Businesses enlivening the arts is a winning combination for Atlanta

By Guest Columnist DAN REARDON, CEO of the North Highland consulting firm

The financial health of Atlanta’s arts community has taken a significant hit over the past few months.

Last October, Georgia Shakespeare went out of business after 29 years due to financial woes, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians were locked out in a contract dispute due to years of operating below budget.

What does it take to keep the arts alive in Georgia?

In addition to providing funding, which these organizations certainly need to operate, business leaders across the state can bring their knowledge and expertise to help these organizations do more than survive: to empower them to thrive.

Additionally, Georgia’s national ranking per capita for state arts support is next to last in the nation, according to Georgia Council for the Arts.

Atlanta is also a little different than the broader U.S. when it comes to funding. Here, corporate giving is the backbone of support, as opposed to individual giving, which is dominant in other large cities. The Council also reported that creative industries in Georgia represent more than 12,000 businesses employing nearly 200,000 people and generating $29 billion in annual revenue. Economically, we are making a huge mistake if the business community does not step in and help our arts community.

Dan Reardon

Dan Reardon

I have personally experienced the power of what can come from a partnership between business and the arts through my eight-year tenure as a board member, and former chairman of the Alliance Theatre. The partnership started as many do in the business world: networking.

Susan Booth, the Alliance Theatre’s artistic director and I met through a CEO forum where we were both participants. As part of the forum, we all shared some of the business issues we faced as leaders, and I heard firsthand the challenges that Susan’s organization was facing – at the time it was pretty stressful. Her story struck a chord with me as I have always had a soft spot for the arts. My wife is a visual artist through painting, photography and design, and she has opened my eyes to the powerful impact that art can have on an individual and a community.

Having guided many Fortune 100 companies through challenging operational and financial situations in my professional role at North Highland, I knew I could tap into my experiences in the business world to make a positive impact on the Alliance Theatre.

Luckily for me, Susan also recognized the benefit of involving people with a business mindset to complement the artistic skillsets that she certainly has, which is part of what makes her such a great leader. She understood that if she involved experts in the operational aspect of running the business of the Alliance, she could create a stable environment and focus her efforts on providing the very best art possible to the Atlanta community.

When I joined the board in 2006, the chairman at the time had already started down a path to improve the operational performance of the Alliance. When I was asked to be chairman in 2010, the first thing I did was recruit more business leaders onto the board with various deep expertise in key areas to help set the course for success. During the next three to four years, the Board worked to restructure the Alliance Theatre’s operational roadmap and provided financial counsel and strategy.

Within this time, the Alliance significantly changed how it operated as a business. We encouraged out-of-the box thinking. An example of this is the Alliance’s outstanding summer camp program. At the time, the on-campus program served about 400 area children. Within a short time-period, the program tripled and was serving more than 1,200 kids in metro Atlanta, filling all of the available space at the Woodruff Arts Center, and spilling out into schools we had partnered with in the community. This allowed more children to be touched by the arts, and generated more income for the Alliance that could be used to support other educational programs.

Key to our success was that we never talked to Susan about what we thought should be on stage – we were not there to give our opinion on her artistic decisions. This is what the artistic team at the Alliance is focused on. We were there to create a stable business environment so the art could flourish. Today we’re seeing the results of these efforts.

The Alliance is in the midst of a great season – both artistically and financially, including the upcoming world premiere of Tuck Everlasting. This musical is directed and choreographed by the Tony Award-winning director of Aladdin and Book of Mormon and was named one of The New York Times Top 100 shows of the 2014/15 season.

Now thriving and celebrating its 46th season, I am confident that the improvements we made will have a lasting impact, allowing the local community to enjoy performance art at the Alliance Theatre for years to come. It is because of the strength of its operational foundation that the Alliance Theatre was able to launch a capital and endowment campaign this year. With significant lead funding already secured, the campaign will allow for a long, overdue renovation of their primary performance space, and fully endow the core artistic and educational programming this city deserves. The foundation is solid and the commitment is clear.

What can business people take away from exposure to the arts?

Philosophically, I believe that to become the creative, innovative and imaginative citizens that our companies want us to be, we need to willingly expose ourselves to new ideas. Arts organizations in Georgia and nationally rely on financial investments from both individuals and corporations to thrive.

Volunteering time in the arts and experiencing its culture is also a simple and highly effective way to make this possible. Networking and connecting with creative minds results in new solutions, opportunities and valuable relationships. It’s a way to get involved in your passion and see how your business learnings can be applied outside of the office.

I knew that I didn’t have the skills to be an actor or singer, but that didn’t stop me from finding a way to get involved in a cause that I was passionate about. It was incredibly rewarding to see success and know my efforts helped (and I left the acting to the professionals).

Further, the Atlanta economy needs a strong cultural scene to help attract and retain top talent from around the world, and a rich cultural arts scene significantly contributes to the economy, tourism and the quality of life. People want to live and work in a city with a vibrant arts community.

Atlanta needs its business community to step-up and provide not only their donations but also their time to ensure that Atlanta remains a region of world-class cultural assets. The mutual benefits from an arts and business partnership are extensive and can result in more connected employees and successful businesses, creative problem-solving, higher quality arts and sustainable cultural institutions.

Additionally, a benefit of these partnerships is a business leader’s potential enrichment from the inclusion, culture and innovation that creative organizations bring not just to their stages, but to their organizational structures as well.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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