New Washington reality: What should cultural organizations do?

For anyone tapped in to the federal government — and who isn’t? — this is an uncertain time. President Donald Trump seems intent on meeting each of his campaign promises, though the priority for these is difficult to discern from the outside.

But as The New York Times reported, in New York City alone, 419 arts and cultural organizations received $14.5 million from the National Endowment for the Arts, which Trump is considering eliminating. And that doesn’t count what might happen to the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Eric Mower + Associates works with museums, galleries, theaters, public television and radio, orchestras and a host of other cultural institutions in our nine agency cities. From the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo to Atlanta’s High Museum, EMA has decades of experience helping cultural organizations raise money, sell tickets, recruit members, develop their boards, throw parties and successfully traverse their world.

In the current climate, then, what’s a cultural group or museum to do? No doubt many executive directors as well as board and staff members are asking the same question: Will these Trumpian threats be a Shakespearean “full of sound and fury signifying nothing?” EMA would not recommend counting on it.

And they must be realistic.

We have a few suggestions:

Lead. Don’t despair — at least publicly. Exhibit determination, conviction, perseverance. Don’t allow staff and board to take a psychological hit. Don’t go political on social media — as an organization or as individual leaders. Even if this administration’s point of view lasts for eight years, it won’t be forever. Adapt. Modify. How did your predecessors survive the Great Depression or World War II or the Great Recession, now almost 10 years past its start? Don’t go it alone. Collaborate with other cultural leaders. There is strength in numbers, and 20 brains are better than one. Use internet tools to seek peer ideas and innovations in other cities. Steal good ideas. Adjust.


Fundraise. The most obvious place to start is raising more money — even if to just stay even. Keep your friends, supporters and benefactors informed about the changes you see on the horizon. Be factual, not emotional — or political. Communication is crucial. If you are to raise more money, you must raise more hearts and minds. Facts about your success, your growth, your community impact will be valuable. Share those. Aggressively use your social media feeds to set a tone. Note objectively what cuts will take away from your supporters’ lives and your communities.

Market. Even national cultural organizations don’t have a lot of marketing money. It is therefore crucial in the current atmosphere to spend wisely. Look for media trades, discounts and innovations. Partner with print, digital, radio, cable and television outlets, where they benefit by partnering with your sterling reputation and you get discounts.

Publicize. Telling your story successfully spreads your mission and helps you raise money. Doing it for little or no cost, through public relations placements in mainstream and social media, makes the effort especially successful. Don’t have a PR person or team? Find interns in local colleges and universities to determine if local media are interested.


Innovate. How stale is the annual gala? Is it the same each year? Has the amount raised trended downward in recent years? Does it appeal to Millennials? Are you taking advantage of social media to promote and sell tickets? It’s hard to walk away from a successful fundraising event that proved lucrative year over year and provides a large percentage of your budget. But could three new smaller events exceed the large one? Could you partner with other similar cultural groups and all come out ahead? This is not the time to stay locked on a strategy. It’s time to think about new approaches.

Simplify. Putting aside staff layoffs, what can you do to as painlessly as possible to button up your operations so you can demonstrate your house is in order, before you ask more people to consider supporting it, or give at a higher level? Do all your board members contribute at least a minimum amount annually? Do they all host fundraising events? Is your headquarters suddenly more expensive than feels right, and should you move to a more modest, money-saving location (and thereby generate publicity for your sound, responsible judgment)? Do you own assets you can turn into a cash endowment, now that the stock market is roaring? Can you partner with other cultural organizations on location, accounting, legal and human resources costs?

Act strategically. The temptation for cash-strapped, understaffed cultural gems is to go tactical — start a petition, consider deaccession, sell lemonade out front on hot days. No. You need a plan, probably a four- to eight-year strategic plan. How will NEA/NEH cuts — which also roll down to state equivalents — pressure your operation? What strategy can you mount to counter these forces? How do you form a philosophical resistance that will help generate increased giving from your angry loyalists?

Raise your voice. You have elected representatives at the local, state and federal levels. Make your case. Press your points. Have your supporters join you. Seek and build political support, which can lead to direct and indirect financial support.