One Big Secret to a Sustainable Arts Organization: Stop trying to take over the universe with your ideas.


Over the past decade, I have observed the Walmart mentality permeate the zeitgeist of our field. Build a large, national business or organization and you will have a path to sustainability.

Many arts leaders, particularly those who are just starting their organizations, come to me with the vision of scaling an idea nationally, or even internationally. The thought is that if they could just scale an artistic project or organization, they would find long-term programmatic and financial stability. There are three large issues that I see passionate arts leaders missing as they build their organizations:

  1. They don’t have a strategy for building a staff before pushing forward a vision for a national organization. While there may be potential for an entity to grow and have a real impact nationally, leadership must develop a strategy for building a staff along with the organizational mission and vision. Absent this strategy, leadership is put in a position of taking on more responsibility than they are able, dramatically impacting the organization’s ability to scale.
  2. Arts organizations with ambitions to scale nationally haven’t researched if the initiative will translate to other regions of the country.
  3. If an organization leaves the region, organizational leadership loses their ability to oversee the quality of programming.

Here are five quick tips to consider as you build your sustainable arts organization or ensemble.

  1. If you want quality, stay local: Arts organizations need to develop their local brand and identity and focus on delivering a high quality product to a smaller number of individuals before considering their role as a national organization.
  2. Build a model, not a network: Often, I meet with arts leaders who have a vision to scale their organization to “Walmart” like proportions, taking their idea to every small town in America. Tip: Focus on building a sustainable model that is an example to others, instead of pursuing a national network. 
  3. Go as deep as possible: Differentiate yourself by developing a mission that allows you to go deep with your programmatic offerings. Tip: As an arts leader, you must have a desire to provide an experience rooted in excellence. Your organization should only be as large as it is able to be excellent. For every step you take in pursuit of growing your organization, you risk sacrificing the quality of your offerings. 
  4. Stay small, nimble, and flexible: Arts organizations, especially new entities, should start small with ambitions to grow incrementally. Tip: Staying small, nimble and flexible enables you to seize opportunity when it comes and to move quickly from offerings that don’t work. 
  5. Don’t grow before figuring out staffing: I’ve had many meetings with arts leaders who have launched an organization out of pure will and passion but come to me because they’re burnt out from running the entire organization. Tip: Ask yourself this question: If I walk away today, will the organization still be here tomorrow.  If the answer is yes, great! If the answer is no, start to rethink how the organization is run to ensure long-term stability of the entitiy.

I hope this helps you think about your own organization. If you would like advice on a challenge you’re facing with your organization, please let me know in the comments below, I’m happy to help.


(Photo Credit: NASA)

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

3 thoughts on “One Big Secret to a Sustainable Arts Organization: Stop trying to take over the universe with your ideas.

  1. Hi Nate, this makes me think of the experience (generally speaking) of the El Sistema-inspired movement in the US. Follow up surveys in 2016 with the fifty Sistema Fellows who trained at NEC showed that burnout, following an initial 2-3 year period of passion-fueled investment with large-scale ambitions, was a top concern. Founders and boards dove into the mission-driven work without enough attention to the infrastructure and staffing necessary to support their desire for program expansion. Not in all cases, of course, but in enough instances to be notable.

    1. Heath, thanks so much for the thoughts! I think the data is true, attention to infrastructure and staffing is so important, especially for new organizations. Thanks for sharing the link, I’ll check it out!

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