Robert Lynch, President/CEO, Americans for the Arts

October 14, 2010
Robert Lynch, Americans for the Arts

As it celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, Americans for the Arts is widely regarded as the leading nonprofit advocate for arts funding and education in the United States. In that role, the organization tends to have a seat at the table whenever policy makers, nonprofit leaders, and deep-pocketed supporters of the arts meet to discuss ways to build a more supportive environment for the arts and arts education, create meaningful arts-friendly policies at all levels of government, and work to ensure the stability of arts organizations across the U.S. More often than not, one of the people in the room is Robert Lynch, who has led the organization for almost twenty-five years.

Before embarking on a career in the arts in the 1970s, Lynch took time to travel the country in a Volkswagen bus and live the Jack Kerouac dream, played guitar in a couple of rock and roll bands, freelanced for newspapers and magazines, and taught English. Those experiences served him well: In his two-plus decades at the helm of Americans for the Arts, Lynch has applied what he has learned about America and Americans to promote the arts through three organizational mergers, a handful of economic downturns, and a sometimes hostile political environment.

Recently, Philanthropy News Digest spoke to Lynch about the state of the arts in America, what arts and cultural organizations can and should be doing to weather the Great Recession, and what the digital future holds in store for artists, arts organizations, and all who support them.

Philanthropy News Digest: For many years now, arts groups around the country have been working to develop new, younger audiences while retaining their core, older supporters. How are they doing?

Robert Lynch: Some have done it very well, and others are struggling. To a large extent, it's about marketing. Performing arts organizations have a product, but audiences have a variety of interests and ways in which they can receive information. Arts organizations that understand that, that understand the needs of multiple audiences and either market or deliver their product in a variety of ways, are building audiences. The ones that rely on the product to sell itself are having more difficulty.

PND: Are particular art forms or disciplines doing better than others? Are symphonies doing better than dance companies, for example?

RL: It's too easy to generalize. But an example of an organization that has done a good job is the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. It has a variety of mechanisms, many of them based on new technologies, for reaching a range of audiences. Similarly, many theaters, including for-profit theaters, have diversified their performance times with an eye to an older audience. And though we read a lot about the graying audience for classical music, I don't know if that's universally true. A 2008 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts found what looks like fewer people attending performances, but when I look at our own National Arts Index I see a huge increase in the downloading of classical music. My colleagues at the League of American Orchestras also tell me they are seeing a lot of positive trending in their studies of audience development. So, while we read about certain art forms that may be in trouble, let's keep in mind how difficult the economy has been for the arts in general.

PND: You seem to be suggesting that technology has the potential to rejuvenate support for the performing arts.

Increasingly, technology is a communications tool. And, as such, it represents an opportunity for arts groups....

RL: Increasingly, technology is a communications tool. And, as such, it represents an opportunity for arts groups. When the car was invented, more people were able to travel, which in turn created an opportunity for people to attend live events in communities other than their own. In similar fashion, today you can learn about and access art through a variety of online technologies. We're seeing a lot of situations involving Facebook and Twitter where people are connecting to art in ways and numbers that would have been unusual if not impossible not too many years ago. And technology is also becoming a platform for the creation of art. People who not too long ago would have been content to sit in the audience now want to be involved as participants.

I don't think any of that takes away from the value of the live performing arts. I see technology as something that builds interest in the arts — but only if arts groups understand what's going on and tap into it. We're talking about the audiences of the future. To the extent that arts organizations understand that and get in there early with vehicles designed to tap into that interest, they have a much better chance of holding on to and building new audiences in the future.

PND: Technology also makes it much easier to copy and disseminate anything that has been digitized, including paintings, photographs, sound recordings, video of live performances, et cetera. Do you have any concerns about artists not being fairly compensated for their work?

RL: The right of artists to create original work and be fairly compensated for it is very important and must be protected. The Federal Communications Commission has indicated that it doesn't think protecting copyrighted content is antithetical to the values of an open and neutral Internet, but it hasn't been clear about what it intends to do to strike a balance between fair usage and fair compensation, or even what that balance might be. For us, the bottom line is to do what we can to make sure that artists and their creative livelihoods are protected.

PND: Technology is also changing the audience experience. Watching videos of live performances in the comfort of one's home usually means less time spent in actual performing arts venues, fewer trips to galleries and museums, and the loss of the communal element that has been so much a feature of the performing arts experience since, well, forever.

RL: Well, on the delivery side, the goal is to have technology enhance rather than replace. Not everything can be communicated electronically, but there are lots of things that can be shared that will boost interest in the live experience. The challenges associated with the relationship between vehicles of presentation and vehicles of communication are issues we discuss regularly with our members.

That said, for me nothing replaces the live experience. Other people, however, are going to make their choices based in part on how much time they have to invest in the arts. You need to have enough points of contact and enough delivery mechanisms out there so that one helps to build the other — live performances augmenting electronic delivery, the electronic augmenting the live.

PND: As much as time is a key issue, so is cost. Here in New York, ticket prices can easily top $100 for a Broadway show featuring a cast of relatively unknown performers. Will the average American ever again be able to afford top-drawer shows and live performances in major venues?

RL: That's difficult to say. Take for-profit theater, Broadway. Those prices are market driven, and barring another Great Depression, there are always going to be people who can afford the higher-priced tickets. What will drive ticket prices down is if people stop going to the theater. But that's also part of the rationale for the existence of nonprofit theater and the nonprofit sector in general. With that tax-exemption comes a responsibility to provide a public benefit. And people sometimes forget that responsibility.

PND: While the economy seems to be on the mend, albeit slowly, many people are still worried and fearful. What do organizations need to do to succeed in this environment?

Knowing who your audiences are and what they want is critical....

RL: There are opportunities out there. In a down economy, people obviously have less money to spend on discretionary items and activities. They tend to stick closer to home and to keep a tighter grip on the purse strings. And they tend to turn to the arts and creative pursuits for comfort and solace. The opportunity for arts organizations is to reinvent themselves as everybody's best friend. You look at what it is you have to offer and figure out how to provide it at a lower cost. Some organizations will choose to offer free events and happenings, which can build audience loyalty and pave the way for things later on that audiences will pay for. But knowing who your audiences are and what they want is critical.

PND: You've been in the field for more than three decades. How does the so-called Great Recession compare to other economic downturns in your lifetime in terms of its impact on the arts?

RL: I've been in this business since the mid-'70s, which was also a rough period, economically speaking. And one of the things I've learned is that there's really no such thing as "the good old days." As I look back over my thirty-five years in the arts, there were probably half a dozen downturns, whether they were called recessions or slow downs or whatever. In the early '70s, when I was between college and this job, interest rates were sky high, 12 percent — on their way to almost 20 percent in the early '80s. Buying a house was very difficult. The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, CETA, was established back then to help communities create jobs in the arts. In fact, a lot of today's arts organizations and jobs in the arts were created back then. Now, the current recession may very well be the worst since the recession of the mid-70s, but all downturns — including the ones in the early '80s, the early '90s, and after 9/11 — seemed pretty tough at the time. What is different now is that in those earlier recessions it was easier for people to feel isolated and alone. They didn't have the communications tools we take for granted today to share encouragement and possible solutions with others who find themselves in a similar situation.

At the same time, one of the big challenges for the arts in this downturn is the fact that it has affected every funding stream. Earned income is down because of lower discretionary spending. Funding from foundations, corporations, and individuals is down because the stock market was way down for a while. And government funding is down because tax revenues have plummeted. But we have to remember that we eventually pulled out of every other downturn, and we'll pull out of this one, too.

PND: What are some of the things arts organizations can do to survive and even thrive as we start to recover from this downturn?

RL: First, I would say the infrastructure of support needs to be buttressed on all fronts. Here at Americans for the Arts we work very hard to generate federal, state, and local government support for the arts. But despite our efforts, government, at every level, remains far too small a piece of the support picture. If you think about it, the whole public-sector support system for the arts is still in its infancy. It's not even fifty years old. Forty-five years ago, there were four state arts councils in America. There was no national arts council. There were a couple of hundred local arts councils. Today, there's the National Endowment for the Arts, which gives out $165 million a year. There are fifty state arts councils, which, combined, give out half a billion dollars a year. And there are some four thousand local arts agencies that give out anywhere from $3 billion to $4 billion a year. That's positive, that's growth, and it's great.

The other thing that's great, but which can lead to some problems, is the growth of the field. Forty-five years ago there were seven thousand nonprofit arts organizations in the United States. Today there are more than a hundred thousand. The creation of broad networks of arts organizations and opportunities for artists around the country is a good thing, but it has created its own financial challenges. Pushing for more government investment is a logical first step, because even though it's the smallest piece of the pie, it's the piece that helps leverage state support, and federal and state support help to leverage local government support. Add it all up, and it's only 10 percent of total funding for the arts, but it is critical to attracting private support from corporations, foundations, and individuals.

Second, the message about the value and importance of private-sector investment in the arts needs major amplification. We've seen slippage over the last decade — not just during the recession, but since the beginning of the decade — in the percentage of support going to the arts, and I think it's because, in terms of the number of nonprofits, there are simply more mouths to feed. Other causes like the environment and climate change have emerged, and the organizations working on those issues have very effectively made their case for funding. The arts need to make the case that they are not only inherently valuable but are also part of the solution to other problems.

The third area that needs to be addressed relates to earned income from ticket sales, which accounts for roughly half of all the revenue generated by the arts. We need to make sure that the arts administrators of today are well trained in marketing and communications and have the tools they need to run the business side of their operations effectively in an always-open, always-connected twenty-first century marketplace.

PND: To your point about the enormous increase in the number of arts organizations, a lot of grantmakers have been encouraging organizations to merge or create strategic alliances. Your organization has been involved in several mergers. What do you think of the environment for mergers right now?

RL: I've done six mergers in my twenty-five years here. I was twelve years into running this organization as the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies when we did our first, with the American Council for the Arts. To a large extent, the merger was driven by the economics of the situation. Both organizations had the same goals for advancing the arts in America. Each organization had a research division, each had a professional development division, and each had an advocacy division. So, from an organizational structure perspective, it made sense to merge, and it made economic sense to merge. But we didn't really pursue the idea until cost issues began to emerge. Once the merger happened, growth followed almost immediately. The whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

The other mergers we did — with the State Arts Advocacy League of America, the Arts and Business Council, and the Business Committee for the Arts — also made sense from an effectiveness point of view, but again we waited until it was clear that financially the organizations could go only so far without merging. In all of these mergers, the one thing I learned in each case was that one plus one equals three.

I'm not saying collaboration is a walk in the park....

I'm not saying collaboration is a walk in the park. It's a time-consuming process. No matter how similar your organizations might be, there's a good chance that your board cultures will be different, your staff cultures will be different, and your internal processes will be different. And in each of the mergers I mentioned, I learned that no matter how long I thought it would take, it took longer — sometimes twice as long.

Another thing you learn early on is that the funding streams change. It's common to believe that when you bring two organizations together, the resource base will double, or at least grow. But often what happens is that funders will choose to wait and see. For us, in each case there was a period right after the merger when funding from the philanthropy community fell. Foundations were waiting to see if it was going to work. It can be a very dangerous time for an organization, and you want to have reserves on hand to get through it.

PND: Getting back to something you touched on a minute ago, government support for the National Endowment for the Arts is approaching the level it reached in the mid-1990s. But the fiscal realities of our current situation suggest that funding at that level is unlikely to be sustained. Which is the bigger challenge for the NEA, specifically, and arts organizations, in general: a sluggish economy or a polarized political environment?

RL: A polarized political environment. In your example, the economy has only slightly affected the level of funding for the NEA. In the early 1980s, in contrast, the Reagan administration talked about eliminating the agency. The same holds true at the local level. You'll see two cities of equal size, and one will have a large arts budget and the other won't. Why is that? It has nothing to do with the economy; it has to do with politics and leadership.

Earlier this year, we presented the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy and asked a great leader, Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, South Carolina, to be our speaker. In his remarks, Mayor Riley described what the Charleston area was like thirty-five years earlier, when he was first elected mayor, and how government investment in the arts and his leadership — leadership being the key thing — completely changed the city and helped turn it into the thriving destination it has become. There are many cities that could have been like Charleston, but they lacked that kind of leadership. Economies tend to go through seven-year cycles, so while what happens in the economy is important in the short run, over the long term political leadership is the more important factor.

PND: What is your organization doing to help develop the next generations of arts leaders?

RL: More than ten years ago, Americans for the Arts established an emerging leaders program. It all started after we brought a hundred community arts leaders from around the country to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, along with four young people who were working in our field. The discussion included some wonderful older leaders who talked about where the leaders of the future come from. And the four people we had there stood up and said, "We're right here. You're not noticing us."

Now, we have well over a thousand emerging leaders across the country connected in largely self-driven networks that were set up as part of the program. We also hold an emerging leaders pre-conference every year before our annual conference, and we try to populate our committees, staff, and board of directors with some of those emerging leaders. It's been enormously helpful to us, and I hope it's been helpful to the local arts agency field, which is where most of those people come from.

PND: Are the emerging arts leaders of today different from the generation of leaders that came of age in the 1970s and '80s?

RL: The environment today is very different than the environment when I got out of college. Even though I was a poetry major and looked at the arts as my future, I had never heard of arts administration. All communication among my peers was conducted by phone, so it was harder to learn and keep up with what other people were doing. In 1974, after a few years in rock and roll bands, substitute teaching, traveling the country in my Volkswagen bus, and writing freelance articles, I stumbled across an arts management organization called the Arts Extension Service in Amherst, Massachusetts. That's how I discovered the career path I've been on ever since. It was a five-year journey for me that would take about an hour to research online today — though that might not be as much fun as my experience!

PND: Public education budgets at the state and local levels are under severe pressure, and that has led to significant cuts, in many communities, in funding for the arts in schools. Are you concerned about the state of arts education in this country?

RL: Arts education, or the lack thereof, is a major problem in this country, and we have allowed policy to veer off in a very wrong direction. Growing up, I attended Catholic schools and never benefited from formal arts classes, although some of the nuns took it upon themselves to bring the arts into the classroom. But I was fortunate to have parents who loved the arts, who took me to museums and the theater and who loved music and played it all the time at home. That's how I discovered folk music and rock and roll and developed an interest in other art forms. What's important is the combination of those things — being exposed to the arts at school, in your community, and at home.

Lately, it seems as if the school component is being undervalued, although our National Arts Index study shows that that's not the case everywhere. For college-bound high school students with better-than-average SAT scores, we've seen an uptick in the availability of art in school. So what at first blush would appear to be a universal problem is really a problem for kids who live in low-income, less-advantaged neighborhoods. It's not simply an arts education problem, it's an arts equity problem. And I believe communities and government at the state and local levels have a responsibility to address it.

PND: Tell us more about the National Arts Index.

RL: Although we launched it earlier this year, it's something we've been working on for several years. There are many surveys and studies that measure support for the arts, but most of the time people look at them in isolation. With the index, we collated seventy-six studies and data going back eleven years, which we believe gives people a better sense of the overall health of the arts in America. As you might imagine, the current data shows that, in terms of overall health, we're down about four points from where things stood a decade ago. But what's really interesting to me is that a cross-comparison of several subsets of these studies reveals things you wouldn't be able to see from just a single study.

For example, I mentioned the NEA study that looked at high-end participation in the arts and found there were fewer people attending live performing art events. But other studies show that downloading of arts content, classical music for example, is up. So one could look at some of the data and conclude that the arts are in trouble, but if you look at a different dataset you might a different conclusion. The same is true of arts education: The aggregate data may look discouraging, but it's really more complicated than that, with arts education in underresourced schools in especially bad shape.

PND: How do you respond to the argument that with so many hungry and homeless people in this country, we really shouldn't be spending more than we have to feed the soul?

RL: It's misguided to think it's an either-or proposition. Earlier this year, we brought a group to Capitol Hill that included Brig. Gen. Nolan Bivens, who spoke about how the U.S. Army and Department of Defense look at how the world has changed and is changing. The general told policy makers that the U.S. is likely to find itself involved in more wars, at great cost in terms of lives and resources, because we have not invested enough in getting to know other cultures or in helping people of other cultures get to know us. In other words, very thoughtful people in the military establishment are talking about ways that culture can be part of the solution to ensuring the national security of the United States. If you simply focus on problems such as unemployment, hunger, or homelessness without looking at the bigger picture, you're not going to come up with a permanent solution or save money over the long term.

PND: Over the past few years, we've seen a shift toward donors becoming more active and engaged, sometimes in ways that are unsettling, with the organizations they support. Is that a tradeoff arts groups should be willing to make?

All funding is really a dialogue of some sort....

RL: It's hard to find the right balance. All funding is really a dialogue of some sort. And if more donors want to be more engaged or have a greater say in certain aspects of how an organization is run, in return for greater support, then that is almost always good. But if a donor starts to question a director's artistic vision or insists on messing with the artistic integrity of a piece, that's a different matter. The artistic director or organization is still in the driver's seat, in terms of saying yes or no. But, as you suggest, there are tradeoffs to be weighed, and it's not always easy.

PND: Earlier this year, the Ford Foundation announced a ten-year, $100 million initiative to spur the creation or renovation of arts spaces. What was you reaction to that announcement?

RL: Well, it's a step in the right direction whenever more resources are committed to the arts and culture. In general, I think there needs to be a lot more investment in culture by the philanthropic world. So I was pleased that Ford took that step. But to keep things in perspective, last year the state of Massachusetts established a cultural facilities advancement bond issue that was in the neighborhood of $160 million. The beauty of something like the Ford Foundation initiative is its potential to stimulate other kinds of investments in the arts. All these funding streams — private, public, and corporate — tend to leverage each other. But the size of the pie itself needs to be increased.

PND: Americans for the Arts is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. In the past, you've said that while you're excited about reaching that milestone, you hope to celebrate it by looking forward. If we're both fortunate enough to be around in fifty years, what do you think we'll be able to say about the state of the arts in America?

RL: If I can go back to the National Arts Index I mentioned earlier, I believe a big part of the role this organization plays over the next few decades will be related to advancing interest in and support for the arts across the board — among for-profits, nonprofits, government at all levels, and all the various art forms, established as well as emerging.

If I were able to forecast the next fifty years, I'd say that, based on our first fifty years advocating for the arts, we will see many more arts organizations and a lot more interest in the arts. At the same time, you will still hear arts organizations saying there isn't enough money and asking what they can do to develop more engagement with their audiences. Given the nature of creativity, there will always be more desire among artists and the organizations that support them to create than there are resources. But, on balance, the arts are moving in the right direction.

PND: Well, thank you for your time, Bob.

RL: Thank you.

PND editor Matt Sinclair spoke with Lynch this summer. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact PND's publisher/editorial director, Mitch Nauffts, at mfn@foundationcenter.org.