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Miles Gregory shares 15 tips on how to turn a troubled arts organisation around with the minimum stress for everyone involved.

Photo of dancers rehearsing on stage
Dancers rehearsing for a performance

Leadership in the arts is tough. Taking charge of a troubled or rudderless arts organisation can leave even an experienced leader struggling. Resources are often tight, and regaining public confidence can seem to be a difficult or even impossible task. I know because I have been there. In 2008 I was appointed by the board of a troubled theatre to turn the organisation’s fortunes around. The problems we faced could have seemed insurmountable, and there were some extremely tough times in the early months, but it all came good in the end: in 2011 we were awarded a 316% increase in Arts Council England funding.

Is the context for the art beautiful, relaxing, engaging and inspirational?

In those dark early days my father gave me a book that would prove to be an invaluable guide to achieving our mission. The rules put forward by Michael Kaiser in ‘The Art of the Turnaround’1 remain some of the best advice around for arts leaders looking to transform arts organisations, particularly in the critical first 100 days. Below are Kaiser’s rules, identified by an asterisk, together with a few more rules based on my own experiences.

1. Someone must lead*: Someone must be selected to run the turnaround. This person must have a single unified vision for the organisation, have the courage to make difficult decisions in the face of controversy, possess strong negotiating skills, respect all parties including artists, work incredibly hard and have an obsessive focus on solving the problem. This person must also understand marketing, fundraising and financial management. It is a hard job description to meet but the job cannot be divided among many people.

2. The leader must have a plan*: The plan must include the following:
• an explicit discussion of the mission
• a cogent review of the operational environment
• an honest evaluation of the organisation’s strengths and weaknesses
• a coherent set of strategies that will help the organisation achieve its mission given the operational environment and its own assets and liabilities
• a detailed implementation plan that assigns responsibility for every strategy to named stakeholders
• a financial plan to achieve the mission.

3. Get a grip on the money: As the leader, it is your responsibility to get as thorough a grasp as possible on the finances of your organisation. Read the last three years of your organisation’s annual reports and accounts in detail. Work out where the bulk of your income and expenditure lies. Work with your chairperson to identify critical performance indicators. Remember, cashflow is king. The bottom line is how much it costs each week to keep the staff paid and the doors open – this is the surplus you need to generate weekly to stay afloat.

4. You cannot save your way to health*: Budget cuts might be advisable but where one cuts is crucial. Cutting into non-strategic costs is beneficial; cutting those activities that lead to revenue is foolhardy. But the amounts saved by cutting expenditure on non-strategic areas rarely change the fortunes of a troubled organisation. Revenue is the problem with most arts organisations, not cost. Organisations focused simply on reducing costs will continue to get smaller and smaller and will never create the economic engine that is required for long-term stability and growth.

5. Focus on today and tomorrow, not yesterday*: There are so many things to worry about when one attempts to change the fortunes of a troubled arts organisation. First, one must attend to current cash concerns. What one must not do is waste time rehashing the past, pointing fingers and looking for scapegoats. These activities stall all progress and deflate the hope and optimism that can emerge from the planning process.

6. Consult the community: Every arts organisation has a core stakeholder or user group who are the opinion-makers. Consult your community directly, meeting with the most important stakeholders personally. Listen to the good and the bad. Survey your community and publish the results. Then read the comments to a special senior management meeting. The results of the survey are a public mandate for change. Use them to clarify why change is needed and advance the mission.

7. Get to know your team: In the first three days, meet all members of the senior management team. In the first two weeks, meet every member of staff. In your meetings listen, do not talk. If you spot quick wins on small operational issues to raise morale, then make the change quickly. Show your team that you can listen and make change happen. This is a key way to earn trust.

8. Extend your programming planning calendar*: Too many arts organisations plan their programming only one or two years in advance, and troubled organisations typically reduce this time-frame. And yet, if one does not plan far into the future, it is virtually impossible to develop the large, exciting projects that will reinvigorate the audience and donors.

9. Marketing is much more than brochures and advertisements*: Spend time and effort on institutional marketing, the marketing of the entire institutional image that reminds people why your organisation is such a wonderful thing. Communicate the exciting experience of attending your venue regardless of the programming – the spectacular main house, the great bar – to get your audience into a habit of attending.

10. There must be only one spokesman and the message must be positive*: In tough times, artists, board members, staff members and others may talk to the press about the organisation’s problems. News reports become focused solely on the problems, when they occurred and who caused them. The message for every arts organisation must focus on its mission, and the wonderful projects that the organisation is planning to support this mission, rather than on the latest financial crisis.

11. Focus on the biggest lines in the budget: The biggest lines are the ones which can yield the greatest results from small percentage changes. Typically, the biggest income lines for arts organisations are state or private funding and sales/box office income. The biggest expenditures are usually wages and rent. Focus on the big stuff first. Renegotiate deals and look for the 5% increase or decrease.

12. The board must allow itself to be restructured*: Get rid of the dead weight, hire new members, give a clear orientation, be explicit about your needs and create a workable plan. The marketing and programming should make them excited to participate. The new board members can also spur on the more senior members to greater involvement.

13. Master the art of saying yes – with strings attached: Publicise an open-door policy for the first 100 days and listen to everyone who walks in – particularly artists. Master the art of saying ‘yes’ to their proposals – but with strings attached. Offer what you can – rehearsal space or financial advice, for example – and be clear about what you cannot offer. Artists are so used to being refused that you will find this policy has miraculous results. The busier the building, the more life and energy it will have.

14. Embrace the 80-hour week for the first 100 days: Nothing shows your commitment in the first three months more than your presence. There is so much to learn that you will need to spend this level of time at work anyway. Look after your health, eating properly and getting ‘thinking time’ on your own. After six months you should be spending no more than 40 hours per week at work. Any more than this is a sign of poor time management or poor organisational processes

15. The best arts organisations sell time: Ultimately, the best arts organisations can be measured by the amount of time their audience spend engaging with them. Consider your audience’s experience extremely closely. Is the context for the art beautiful, relaxing, engaging and inspirational? In a theatre, is the bar literally the best bar in town? If not, why not? If your building has a conference centre aesthetic, is uncomfortable, has a poor hospitality offering or unwelcoming staff, then do not be surprised if you struggle to attract audiences regularly even if the art is great.

Miles Gregory is a director of cultural consultancy Henslowe Irving and the former CEO and Artistic Director of The Maltings Theatre, Berwick-upon-Tweed. He is a visiting lecturer at the University of London and the Whitecliffe College of Art & Design, Auckland.

(1) Kaiser, Michael, (2008) The Art of the Turnaround, UPNE: Hanover and London Pull quote: Is the context for the art beautiful, relaxing, engaging and inspirational?

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Photo of Miles Gregoru