Making the Case for Big Programming

There are a number of times in life when it pays dividends to “play it safe” and to consistently “color inside the lines.” Don’t be too risky. Don’t dream too big. Avoid wading into uncharted waters.

Then, on the other side of the argument: There’s this thing called the arts.

Audiences flock to bold, engaging programming. Funders – grantmakers, corporate partners, individual donors – want to be a part of something unique, timely and fresh. Performers (artists, singers, dancers, actors…whatever the case may be) are motivated and thoroughly consumed with a project that isn’t “yet another nutcracker.”

Bold programming determines the league of ball in which your institution will play. There is more risk when you play in the big leagues: more at stake financially, more to lose, greater investments in rehearsal and preparation.

At the same time: you have to go big or go home. The reward for playing in the major leagues is much greater than playing T-ball in the backyard. You can attract new funding streams, new audiences, fan the flames of artistry with your performers, and you can solidify your institution’s brand for being a vital, integral element of the fabric of your community and of the artist genre.

Adventurous artistic planning absolutely must be accompanied by solid, sound financial strategy. It falls to the executive leadership of any arts institution to stack the deck toward success though. When we dream big artistically, while we program boldly, a strong CEO must build an accompanying business plan that tilts the scales toward a success as much as possible. Don’t leave anything up to chance. There’s just too much at stake.

We don’t program works of art to break even. We fill our season with works of art that fulfill the institution’s mission and to meet the needs of the community we serve. Before you go suggesting that an organization program works like the Berlioz Requiem, B Minor Mass, Missa Solemnis, Belshazzar’s Feast or War Requiem back to back, keep in mind there’s a need to balance artistically within a season and within an institution’s balance sheet. A big, risky production could be balanced against a lower-risk (lower reward?!), safe-bet production in the months before or after.

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Can any large-scale composition break even? More importantly: Why do we aim to break even? Why not aim to turn a profit? A big one at that!

In a day when operas, orchestras, museums and other arts institutions around the nation are struggling, why would someone take-up a work of epic proportions like Britten’s War Requiem? The answer is simple: It’s what we do. In fact, there exists a strong financial case to program boldly. Strategically. …smartly though.

The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir programs large-scale works such as the War Requiem because it is at the heart of our mission. We perform those monumental, war horse compositions that very few other choral institutions in the world can produce successfully. If we don’t do it, who will? In the community which we have served for over three-quarters of a century, those epic choral-orchestral compositions are what we do.

Put another way, an arts institution's raison d’être is to do our best to serve the art form and the community in which we thrive. There isn’t room to “hope,” and I can’t imagine anything more ridiculous than the “if you build it, they will come” riskiness. If we put the art form first, and then do everything possible to stack the deck in our favor well in advance of implementing a programing strategy, the investment will pay dividends in both the short-term, but also for continued sustainability over the years.

So what?

An arts institution that marries bold artistic programming with highly-orchestrated, thoroughly thought out (well in advance), nothing-left-to-chance financial strategy is a good bet. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. It falls to a gifted CEO to stack the deck in his or her favor to ensure the risk is mitigated and the reward voluminous.

Michael Pettry
Executive Director
Indianapolis Symphonic Choir

For more information about Executive Director Michael Pettry, click here: //indychoir.org/about/staff/

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