A year after I joined Milwaukee Rep, we had put out a few fires and were ready to take on strategic planning. Little did we know that the process would take a year and lead us to redefine our mission. We had just celebrated six decades of proudly serving our community including groundbreaking cultural exchanges with Japan and Russia, the conversion of an abandoned power plant into a state of the art three-theater complex, and collaborations with legendary artists such as Tadashi Suzuki’s first American residency. Milwaukee’s track record of innovation and service prepared us well both artistically and financially to discern how best to continue its legacy.
From our planning work, the theater embraced a vision that Artistic Director Mark Clements had embarked on three years prior when joining the company, but had yet to formally adopt as its mission. Once complete, the new mission realigned the theater toward maximizing its resources for the betterment of our community. In many ways, this steered the ship into uncharted territory, and for me has been some of most fulfilling work in my career and a wonderful opportunity for learning.
Soon after planning, we launched Mpact, an initiative that coordinated efforts between our education, community engagement and marketing departments toward using the creative assets of the theater to create a better tomorrow for Southeastern Wisconsin. Mpact exponentially increased programming aimed at strengthening and celebrating Milwaukee, nurturing diversity and inclusion, and building social-emotional learning and literacy. As we look back on the first two years, there is much to be thankful for and a fair share of lessons learned. Below are the standouts:
Sometimes you can’t wait for an invitation, but we must listen first. In the wake of the devastation in Houston, one of the most unusual stories to emerge was the delay of Joel Osteen’s mega-church in sheltering displaced residents. In part, Mr. Osteen explained that he was waiting on an invitation from the city to create a shelter, unlike several others who saw what needed to be done and did it. For those that have a mission of service, when need is apparent, we can’t wait for an invitation to do the right thing. But, we must actively listen to ascertain how best to help. Sometimes arts organizations can make inaccurate and costly assumptions, leading to unnecessary programs that do not effectively address need. Driven by funders, artists and educators with sometimes the best of intentions, to those on the receiving end, these programs can become prescriptive and woefully inadequate. Listen. Learn. Program. Evaluate. Improve. Our most successful programs at Milwaukee Rep began with a spirit of inquiry and a simple question – how can the assets of our theater be leveraged in service of others, as they are told to us, not as we perceive they are.
Reorient your idea of success. We often ask what does success look like? Non-profit arts organizations should have a single primary metric of success – are we achieving our mission? To answer that question, leaders must recognize that if something is important, it should be measured to the best of our abilities. In the arts, all too often we look to external reinforcements as primary indicators of success. While positive press and awards may be nice, orienting an organization’s perception of success around them can be self-serving rather than mission-serving leading to an abundance of flash and a dearth of substance. Or conversely, it can cause an exceptional organization to question itself purely on the basis of an awards committee. Really? We must develop assessment tools to measure mission achievement and impact, and use those as our true north.
Towards abundance and away from scarcity. Managing non-profit arts organizations isn’t for the weak of heart. Many have not rebounded since the great recession, several have little to no working capital, and funding for the arts in many localities as a percent of overall philanthropy has been declining for decades. This can lead non-profit managers to develop a scarcity mentality and a desire to protect their turf. Scarcity thinking stifles collaboration, impedes creativity and leads to redundancy. We must embrace that systemic change cannot be achieved through our actions alone. To be the change we wish to see, we must help strengthen others as a primary means of creating a better tomorrow. Imagine the powerful partnerships that can develop if first we seek to be helpful to others? Managers that view funding as a zero-sum game, in which to win others must lose, don’t fully appreciate that funders don’t exist to keep us in business, but rather to advance strategic goals. In my experience, the overall funding pie often increases when non-profits work together to realize greater achievements that could not have otherwise occurred individually.
Sprinkles on the cupcake. When we changed our mission, we clearly defined its new pillars. While we were predominantly known for high-quality productions, on their own, they would no longer be enough to declare success. Our work now must: 1) create positive change, 2) provoke, inspire and entertain, and 3) serve an audience reflective of Milwaukee’s rich diversity. While all programs begin with the art we create, education and engagement are as central to our mission. I once heard a manager refer to his theater’s engagement programs as “sprinkles on the cupcake.” To him, they were ancillary and secondary to the plays in their season. Personally, I believe this may be why in part some theaters have lost touch with their communities. While we can’t sacrifice production quality, we must understand that a great cupcake has more ingredients than just good productions.
Now is our moment. By their nature, 501(c)3 organizations are limited in terms of political advocacy. We can’t attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of our activities and we can’t participate in political campaign activity. That said, many of our organizations were founded as tax-exempt entities based on educational purposes. In a divisive political climate, particularly for those of us operating in purple states, we must clearly define our educational mission and live by it. To me, the power of the theater isn’t in a didactic approach, rather in our ability to bring disparate groups together for shared live experiences that examine varying worldviews. We have the power to create spaces that are welcoming and inspirational to all. Where dissent and respectful dialogue are not only allowed, but encouraged. Today, many of our patrons curate news, friends and content to exclusively match their worldview while “unfriending” those that don’t leading to a worrisome trend where our ability to civilly engage with each other is atrophying. Perhaps now more than ever before in recent times, we can demonstrate the intrinsic value of the arts. Sitting on the sidelines at this moment might be viewed as playing it safe, but those that do, communicate volumes in their inaction. Our artists should lead at a moment when they are so needed.