Previously, Manocha was chief operating officer at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he ran the Hollywood Bowl for more than a decade. Manocha holds degrees from Cornell University and the University of Cambridge, where he was a Marshall Scholar.



Megan Heber currently serves as executive director of Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas (CCGD), one of the nation’s most prestigious youth choral arts programs. She serves on the City of Dallas Cultural Plan Implementation Steering Committee, The Arts Community Alliance (TACA) Perforum Planning Committee, and University of North Texas (UNT) Nonprofit Leadership Studies Advisory Committee. Heber is also adjunct professor of arts management and arts entrepreneurship at University of North Texas College of Music. In a time when nonprofit organizations are finding it more and more difficult to meet rising financial goals and community needs, Heber has dramatically increased earned and contributed revenue. In just two years, Heber has led CCGD to an unprecedented 30% increase in contributed revenue (including acquiring the organization’s first multi-year major gift), 50% increase in subscription sales, and the second highest enrollment in the organization’s 23-year history.

The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations

Findings from the new SMU DataArts Report suggest that success for high-performing arts organizations lies in the alchemy between programmatic excellence and community relevance.

Read the Full Report