Can Business and Art Mix?

[I hope my readers will forgive my hiatus.  A series of regular life-events and a landmark vacation in the Greek isles (something I most certainly will not apologize for) have kept me away for far too long.]

Over the last few days, the ugly, ongoing labor dispute between the Minnesota Orchestra and its musicians has continued to weigh on my mind.  One particular aspect of this dispute is something that bedevils all arts organizations:  the deep—and growing—gulf between artists and buinessfolks.  As a result of this dispute, many are asking a series of pointed questions, such as:  arts organizations everywhere fight tooth and nail to bring successful CEOs onto their governing boards… is this a good thing?  Can business leaders effectively lead an arts organization?  Should they?  Is the “businessification” of an arts organization something to welcomed or feared?

I don’t know if I have any definitive answers, but I do have some thoughts.

I have said before and will say so again that I have no problem with arts groups adopting more business-like habits.  Nor do I think that great art can’t be produced in a financially tight environment.  A famous example of these how arts and business savvy can build off each other comes from the reorganization of the Bayreuth Festival in the 1950s by Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner.  Bayreuth was the opera house Richard Wagner had built specifically to stage his mammoth opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.  Starting in the late 1800s, the Festival became famous for staging lavish productions of the “Ring” operas in the literal style Wagner envisioned, with all the mythological elements such as gods, giants, flying horses, and mermaids brought vividly to life on stage.  In the aftermath of WWII, the Wagner brothers (grandsons of the composer) took over management of the Festival and quickly realized they faced a huge challenge: they no longer had the financial resources to stage the operas as they had been in the past.   Undaunted, Wieland and Wolfgang hit upon an ingenious solution.  They elected to perform the works in a much more economical way—a minimalist, abstract staging without sets, elaborate props or detailed costumes.  The effect was revolutionary, focusing attention on the music and the human drama instead of the operas’ fantastic elements.  Critics and audiences were enthralled, and the “New Bayreuth” aesthetic became hugely influential at opera houses everywhere.  The Wagners’ business plan, born from necessity, was responsible for both a financial and artistic revitalization of an endangered arts festival; today the brothers are remembered as much for their managerial skills as their artistic vision.

So yes, it is undeniable business leaders and business savvy can be valuable assets for an arts organization.  A leader with a good mind for business can obviously help an arts organization produce great art in a way that is, yes, financially sustainable.

That said, it is dangerous to naively assume that any business leader will automatically have what it takes to set an art organization’s financial house in order.  It is still worse to give such a leader free rein to “work their magic” based on that optimistic assumption.

I have argued many times that it is not enough that someone has a business background.  The person should have a relevant business background, or at least a thoroughly grounded understanding of the business side of producing art.  And this isn’t only true for the arts—it is the height of folly for any business to select a leader with an inappropriate background.  For example, running a hospital doesn’t inherently qualify someone to take over an ailing manufacturing company, nor would the CEO of a construction company have the innate knowledge to run a financial institution.  Venerable retailer JC Penny learned this lesson the hard way when it hired Ron Johnson as its new CEO.  Johnson was a hugely successful executive at Apple Computers, but he was a disaster for JC Penny—his initiatives played havoc with JC Penny’s corporate culture and drove away customers by the thousands.  Johnson’s brief tenure led to $985 million in net losses for the company, and famously forced JC Penny to release a series of ads apologizing to its customers and asking them to give its stores another chance.

Arts organizations, alas, face similar dangers when they blindly take on leaders who have a “proven record of success” in the business world, without verifying that they have the right record of success.  The case of the Broadway production of Gray Gardens offers a chilling example of what can happen.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Gray Gardens was a musical that opened in 2006.  It is based on the famous documentary detailing the lives of “Big Edie” Beale and her daughter “Little Edie,” who were Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt and cousin, respectively.  The story follows the Beales as they slowly sink from sophisticated socialites to delusional shut-ins, while their Hamptons mansion decays into a cat-infested ruin around them.   New Broadway productions are always risky, but when it opened Grey Gardens had a number of elements that suggested a long, profitable run.  For one, themes of crumbling grandeur and larger-than-life neurotics have long fascinated audiences—think of Sunset Boulevard or Rautavaara’s opera, The House of the Sun.  The score was tuneful and engaging, and the show featured an electrifying Broadway star, Christine Ebersole.  In 2007 it was nominated for 10 Tony Awards.  Shortly after the award ceremony, however, the show closed.  An article from the time picks up the story:

*  *  *

Dismay ‘Gardens’

Ebersole & Others Have ‘Grey’ Blues

By Michael Riedel

New York Post, July 18, 2007

Accepting the Tony Award last month for her landmark performance in “Grey Gardens,” Christine Ebersole managed to thank nearly a dozen people, including her lawyer, publicist, secretary and nanny.

She did not, however, thank two people who were instrumental in getting her to Broadway – Kelly and Lou Gonda, the producers of “Grey Gardens.”

This was not an oversight.

Ebersole, sources say, can’t stand the Gondas and blames them for mismanaging a show that, with its strong reviews and three Tonys, should run a lot longer than it is.

“Grey Gardens” wraps up its money-losing run on July 29.

Ebersole isn’t alone in her contempt for the producers.

Production sources describe them as dilettantes who spent lavishly on parties and gifts but were clueless about marketing and advertising.

Sources say they ignored the advice of theater professionals (some of whom were fired during the run of the show) and alienated not only their leading lady but also most of the creative team.

“They tried to control everything without having the slightest idea what they were doing,” one source says.

Another calls them “benevolent despots. They showered us with gifts, like we were peasants living on their land, and then they turned around and butted heads with us over stupid things.”

The Gondas declined to comment.

These days, Broadway is chock-a-block with super-rich people who fancy themselves producers.

But the Gondas are in a class by themselves. Lou Gonda is ranked No. 410 on the Forbes list of the 500 richest people in America. The magazine puts his net worth at $1.6 billion.

He often began meetings by saying: “I made a lot of money in the airline business, and every business is the same, so here’s what I think we should do . . . ”

But a Broadway musical isn’t exactly the same thing as an airplane, so none of Gonda’s complicated schemes got off the ground.

Kelly Gonda was surrounded by assistants, including one whose job it was to operate the remote control to her plasma-screen TV.

She fixated on insignificant details, sources say, while ignoring more fundamental problems.

One day she decided that a costume worn by the actor playing Joseph Kennedy was all wrong.

“He doesn’t look like a Kennedy,” she complained.

She pulled the actor out of rehearsal, took him shopping and bought him a heavy cable-knit sweater, which she insisted he wear in a scene set on the beach in July.

The costume designer of “Grey Gardens” is five-time Tony winner William Ivey Long, a close personal friend of Lee Radziwill, Jackie Kennedy’s sister.

He probably has a pretty good idea of how a Kennedy would dress.

A source says Ivey Long “just rolled his eyes because he knew what he was dealing with.”

The Gondas fired Serino-Coyne, the veteran Broadway ad agency, because they didn’t like their artwork. A source close to the agency says the company presented the Gondas with dozens of ideas but the Gondas “could never make a decision about anything.”

Serino-Coyne was replaced by Radical Media, in which the Gondas have a stake. Radical came up with tabloid-style ads that theater insiders said had nothing to do with the musical.

Ebersole was annoyed from the start, when the Gondas offered her just $5,000 a week (a pittance for a star of her caliber) and told her she’d be billed under the title.

They were furious when she didn’t thank them at the Tonys and, sources say, wanted to close the show the next day.

“Grey Gardens” is closing at the end of the month because the Gondas won’t sink any more money into it.

“It was like a toy in their sandbox,” one source says. “And now they’re bored with it, and they’re looking for a new toy to play with.”

 *  *  *

Clearly, the Gondas were successful in business; it is not clear, however, if their business background gave them the skills to produce a Broadway musical.

I will say again that I have no problem bringing a business-like mindset (or an actual business leader) to an arts organization.  I would strongly suggest, however, that it only works when the business mindset is put into the service of the art.  The Wagner brothers successfully integrated business thinking to the Bayreuth Festival because they started with the idea to produce great art, and then created an appropriately-scaled business plan to support their ultimate goal.  The business plan and the artistic plan were organically linked.  The Gondas, on the other hand, simply imposed management techniques and strategic thinking they learned in another economic sector onto the creation of a new work of art—without ever examining if these ideas were a good fit.  Worse, the Gondas repeatedly overruled people directly connected with the art, even in areas where they had no expertise. The business and the art were never in synch.

Running an arts organization is a difficult task that requires mastery of many specialized skills.  I hope we move away from the notion that a business leader—any business leader—is automatically qualified to take the reins of an arts organization simply because he or she succeeded somewhere out in vast, nebulous “world of business.”



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