"We would ask organizations, 'Whom do you consider being your competitor?' " says one of the study's authors, Joanna Woronkowicz. "And time and time again, we heard responses that were akin to, 'Our organization is unique. We don't have any competitors.' "
The study doesn't cite specific Philadelphia examples of what goes awry, but there are plenty. The Kimmel Center opened on a Field of Dreams principle. The Rafael Viñoly building was designed to be a major cultural and architectural attraction, but has struggled to attract patrons and donors, often competing for fund-raising with its principal tenant, the Philadelphia Orchestra (which just emerged from bankruptcy). At the same time, it failed to deliver until recently on excellent acoustics, a principal objective of any musical forum.
Strong, consistent, even autocratic leadership helps, the study argues. Despite huge average cost overruns that nearly doubled construction budgets, theater-building projects occupied by a single company tended to enjoy the greatest financial success due to a unified vision. When organizations flounder and have unwieldy boards, consistency is rare. Some Philadelphia institutions shed top executives at alarming rates. The Kimmel Center is now on its sixth chief.
Economic growth and population increase aren't as critical to a cultural organization's fiscal well-being as are employment patterns and regional demographics. Any region has only so many cultural dollars. Younger patrons may be more drawn to less expensive programming. The Fringe Festival is an unqualified success and it hasn't erected a single shed. The cultural event of last year was arguably the International Festival of the Arts' free closing street fair, which showcased French aerial acrobats and attracted almost 200,000 celebrants right outside the Kimmel.
Six years after its dedication, in a desperate grab for visitors, the National Constitution Center hosted an exhibit honoring Princess Diana, royalty being the polar opposite of the Constitution, the impetus for the nation's founding. During the last three years, attendance has dropped 20 percent. Now, the center is home to a Springsteen show, better than monarchy though still an odd thematic fit, and pricey, almost $25 to visit along with the permanent collection. Yards away is the National Museum of American Jewish History, which opened in 2010, so overconfident in original attendance projections that reality forced administrators to whack their vision in half.
Despite institutions' claims of being without competition, "in Philadelphia, we noted that there were so many cultural institutions located next door to the other," says the report's Woronkowicz. They cannibalize each other for attendance and fund-raising dollars.
With good planning and strong relationships, neighboring institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the new Barnes will enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship in attracting visitors and ongoing support.
"We're working with cultural institutions to clearly define their unique value," says Philadelphia Cultural Alliance president Tom Kaiden. "We've had attendance growth during the recession, which is not true of other parts of the country, though some of this is linked to the increase in supply."
Institutions learned the hard way that they need to raise operating revenue. "It's sexier to invest in the building than to invest in the building's electricity and plumbing," Kaiden notes. "If we're good, we learn from experience. We learn from mistakes, and we learn how we can do things differently."
Contact Karen Heller at email@example.com or 215-854-2586.