Thursday, June 09, 2011

Don't Blame the Boards So Fast When Theaters Fail

In response to Brendan Kiley's Seattle Stranger piece about the Intiman Theater's collapse, Jeremy Barker, writing at Culturebot, questions the very popular meme of the moment: bad boards are the main culprits in some of the recent arts organization financial failures.

As regular readers know, one of the things we’re skeptical of here at Culturebot is “Big Ideas,” of which they arts has far too many, and unfortunately, I think that blaming boards has become the new “Big Idea” in the current moment, with so many institutions at every level facing crippling financial challenges. When an institution finds itself in collapse, someone has to be blamed, apparently. Sometimes it’s the artistic director (who spends the budget like he’s using an ATM card till he hits the overdraft limit), now it’s the board (for not saying no sooner). The unspoken assumption is that, in all cases, the institution itself was inherently good and needed to be preserved, because, apparently, it served and would continue serving its function well. But not only is it ridiculous to always assume that the institution should have been saved (they fail for different reasons, after all), but I can’t help but wonder if, in fact, it’s not sometimes good that they fail.


...maybe the Intiman just needed to close. At a certain point, its debt load was so high that continuing to operate would have required (and, if they re-open, will) lesser works, skimpier budgets, and therefore quite likely lesser achievements, because so much money will be spent servicing past deficit-funded operations. That the crisis at the Intiman hit in the current economy is predictable: slowed ticket sales and less charitable giving finally meant that it couldn’t meet its current obligations as well as covering the previous year’s deficit. Like a Ponzi scheme, to which the model bears some resemblance, it only collapsed when the in-flows were insufficient to cover the outflows, which were building up over time.

But if we actually believe in the Intiman’s achievement, as I think we should, then maybe it’s just a sign that the cost of accomplishing that was higher than potential revenues. They had a good run, but if they can no longer credibly meet the expectations of either the artistic community or their audiences, they should stop, because what’s the argument for them to be sustained through paying out for diminishing returns?

Read the whole thing here.


Thomas Garvey said...

You know, it doesn't seem like anybody really has the inside scoop on what happened here. Maybe the big current meme is "Go ahead and write that article even though you don't know what happened."

Jeremy M. Barker said...

Colburn is an off the record source for Kiley's article, so I'd assume his perspective is at least represented there. No one has accused him of stealing or the like though. It's just an issue of fiscal mismanagement in which everyone is essentially arguing implicitly that they were not responsible for ensuring they met the bottom line. Most of us find it hard to accept that the buck doesn't stop with the board, particularly concerning the use of the endowment. Hence the widespread criticism. My article on Culturebot is only trying to point out that turn-over isn't the end of the world, and if the Intiman's work was justly lauded, then maybe that color our view of the aftermath that saw the theater close. I don't disagree with the essential argument, though, that the board was incompetent and failed in its fiduciary responsibilities. I just don't accept that the artistic staff doesn't have any.