Performing Arts

Cruel to Be Kind? Veteran theater executive Brian Loevner issues a bold manifesto for these times

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Brian Loevner/Photo: Joe Mazza | Brave Lux

“A life well lived, as pertains to an arts organization, is measured in the audience it reaches, the cultural and educational mission it serves, the artistry it achieves, and the many ways large and small that it enriches its community. As with any person or movement, though, organizations necessarily and naturally come to an end.”—from “Cultural Triage”

I met Brian Loevner more than a decade ago, when I was editing Newcity’s Stage section and spending a lot of time in theaters. He was the executive director of Chicago Dramatists, bringing a blunt business perspective that stood in stark and necessary contrast to the artistic director and face of the organization, the much-beloved Russ Tutterow. I was impressed with Loevner’s ability to combine passion for art with a level-headed instinct for survival and growth.

After almost a decade at Chicago Dramatists, Loevner left to start Chicago Commercial Collective, a for-profit producer that aimed to take advantage of nonprofit theaters’ propensity to produce hits that had to close before their time, owing to subscription-series commitments, and by remounting them in open-ended commercial runs. It sounded like a  great idea, but the market ultimately failed to support it. Before long, he was at Second City as managing producer, overseeing all theatrical production in Chicago for the comedy behemoth.

Since then, Loevner took his experience and hung out a consulting shingle under the rubric of BLVE, with clients that include a wide range of organizations including Teatro Vista, Windy City Playhouse and the Poetry Foundation. With so many clients in the performing arts, he’s had a front-row, if not a boardroom seat at the carnage the pandemic is wreaking on the industry, which he says has “some of the most resilient, smart, bighearted people in any arena.”

But beyond cheering for their survival, he foresees the demise of many performing arts organizations as the effect of the pandemic plays out, and he believes that more is needed than waiting it out with streaming events and prayers for foundations to toss life preservers. “It is vital that leaders not merely engage in a reflexive scramble for economic survival, but consider deeply existential questions about the present viability and prospects for the survival of organizations,” he writes in a white paper, “Cultural Triage: Considerations for Funders and Performing Arts Leaders in a Time of Upheaval,” co- written with Ian Belknap.

It’s a bold manifesto, aimed primarily at foundations and other funding organizations, the folks Loevner considers big-picture stewards of “the broader cultural and performing arts ‘ecosystem’.” He suggests two possible solutions to the existential inferno lit by the pandemic: merge or die gracefully.

The cost-saving benefits of a merger, in consolidating the more mundane aspects of operating a nonprofit, are apparent, but his imperative to help organizations recognize the inevitable cycle of life before the house is on fire is sure to be controversial, as reasonable as it may be.

It was something I wondered about a decade or so ago, when i was in theaters four nights a week (or more), as I observed that the Darwinian nature of Chicago theater in the nineties had given way to a long period of organizational stability, as many companies celebrated fifteen, twenty or more years in existence. So many theater companies in Chicago spring from and cling to the vision of their founders, and those founders were aging. Would the organizations outlast them and make the transition to new leaders, new visions (and, one would hope, more leaders of color)?

I was curious to hear more about how “Cultural Triage” is being received, so I reached out to Brian with a few questions.

Tell me about the genesis of the “Cultural Triage” document.

I have had a long relationship with the concept of lifecycle in the nonprofit arts world. Since the days of starting my own theater company in Chicago in the mid-nineties, I had been wondering why arts leaders don’t have a better sense of what options they have when their organizations need to make huge changes. So when the pandemic hit, I was desperate to find ways to help all of my friends and favorite organizations. I thought that trying to promote these ideas, but instead of talking to them about it, talking to foundations, service organizations and municipalities about what they can do to build support, funding and programs to support organizations considering transformational change.

You have a couple of suggestions that might be controversial for some, especially arts leaders in the affected organizations—specifically the suggestion that some organizations should merge and that others should “sunset,” that is, go out of business. Can you elaborate on your thinking here and use examples?

I think sometimes the controversy is more about the language than the concepts. Some people don’t like to hear about people closing down, or merging; it is somehow indicative of weakness. I want to encourage all types of partnerships. Mergers, co-productions, operational collaboration, cohabitation, neighborhood partnerships. And yes, there is always reticence to change, but in this moment, the potential fallout of following the status quo is huge.

As for sunsetting, yes, no one wants to talk about closing down, and someone I talked to did accuse me of trying to set up “death panels” for arts organizations… B=ut closures are going to continue in our community, and I feel like we have a duty to help organizations to leave the industry with honor, respect and openness. We don’t know what audiences will look like over the next two-to-five years. Things may go back to normal, but that might be short-lived. And whether it is or not, we should be prepared to help organizations that have to make a decision as difficult as closing down.

Think of “Cultural Triage” as helping the arts ecology. For example, if a neighborhood has multiple arts organizations, dance, theater, visual art, museum, all nonprofits facing change from the unknown of future ticket income, might they benefit from considering some consolidation of efforts? Sharing space, operations, fundraising, marketing or production teams might be options. Bringing together not just similar organizations, but organizations that serve the same audiences, and can benefit from collaboration.

How has your proposal been received? 

So far, the proposal has been generally received well. There are always outliers and folks who simply don’t want to talk about anything that they don’t agree with, but most foundations, service organizations and politicians that I have talked to have been respectful and supportive of the ideas. I have also spoken with a lot of press agents and other people who serve the arts community, and there is a lot of support for this kind of work in that part of the industry.

Any new clients? Or enemies?

Most folks going through these explorations don’t necessarily want publicity for the process, so I’ll hold off on naming names. But my team at BLVE is working with a few organizations that are ripe for reinvention. As for enemies, none that I know, but when you’re slinging wild notions of change in the community, you always find some detractors.

Our next step in the “Cultural Triage” process is to do data gathering with some performing-arts organizations (and pay them to do it) and find out what assets they have to reinvent themselves. Hopefully we can do that quickly and present that data to foundations and service organizations to inspire them to make funding and programs available to organizations that really want to explore change.

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