Is the performing arts at a crossroads?

The performing arts dances on a razor’s edge. This, I have felt for a long time. To be a creative is to be clever and resourceful, building something out of almost nothing. At least that’s the case for many in the US, and I suspect we’re not alone.

There’s a degree of pride that comes with this (American?) ingenuity, which has spawned great art and launched thousands of careers. It has long been this way. Now, having picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves off from the last four years, we confront the road ahead. The landscape looks different than before, and so do we.

As you may know, the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) is the leading not-for-profit membership organisation dedicated to serving the performing arts presenting, booking, and touring industry. You likely know about the global convening we host in New York City every year.
It is the industry’s engine and fuel, and APAP members are
the lifeblood.

During the pandemic and these last few fallout years, I saw longtime members’ businesses fold and established organisations stripped bare. When peer associations vanished and our own resources shrank, I felt a tectonic shift. These weren’t the regular shake-ups, and many of us who remain are still reeling from the aftershocks.

It wasn’t arts business as usual.

The sustainability factor

And yet it is because of arts business as usual. My observations over 30 years in various capacities within the performing arts show that many are just barely avoiding the tip of the iceberg, without fully understanding where the rudders are actually pointing. What lies beneath—our operations and work culture—is so essential to our sustainability and cannot afford to be left unexamined and in the deep. (If this isn’t you, I get it. There may be other things I say that don’t apply.) Some organisations are the exception. By definition, most are not.

Some of my colleagues resist focusing on “sustainability” in favour of sexier ideas like “innovation” or “creativity”. Let me unpack why this may be so, why sustainability is an important idea to embrace, and how it’s not mutually exclusive with other goals.

The performing arts field is unique. Some of us (including me) began as artists. We detoured into the unwieldy arts administration/management world with our imaginations and creative chops in hand. We have invented a way of knowing and doing, like no other industry. The result being that we have a multiplicity of practices with varying trajectories.

I remember when I moved into arts management and wondered if my focus on business acumen would result in the death of my creativity. I have strived to straddle both worlds and have hoped that the processes and impacts of my work would resist the oversimplified dichotomy that pits experimentation and creativity against a drive to analyse the bottom line. I believe that a focus on sustainability isn’t mutually exclusive with accessibility, equity and the other values we hold dear. Heck, if we aren’t in a continuous fire drill, we might just have more time for them.

Meeting the moment

The pandemic added a new urgency, causing us to face what some have considered but hadn’t confronted—that our industry is systemically tenuous. Thankfully, we now have the courage to be more transparent as a first step. It’s an urgent honesty.

APAP is at the centre of this upended reality—both poised to serve this industry while simultaneously embracing this new environment and recalibrating to meet it. We, too, are
not immune.

With APAP’s most recent strategic plan expiring, this moment is fortuitous. It’s propelling us through a sustainability planning process that we began in October 2023, and with its momentum, will drive us forward for the next five years.

How we move forward together is critical. For APAP, cracking ourselves wide open has us hyper-focused on some key principles:

We listen: As an American membership organisation, we are inherently democratic. Our board is composed entirely of our members, working arts professionals. Our sustainability process has involved hours of interviews and thousands of survey comments, all of which we are carefully combing through. The answers aren’t locked in a back-room vault. The answers lie within our community.

We invest: When we see costs increasing and revenues declining, a scarcity mindset would have us slash budgets, but we cannot sustainably cut our way to freedom. We must be nimble, strategic and courageous as we build forward.

We remain hopeful: We have endured the storm and while it’s not over, a rainbow is in our sight, and we’re setting our compass to get there. It’s not magic; it’s our future.

By Lisa Richards Toney, President and CEO, 
Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP)

Are you engaged in a sustainability planning process? Tell us how it’s going! Email Lisa Richards Toney (executiveoffice@apap365.org