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Values-Driven Decisions Amidst Global Crisis

The Director’s Desk: A blog series offering perspectives from various members of On Site Opera’s leadership team

With Eric Einhorn, Piper Gunnarson, and Geoffrey McDonald

At On Site Opera, we have daily conversations internally to consider how best to fulfill our mission, serve our artists and audiences, and innovate within the opera art form. This practice has not changed since our lives have been so altered by global pandemic, though the context and content of those conversations have changed significantly. A guiding light through these conversations has been our set of Core Values, which we named and defined in our 5-Year Strategic Plan last year. Though the plan itself will likely need some alterations as we adjust to a new normal and discover the long-range effects of this global crisis, the Core Values that we outlined will remain. These values, so innate in our everyday thinking, have offered solace, strength, and guidance as we have made key decisions over the past few weeks.

For this month’s installment of our blog series, The Directors’ Desk, our Leadership Team discussed how these core values have shaped key decisions as the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting economic collapse have affected our organization.

ON ARTISTIC DECISIONS MID-CRISIS

PIPER: Eric, one of the first decisions we made as this situation started unfolding was that we would pay artists who were contracted through our July performances their full fees, even if their performances were canceled. You were especially committed to this decision without hesitation. What made you so committed to that choice from the get-go?

ERIC: Our artform lives and dies by our artists, and I believe that we as a producing company have a responsibility to our artists no matter what. Mass cancellations and postponements have devastated the freelance artist community, most of whom have no protection from this unexpected turn of events. If we allow our artist community to suffer and wither, then we all suffer as a result. Thanks to the amazing support of our board and patrons, On Site Opera entered the COVID era with firm financial footing. Our strong financial management allowed us to immediately decide to pay all of our contracted artists. This lets us do our part to care for our community and to honor the work of these artists and the commitment they have made to On Site Opera.

ERIC: Geoff, we’ve been offering a variety of online resources (livestreams, Zoom sessions, etc.) since social distancing began. We have now been turning our attention to what happens post-COVID. What do you think is the most important thing for us to focus on when we get an all clear to perform live for audiences again?

GEOFF: My answer to what we do after all this is simple: What we were doing before, but better than ever! I’m proud of OSO, our work to-date, our growth, and our ambitions for the future. But I confess my thoughts of late tend less to what happens after all this, and more to what’s happening right now. It’s natural that we are all reaching for ways to stay connected to each other and to feel (marginally, somehow) productive. Natural—but not necessarily good. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the desire to keep the candle of live performance flickering online, and I applaud the beneficence shown by organizations across the cultural spectrum (orchestras, operas, museums, etc.) offering services for free. But! While it is an abiding credo among producers of live arts that online content cannot substitute for the “genuine article”, audiences – or, perhaps I should say potential audiences – are not all keepers of that faith. I don’t know how many people would admit to preferring stay-at-home options to live performance, but I do know that performing arts organizations were already competing with those options before COVID-19. Put bluntly, digital content and live performance are arch rivals for audiences, and in some arenas they are mortal enemies. So although I don’t see immediate harm in the flood of online content, I’m concerned that, over time, we risk habituating ourselves to a culture of online consumption, to sad simulacra of communal experience. When the lights come back on, we will be ready to make our case for shared art. It’s a long time to hold one’s breath, but conviction has a longer half-life than a virus.  

ON BUSINESS PLANNING MID-CRISIS

GEOFF: Piper, different as this current situation is from anything, well, ever, it has called up comparisons with the global financial downturn in 2008, which struck hard enough to hobble and even break many arts organizations. In the intervening decade there was a decent amount of ink spilled analyzing what arts organizations did to cope, failures and success stories, alike. Are there lessons from that time — and the recovery process afterward — that you will be keeping in mind in the weeks/months ahead? 

PIPER: While history can – and should – absolutely be a guide for arts organizations in the coming weeks and months, we need to recognize that we are in uncharted territory with the scale of this pandemic and its resulting economic and psychological impact. Historical events like 2008 can indicate that it may take four years or more for arts organizations to see a return to “normal” economic activity. We can even look to the trends of those years to learn that individual philanthropy fell off sharply and immediately, while foundation support was a few years behind that trend. Then there’s 9/11, which presented not only an economic impact but also a psychological one as audiences were fearful for quite awhile about congregating in theaters and museums. We will see a similar trend of public trepidation even as businesses re-open, albeit the source of that fear is coming from a much different place and will require a different approach to make audiences feel safe again. History can shine light on these important micro lessons that show how specific conditions yielded specific reactions, and we can apply that knowledge to the current situation, but I am equally interested in considering the macro effect of how a complex organism like a nonprofit arts institution exists before and after a catastrophic event like we have seen in the past and are experiencing now. As you say, much ink has been spilled studying the implications of past events, and one of the most important lessons from the past has been the revelation of major fault lines in the business models of arts organizations. These fault lines extend beyond the finance department into fundraising strategy, artistic programming, marketing, and more. They are all intertwined and they are very much defined by each organization’s unique values and vision. 

As much as we might learn from the past, I’m not sure that our goal should be to return to normal. The extreme situation caused by COVID has ignited many conversations about the inherent vulnerabilities within the opera business model, and inspired ideas about how we should evolve. While returning to normal might salve our wounds in the immediate aftermath of all this, our resilience and longevity will hinge on our commitment to continuing the vibrant conversations about what needs to change more broadly in our financial structures, staff structures, artistic delivery, and community relationships in order to be better prepared for whatever storm comes next. To that end, my thought process in the coming weeks and months will be a combination of micro solutions (eg how we need to adjust our fundraising and budgeting for this year) as much I will be thinking on a macro level about the core values that define On Site and how those values can serve as guideposts for short and long-term decisions.  

ON THE FUTURE

GEOFF: Eric, I have drawn a rather clear battle line between digital content and live performance, above, but I want to keep an open mind. Is there a fertile middle ground between the two that I’m not acknowledging? Are there technologies that you would be excited to embrace — not just in the interest of creating cool stuff that can be streamed online — but that fit into your creative/strategic thinking about site-specific opera?

ERIC: Yes, I absolutely think there is a fertile middle ground between the digital and live worlds. To continue your battle metaphor, though, technology can be a dangerous weapon that should be approached with extreme care and thoughtfulness. The most important thing to remember is to make sure the adopted technology supports the live work. There must be a reason for the tech; a reason why a particular platform is chosen. The technology should feel as intrinsic to the performance as a site itself. Companies and individual artists are having a great deal of success with posting previously recorded content or making new “at home” content to share online. While this has been inspiring to see and be a contributor to, this is only really triage for the current situation. What we are exploring now is a way to use technology in a more meaningful way that is tied more closely with our site-specific mission. On almost a daily basis, we are asking the question “what does it mean to be site-specific” if the site is your computer screen?” The entire On Site staff and Artistic Advisory Council has fielded that question, and the discussions have taken us down some exciting rabbit holes. We’ve started exploring the outer limits of live streaming, apps to deal with multi-location audio delay, and virtual scenery, to name a few. It’s still a little too early to say which bit of tech will provide that breakthrough we’re searching for, but it is exciting territory to dive into. Regardless, whatever leaps we continue to take into the digital universe, we can all be assured that it will amplify (literally and figuratively) the On Site Opera experience.

ERIC: Piper, I mentioned OSO’s strong financial management earlier. Can you tell us more about that and how the current environment will impact our budgeting and fundraising for the foreseeable future?

PIPER: Financial management goes hand-in-hand with fundraising and revenue generation. This has meant creating development strategies that are specific to the needs and realities of this organization at this point in time, along with responsible budgeting and detailed cash flow projections. You and I have always had a practice of creating operating budgets that lean high on expenses, lean low on income, and aim towards a small surplus. In order to create realistic and responsible budgets, we first need to have certainty about our income potential each year. Since On Site is still a relatively young organization, we don’t have much historical data to show us past income trends (which is what many organizations rely on). Instead, we need to think about lining up as much certainty as possible about future income. To that end, we created a multi-year major gift program, starting with our board members, through which patrons pledge annual donations to support On Site for 3 years or more. This helps us forecast a significant amount of our annual income for a few years in advance so that we can create realistic budgets. Additionally, we ask many of those supporters to make their gifts as close as possible to the beginning of our fiscal year (January) which sets up a cash flow cushion for the expenses throughout the rest of the year. That’s where we find ourselves now: thanks to our donors’ generosity and long-term commitments, and thanks to this early approach to cash inflow, our cash position is stable for a few months, allowing us time to breathe, think, and adjust our plans in anticipation of economic downturn.

We are incredibly fortunate and immensely grateful to be in this position right now. That’s not to say the global impact of COVID and its resulting economic downturn won’t affect us – it definitely will. But our cash cushion bought us a little time to pause and consider myriad options about our future. The number one takeaway from all of this as it pertains to our future budgeting and fundraising is the critical importance of reserve funds. One of our goals in our five-year strategic plan is to create a 6-month reserve fund, and that goal feels more important now than ever. Our immediate focus, of course, will be ensuring that On Site is still alive and kicking in a year (which it will be!), but our long-term goal still needs to be about building a cash reserve for weathering future financial storms.

PIPER: Geoff and Eric, we are now starting to think forward to the fall when, hopefully, we can gather again and produce live performances. What’s on your mind about how we do that?

ERIC: That’s a really hard question to answer right now. In considering, I am constantly reminded of a line from the Avengers: Endgame movie. When Doctor Strange (who can move freely through time) is asked to see in how many realities the Avengers defeat the bad guy, he says, “I looked forward in time. I saw 14,000,605 futures…” – and in only one do the Avengers succeed. While some would say that comparing COVID-19 to intergalactic bad guy Thanos is a bit of hyperbole, I believe the comparison is illuminating. There are many versions of reality where the performing arts are abandoned as the world continues to grapple with a global health crisis. There are an equal number of realities where, even if the arts are kept alive, it becomes impossible to know when various governmental orders will be lifted. There are an equal number of realities still that account for the post-COVID psychological impact including, but not limited to trepidation about gathering in large groups. With all of these potential realities, I believe it is not yet time to commit to any definite plans. Instead, On Site is leaning on its nimble structure to plan for as many of the myriad outcomes as possible. In this ever-changing environment, we are constantly adjusting and revisiting our core values so that, when the time comes, we will be poised to re-emerge as strong and ready to serve our community as the Avengers.

GEOFF: Live performance asks audience members to engage in a collective fantasy. It requires a covenant between audience and artists, something like: if you will let down your guard for a while, we will try to bend reality and induce a hallucination, with the promise that you’ll be safe the whole time. In our current situation, when every trip to the grocery store or the mailbox feels laden with risk, when people are all (hopefully) in a state of hyper-vigilance, that deal collapses. Audiences can’t open themselves up because we can’t guarantee their safety. That very peculiar kind of fear – when assembly, itself, is discomfiting – is a definitive roadblock to collective fantasy. It is the script for a perversely unperformable tragedy, and a cruel irony at a time when we could all use the boost. I agree with Eric: it is our responsibility not to rush back into public performance until the “public” part of that equation feels safe. How can we gather for cultural sustenance while gathering still evokes anxieties about personal survival? I recognize the minor key of my tune, here, so allow me a little modulation in the coda: I will be ready, baton sharpened and heart open, on the other end of all this, and I’m grateful to be part of an organization with clear vision, compassion, and integrity. 

In Closing

It hardly bears saying, but the future is unpredictable right now. What we do know is that whenever we can gather together again, we will all crave human connection, and we have already seen how much the world turns to art for light in dark times. We are honored to have the opportunity to bring more art into the world, virtually or immersively. And we are grateful to you, our patrons, our artists, our colleagues, our peers, our friends, our family, for believing in and supporting On Site Opera so that we will make it through this. 

To Artists: We encourage you to keep creating and we will continue to share resources to help you find your footing. 

To Audiences: We thank you for continuing to seeking out the arts as a bedrock of our cultural identity and societal strength. 

To Funders and Patrons (of On Site Opera and all arts organizations): We are overwhelmed by the show of solidarity and support you have offered. From offering technical resources to loosening grant guidelines to reaching out with questions of care, we are incredibly moved by and grateful for your presence.

We look forward to seeing you all again soon on site at the opera. Coraggio!

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