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What We’re Learning: Three Cultural Leaders on Thriving Through Uncertainty

Dr. Bruce D. Thibodeau, Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, and Elizabeth Merritt
Dr. Bruce D. Thibodeau, Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, and Elizabeth Merritt.

We were pleased to host a conversation on adapting business models and ensuring sustainability in today’s cultural sector on April 8, with valuable insights from arts consultant Dr. Bruce D. Thibodeau, cultural leader Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, and museum futurist Elizabeth Merritt.

This online program, moderated by the Center’s Director of Exhibitions and Public Interpretation Kelly Shindler, was offered as part of our ongoing knowledge-sharing efforts as cultural professionals navigate significant shifts affecting organizational capacity and long-term success. We have responded to these changing times with our recently launched Evolving Futures funding program to support regional arts and culture organizations that are ready to undertake significant business-model adaptation. Additionally, we provide avenues for engagement with and learning from distinguished arts leaders.

As our executive director, Paula Marincola, emphasized, “Our goal, as ever, is for our arts and culture sector to not merely survive, but to thrive.”

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We began by delving into the ideas in Dr. Thibodeau’s article, “Shaping a Resilient Arts and Culture Business Model: Is It Possible in a ‘Post-Pandemic’ Artificial Intelligence World?” Though Thibodeau, founder and president of Arts Consulting Group, acknowledged that the arts face significant uncertainty and complexity due to the lasting effects of the pandemic, he also pointed to the opportunity for evolution in the field at large. “I think the most exciting and optimistic part of all this is that we as the arts and culture sector are quite resilient and creative, and we don't take no for an answer,” he said.

Thibodeau pointed to the reality that, for most organizations, audiences still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. He stressed the necessity of a clear mission and goals, joined with active engagement with stakeholders.

“There's a need for re-establishing the relationships and the habits of audiences in attending arts and culture activities,” he said. “Organizations need to think beyond themselves: What does the community think about us, and what do they need? How can we have an impact on the community as a whole?” He encouraged organizations to think about their relationships with artists, board, staff, and collaborators, as well as partnerships with political and business leaders, “to create a bigger public dialogue about the value of your organization and your impacts.”

Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, vice president for cultural affairs for Arizona State University and executive director of ASU Gammage, pointed out that the messenger can be just as important as the message. “One of the things that I find exceedingly important is who carries your water, who carries your message” she said. “Sometimes you are not the best person to do that. I spend a lot of my time figuring out who can carry the water and then spending time with them—whether that's a legislator, a newspaper, the publisher, or speaking at a rotary club. The notion is that you get your message out and get people attached to it. People find a mutuality and a purpose.”

She also underscored the importance of listening to the public’s needs and being able to respond quickly. From practical facility operations like elevators and restrooms to ensuring that audiences feel safe attending performances again, understanding the public’s needs is critical.

Our final speaker of the day, Elizabeth Merritt, reinforced that point, explaining how she serves as a futurist for the nation's museums as the American Alliance of Museums’ vice president for strategic foresight and as the founding director of the Alliance’s Center for the Future of Museums. Merritt pointed to the high rate of speed at which things are now shifting, making it difficult to create systems that can respond in a timely way.

She noted three “major volatile trends” she’s been tracking as part of the Alliance’s TrendsWatch: the latest round of culture wars damaging libraries, museums, and institutes of higher education; the explosive growth of generative AI (artificial intelligence); and continually evolving forecasts on the timeline for the damage we're going to suffer from climate change.”

Merritt urged museum directors and other arts leaders to keep a list of immediate and actionable issues that have recently appeared in the field, including having established emergency response plans for protests and demonstrations around divisive issues, plans for weather-related disruptions, and policies and procedures to guide an organization’s use of AI.

Jennings-Roggensack agreed that organizations need leaders who are prepared to handle crises. “Everything we learned in the pandemic, we should be writing down and noting,” she said.

“Learn how to be a futurist,” Merritt said. “Learn how to anticipate change and be flexible enough to live in multiple possible futures. Be a person who has imagined what it would be like to live through a pandemic, what it would be like if federal funding completely collapsed. For the cultural sector, the best adaptation is being able to thrive in uncertainty."

“What we learned during the pandemic is that we didn't have time to study the past. We didn't even have time to study the future. We had to act. We had to close down our theaters quickly. Then we had to figure out how to get them open as quickly as possible,” Jennings-Roggensack explained. “Welcoming change is really important, and it only happens when we listen to the communities we serve, listen to the artists we work with, and listen to our staffs. We must be clear on what the future needs to be, because it's up to us to create that future.”

About the Speakers

Colleen Jennings-Roggensack is vice president for cultural affairs for Arizona State University and executive director of ASU Gammage. She serves on The Broadway League's Board of Governors as vice Chair of the Road, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Committee, Government Relations Committee, Labor Committee, and co-chairs the Legislative Council and Road Presenters/Intra-Industry Committee. Jennings-Roggensack is also Vice Chair of Creative Capital and a co-founder of Major University Presenters.

Elizabeth Merritt is the American Alliance of Museums’ vice president for strategic foresight and founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums—a think tank and research-and-development lab for the museum field. She studied ecology and evolution as an undergraduate at Yale and received her master’s degree in cell and molecular biology from Duke University. Her museum career has included working in a children’s museum, as well as natural history and history museums, and she is a graduate of the Getty Leadership Institute’s Museum Management Program.

Dr. Bruce D. Thibodeau is the founder and president of the Arts Consulting Group, where he provides strategic oversight and has guided hundreds of nonprofit, university, and government clients in effective executive searches, cultural facilities planning, fundraising and marketing assessments, strategic planning and business assessments, and board governance. His research and client work focus on how public and private dialogues between internal and external stakeholders prompt their iterative learning, deeper social and emotional bonds, and a sense of community built around shared project goals and mutually beneficial outcomes.

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