The Fat Lady Sings at Opera Boston...

...well somebody had to say it.

If you haven't heard the news, Opera Boston will cease operations on January 1, 2012.  They cited "lackluster fundraising in a tough economic climate" as the primary factor that lead to a $500,000 "insurmountable" budget deficit.

I'll admit, I don't know much about Opera Boston's organization or the circumstances that led to the decision to close their doors, but I do know that many arts organizations -- even some around the Opera's $3M annual budget mark -- would dance a jig if their deficit totaled only $500k!  It just doesn't strike me as an insurmountable number....but who knows?

Perhaps the closing boiled down to a cash flow issue.  However, it certainly seems that in a town like Boston, a mere $500,000 shouldn't be an organization-killer, right?  But after hopping on to OB's web page I caught a few possible clues.  They list a total of eight foundation and corporate partners.    Their annual membership levels for individual donations are uninspired and are aimed specifically at those buying the cheap tickets.  So, unless the organization had a tremendous base of high-level donors (i.e., total giving of $1.5M or more) I think we begin to see the picture. 

Lackluster fundraising in a tough economic climate?  Maybe.  But I think we can blame a portion of OB's failure on having a weak business model.  They sold tickets on the cheap, didn't create the necessary financial base from sponsors and large donors, and aimed their broad-based appeals at patrons who were accustomed to 'not paying much' for tickets.  I also wonder how engaged their Board was with fundraising.  If a $500,000 need killed the place, I have some doubts.  As I said, I'm not familiar with their situation to understand all of the "whys" but there certainly are enough clues available to at least piece together some worthy assumptions.

So here's the crux of my message:  Build the right model and be willing to work it.  If an arts organization is going to promote "affordable tickets" terrific, but it must have the fundraising machine in place ahead of time to sustain the operation.  The Board must be fully-committed to raising the big bucks and have  the properly-leveraged relationships necessary to accomplish the task.  Broad-based giving must hinder on a belief in the organization's mission and contribution to the community -- not in perks and benefits.

Arts and cultural organizations really can thrive, even in a tough economic climate, but they must create their own conditions for success that go well beyond "the art".  Mission.  Leadership.  Structure.  Growth.  That's a pretty good start.

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