When I worked at the Target Corporation, we were often asked about our support for the arts. Typically, we cited our 50-plus-year history of giving, the livability of communities as enhanced by the arts (and the related impact on our ability to attract employees to our business sites) and economic impact studies indicating the role of the arts in stimulating healthier local economies.
Today, we can also stress the role the arts play in the development of emotional intelligence-empathy, team-building, self-awareness, the ability to listen to others, to motivate, communicate, initiate and accept change—skills that lie at the heart of successful corporate (indeed all) leadership. And reams of studies prove that after-school arts programs dramatically outperform all other after-school activities in improving SAT scores, reducing disciplinary infractions, promoting greater racial tolerance and encouraging complex, analytical thinking—abilities that certainly are of vital long-term interest to corporations.
Businesses, however, must be concerned with today’s bottom line, and the arts create a competitive edge. Try walking through a Target store, for example, and divesting it of the impact of arts, artists and arts instruction. The music over the loud speakers and the audio, entertainment and book sections all clearly go. The entire fashion division and those Michael Graves teapots are out; since visual artists and colorists produce jewelry and makeup, those departments too have to be eliminated. Because designers have also crafted much of the furniture and lighting fixtures, those items must go as well—both those in the store and in the “backstage” area where the offices are. Soon, little remains, save the household solvents and fertilizer, but those must be repackaged without design labels and special containers—plain paper bags will have to do. Without store planners, whose strategic use of space is key to retail success, and architects, there really is no store at all. And it’s not surprising that there’s not a customer around: without arts input, there’s no advertising, no branding graphics of the Target image itself, no copywriting, no clever TV commercials with actors that promote consumer curiosity and loyalty. In short, we’re out in a field, trying to sell generic products in unappealing packaging, to a customer base that doesn’t know we exist.
Now those of us who follow Target are aware of its rapid ascent in the public consciousness. Its upscale image, trend-forward fashions, hip advertising and in-house designer lines (like those Michael Graves teapots) suggest that its competitive edge relies on better design, better imaging, better use of language, better art, better artists—artists who began, often as children, to hone their skills in creative writing classes, in sculpture and drawing classes, in music classes, in acting classes.
None of this comes without a price. What is often hard for corporate leaders to understand about the arts-and especially theatre-is that we deal in constant turnover: We start over from scratch with every production, made by a new team of collaborators for a four-to-six-week “shelf life” before it is swept away and the entire “inventory” is re-invented. We have high fixed costs, resistant to efficiency strategies: Three Sisters will always need at least 13 actors, and a complete Hamlet can’t be done with fewer than 16. We incur our costs up front, building sets, paying actors, purchasing materials and constructing costumes, long before the first ticket can be bought and redeemed, and with paltry capitalization. And our ability to generate revenue at the box office must be balanced with fidelity to our mission of creativity and risk.
True business leaders understand that this doesn’t come cheap. Ticket revenues typically only cover 60 percent of expenses for any production—less when the play is less well known or less immediately accessible to audience tastes. Every day, arts groups have to raise more and more and more—a $5-million theatre typically has to raise $65,000 in contributions every week just to balance the budget.
Meanwhile, the increased corporate emphasis on project-specific funding has become unintentionally problematic. All businessmen and women know the importance of flexible capital—especially in a competitive, web-driven age where opportunities turn on a dime and responsive organizations must have the means to move more quickly than the laborious, traditional grant request, review, revision, reply cycle can accommodate. The demise of general operating support funding has reduced such flexible capital to negligible proportions for far too many groups.
Just as we have long known that we cannot succeed without cultivating a strong business sense, business leaders may need to be reminded that business success—both in the short term and the long term—is enhanced by cultivating a strong arts sensibility.
When I shared these thoughts with a group of business leaders in Oregon, I closed by asking them to remember a personal encounter with a strain of music, a painting or the voice of an actor speaking from the darkness. The speaker who followed me, an executive from AT&T, took the stage and said, “I’m going to discard my prepared remarks for this meeting. Instead, I want to tell you about the time I was in 11th grade and went to see Hamlet at the Seattle Repertory Theatre—and my life was changed.” Reminding others of the individual impact of the arts–an impact they already know but may have forgotten—is the ultimate weapon in an arsenal of arguments that we must always claim with pride.