What Can We Learn From The New York Philharmonic's High-Profile Challenges?

What can arts organizations learn from the New York Philharmonic's recent challenges? Quite a bit, I suspect.

Perhaps you saw the Times' recent piece, "New York Philharmonic’s Challenges Go Beyond the Music." If not, here's a quick summary. The Philharmonic is trying to "build the ship while sailing." In other words, while your typical arts organization may struggle to address a single challenge—constructing a new performance space, for example—the Philharmonic is facing a handful of epic challenges simultaneously.

These challenges include finding a new musical director, stabilizing its shaky finances, and surviving for two years while its new space is built. If this triple-headed monster isn't enough, the Philharmonic also has to worry about administrative and political quagmires associated with the upheaval. As the Times notes, "Donors may want to know who will be conducting the orchestra before making large contributions. Conductors may want assurances that the money for the renovation will be there before they sign on to lead an orchestra in flux."

Sounds fun, doesn't it?

So how do the Philharmonic's challenges apply to, say, a nonprofit dance theatre in the Midwest with a fraction of its budget? In a nutshell, the Philharmonic's struggle to establish a semblance of long-term sustainability is a universal and ubiquitous one, just on a larger scale.

As the article notes, the Philharmonic is "facing many of the same financial stresses and changing audience behavior that have challenged other American performing arts organizations—from the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011, to the Metropolitan Opera, which is cutting costs after running a $22 million deficit last year."

More acutely, the Philharmonic, like all organizations, must take a good hard look at its funding strategy. Historically, it's been reliant on a multi-concert subscription model. However, recent years have shown that concert goers, particularly those in younger demographics, aren't keen on committing to a flat-rate subscription. (The Philharmonic has had deficits every year for more than a decade; its shortfall dropped to $2.1 million last year from $6.1 million the year before partly because it spent more of its endowment, which isn't ideal.)

Then there's the issue of programming. The Philharmonic was interested in recruiting Gustavo Dudamel, the rock-star conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to take over, rightfully hoping some of his pixie dust would rub off. (The LA Philharmonic's financial success has been well-documented.)

Instead, Dudamel extended his contract with his current employer.

On the bright side, the renovation of the Philarmonic's home at Avery Fisher Hall is proceeding at long last, thanks to the announcement that the entertainment mogul David Geffen would donate $100 million toward the project, now scheduled to start in 2019. In exchange, the hall will be renamed for him.

Our point here is simple. Rock-star conductors and six-figure deals obscure the fact that the challenges facing large organizations—audience engagement, funding diversification, reexamining programming offerings to appeal to new demographics—aren't limited to folks in New York and LA.

But you already knew that.