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The Capacity of Performing Arts Presenting Organizations

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Document date: April 01, 2002
Released online: April 01, 2002

Supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, and The Urban Institute.

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Table of Contents

Executive Summary


Section 1: Scope of the Study

Section 2: Research Method

Section 3: Distribution of Organizations in the Study

Section 4: Scope of Programs and Activities

Section 5: Sustainability and Financial Stability

Section 6: Leadership

Section 7: International Artists and Cultural Diversity

Section 8: Audience Development

Section 9: Technological Adaptation

Section 10: Size and Scope of the Presenting Field


Executive Summary

This report summarizes results from a survey of performing arts presenting organizations in the United States. The study was commissioned by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to supplement an evaluation of its Leadership Presenting Organizations program, and by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters to provide context for a series of presenting organization convocations and to provide a basis for future planning. The Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute conducted the research, with assistance from the Center for Survey Research at the Ohio State University and the Center for Survey Research at Indiana University, Bloomington. The work received additional support from and is part of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy's nonprofit subsector analyses program.

The research focuses on a broad range of performing arts presenting organizations. The research not only captures traditional performing arts presenting organizations, such as performing arts centers, but also includes organizations for which presenting is not the primary mission. Further, in addition to capturing data from freestanding, independently incorporated organizations, the research also focuses on performing arts centers and presenting programs that are hosted by larger organizations, such as universities, local governments, museums, and churches.

The research began with the identification of a sampling frame of nearly 7,000 potential performing arts presenting organizations that we felt were likely candidates for fitting our definition of a presenting organization. A performing arts presenting organization is an organization, or a department or program of a larger organization, that works to facilitate exchanges between artists and audiences through creative, educational, and performance opportunities. The work that these artists perform is produced outside of the presenting organization. Over 800 presenting organizations responded to either a short or a long survey form.

Respondents represent the broad variety of organizational types and sizes found in the performing arts field. We present the distribution of this variation in five different ways:

  1. Annual Presenting Budget. Nearly one-third of the respondents compose the category of smallest budget organizations, with less than $100,000 each in expenditures in fiscal year 2000. Another one-third fall into the category of small budget organizations, with annual expenditures ranging from $100,000 to $500,000. One in five organizations make up the medium budget class, with between $500,000 and $2 million in annual expenditures. Only a little over one in ten organizations are large budget organizations, with annual expenditures exceeding $2 million.
  2. Hosted Status. "Hosted status" refers to whether a performing arts presenting organization is a freestanding, independent organization or whether it is embedded in a larger organization. Nearly two-thirds of the organizations in the study are freestanding nonprofit organizations, while the remaining one-third are hosted by other entities. This ratio holds for organizations of all four budget classes.
  3. Community Type. One in three respondents are in small cities, our most common community type. The smallest number of presenters are in suburban locations, with urban and rural presenters falling in between.
  4. Presenter Age. The organizations in the study represent a range of organization ages. One hundred thirty-seven organizations in the study report that they began presenting the performing arts before 1960. On the other hand, 209 indicate that they began their presenting activities in the past decade. The creation of urban presenting organizations fell off substantially through the 1980s and 1990s, with the founding of presenting organizations in suburban settings taking up the slack.
  5. Organizational Type. Nearly half of the organizations in the study are traditional performing arts facilities or presenting programs that are part of an academic institution. However, a substantial minority of respondents are fairs or festivals, museums or other cultural venues with presenting programs, performing groups that also present the work of others, or culturally specific presenting organizations.

These different organizational characteristics provide a basis for exploring variations among organizational programs and the attitudes of their managers. The report is divided into six different substantive areas: scope of programs and activities, sustainability and financial stability, leadership, international artists and cultural diversity, audience development, and technological adaptation. We present the major points from each section here.

I. Scope of Programs and Activities

This section provides information about the overall size and scope of performing arts presenting organizations. We observe that the average presenting organization has 8 or 9 staff members, ranging from 2 to 37 between the smallest and large budget categories. Most staff members in presenting organizations are administrative staff, although some organizations maintain artistic and production staff as well.

By far, music is the most common art form contracted by performing arts presenting organizations. However, the average number of contracts to performances runs in nearly a 1 to 1 ratio, making music one of the most administratively taxing art forms to present. In contrast, nonmusical theatre and Broadway musical theatre are contracted in much fewer numbers but average over five performances for each contract.

The majority of presenting organizations select their programming primarily on artistic merit but also consider their financial goals. Roughly one in five presenters claim that they select their programs based exclusively on artistic merit. Two of the study organizations, both of them in the smallest budget category, indicate that their booking decisions are based almost exclusively on their potential to meet financial goals.

Presenting organizations rely on a variety of sources when deciding which artists to book. Three sources were cited as most critical: personal experience at a full-length performance, references from colleagues, and the general reputation of the artist.

II. Sustainability and Financial Stability

This section focuses on the finances of performing arts presenting organizations, including their own perceptions of their fiscal health. First, we observe that presenting organizations are roughly equally likely to own or rent their primary facility, but that large budget organizations are much more likely to own than small and smallest budget presenting organizations. Among those organizations that rent, budget size dictates their relationship with their primary facility. Presenting organizations with the smallest budgets tend to be occasional users of the venues they rent.

We asked presenters to rank their perception of financial health, financial stability, and financial management on a scale from 1 (low) to 5 (high). While positive responses tend to increase with budget size, presenting organizations of all sizes are optimistic about these dimensions of their finances. They are somewhat less positive about their organizations' fundraising capacity and their capacity for managing investments.

On average, presenting organizations earn roughly half of their revenues, most of which come from ticket sales. Slightly less than half of organizational revenues come from contributions from individuals, foundations, business, government, and host institutions. Reliance on contributed revenues decreases as an organization's budget increases.

Expenditures on artistic fees is by far the largest expenditure category for performing arts presenting organizations, a generalization that is especially true for organizations with the smallest presenting budgets. In contrast, presenters with the smallest budgets spend the least on management and general expenses, a category that constitutes 23 percent of annual expenditures for the average presenting organization. Presenters spend roughly one dollar in eight on direct marketing and fundraising expenses.

Most presenting organizations carry a low fund balance from year to year and do not build up a reserve that they can use for investments. National Arts Stabilization, an independent organization dedicated to improving the long-term stability of arts organizations, suggests that organizations interested in establishing an investment reserve try to gather donor-restricted endowment funds and board-designated quasi-endowments into a sum that equals at least two years of total organizational expenditures. However, very few presenting organizations meet this standard. Little more than one-third of the largest budget organizations have endowments plus quasi-endowments that match even one year's total expenditures.

Nonetheless, endowment-building efforts are growing. More than 10 percent of organizations with endowments established them in 2000. More than 40 percent of all presenting organizations intend to conduct an endowment campaign in the next three years.

III. Leadership

This section focuses on different dimensions of leadership. First, we report on how presenting organizations perceive their own artistic and managerial leadership, both of which rank very positively on a 1 (low) to 5 (high) scale. However, managers responding to the survey were less glowing about their ability to recruit qualified personnel and provide competitive salaries. Indeed, organizations with the smallest and small budgets average less than a neutral 3 when assessing the competitiveness of their salaries.

We asked presenting organizations to report the salary range into which their highest paid person falls. Average highest salaries range from $42,400 in the smallest budget organizations to $123,100 in the large budget organizations. Highest salaries also vary substantially by community type, organizational type, and geographic location. The highest salaries are found in organizations with the largest budgets and in organizations that are located in urban areas. Also, the highest salaries are found in traditional freestanding performing arts facilities. Salaries are lowest among organizations without their own facilities, festivals and fairs, and presenting programs run from museums and local arts agencies.

Presenters reported their perception of board leadership on the 1 to 5 scale. Board leadership rated somewhat lower than self-assessments of artistic and managerial leadership, especially among those organizations with smallest, small, and medium budgets. Presenting organizations vary substantially in terms of the degree to which board members contribute substantial sums to the organization's budget. More than one-third of presenters that receive board contributions receive less than 5 percent of total contributions from their board. On the other hand, more than 11 percent of organizations with boards received more than half of their total contributions from board members.

IV. International Artists and Cultural Diversity

This section highlights survey questions on the presentation of artists who live outside the country and the cultural diversity of the staff, artists, presentations, and audiences of the presenting organizations themselves. On the issue of international artists, we observe that larger budget organizations are generally more involved in the presentation of international artists than their smaller counterparts. However, organizations with medium budgets lead the way in both the numbers of international artists presented and the proportion of all performances presented by international artists.

We asked presenting organizations to assess the diversity of their board, staff, presentations, and audiences on a scale from 1 (low) to 5 (high). While the average assessment of the diversity of presentations averages around a value of 4, diversity of audiences rests closer to 3, and diversity of board and staff ranges from 2 to 3. On average, performing arts presenting organizations assess the diversity of their board and staff as moderately weak.

V. Audience Development

In this section, we consider several measures of efforts to increase the number of audience members at performances, to diversify audiences, or to deepen the performing arts experience for audiences. On the familiar 1 to 5 scale, presenting organizations rate their capacity for developing new audiences in the 3-4 range. As is the case for most of these measures, large budget organizations are more optimistic about the prospects of audience development than are the smaller presenters.

We observe that most performing arts presenting organizations do not have a staff member whose primary responsibility is audience development. Even among the large budget organizations, only slightly more than 40 percent have such a staff member.

Nonetheless, presenting organizations make an effort to collect information on their audiences or otherwise endeavor to develop their audiences. Most presenting organizations collect basic contact information from audience members, and more than half collect information regarding audience satisfaction with performances. Presenting organizations of all sizes are involved with a variety of audience development strategies, such as free performances, programs aimed at school-aged youth, and the dissemination of program notes. The use of audience development strategies increases with budget size, but even the presenters with the smallest budgets display a range of audience development efforts.

VI. Technological Adaptation

Finally, we report briefly on survey questions regarding the use of computer technology in daily organizational work tasks as well as in stagecraft. Virtually all of the organizations have access to the Internet, and most make use of computer technology either in administration or stagecraft. The most widespread use of computer technology among performing arts presenting organizations is the use of the Internet for communication with audiences or artists. Use of the World Wide Web for online promotion of the organization and its season are nearly as common, but these applications are most prevalent among large budget presenting organizations.

Organization size plays a clear role in technological adaptation. Online ticket sales have become the norm for the largest presenters but are very rare among the smallest. The role of size is also clear in self-assessments of technological adaptation in staging and production. Presenting organizations with large budgets average a value of 4.2 on the scale from 1 (low) to 5 (high), while organizations with smallest and small budgets rate a full point lower.

Section 10 reports our efforts to extrapolate our survey findings to national estimates of the number of attendees and the amount of money earned by and donated to performing arts presenting organizations in 2000. Based on our estimate of 7,000 performing arts presenters in the United States, we estimate total attendance at 316 million. We estimate collective earned income at $5 billion and contributed revenues at $3.7 billion.


The report concludes with 12 observations about the current state of the field of performing arts presenters, all raised in the body of the report and elaborated upon in Section 11:

  1. The predominance of small budget presenting organizations in the field as a whole
  2. The increase in suburban presenting organizations in recent years
  3. The predominance of venue ownership among larger budget presenting organizations
  4. Generally optimistic self-assessments of financial health
  5. Nearly equal reliance on contributions and earned income
  6. Low administrative costs among small budget presenting organizations
  7. Predominance of small or nonexistent financial reserves and endowments
  8. Pessimistic self-assessments regarding competitiveness of salaries
  9. Rural presenters active in presentation of international artists
  10. Medium budget presenters particularly active in audience development efforts
  11. Substantial use of technology, especially among larger budget presenters
  12. Collectively, substantial revenues from earned and contributed income

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