Sunday, March 29, 2009

In Tough Times, Spend Imagination

At a recent panel discussion on managing arts organizations during difficult times, Joseph Volpe, the former General Manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera, spoke to the importance of "spending imagination" when money is in short supply. Volpe used John Dexter's production of "Dialogues of the Carmelites" to make his point. Here's the story:

John Dexter first brought Francis Poulenc's opera to the Metropolitan stage in 1977 (it was first produced in 1957). The opera, about the execution of Carmelite nuns during the French revolution, was produced by Dexter for the incredibly modest sum of $75,000. Franco Zeffirelli, during the same period, staged "Otello" at the Met for $800,000.

Dexter's spartan production of "Dialogues of the Carmelites" was born out of both financial difficulty and artistic vision. Since he did not have the money to be literal and build a guillotine or church, he used imagery and symbols to great effect. His set, a simple but huge white cross, caused the audience to gasp when the curtain rose. The production achieved enormously critical acclaim, when it was first produced and each and every time it was revived by the Metropolitan Opera. In one review, a New York Times critic opined "perhaps Mr. Dexter starves our eyes in order to feed our souls." Another critic from the same paper said of its revival, "it was the simple elegance of John Dexter's production that won our hearts." Dexter turned a financial liability into an artistic triumph. The spareness of the set only enhanced the spirituality of the story and the poignancy of the tragedy. When Dexter died, the Times cited "Dialogues" as "one of the great achievements of his brilliant and contentious tenure."

When I arrived at Georgetown in 2005, I inherited an organization with 25 open positions. The exodus of staff after the previous campaign had left many donors feeling as if their connection to the University had been severed. In trying to redress that situation as soon as possible, I landed on the idea of asking current students to interview alumni in their hometowns while on Christmas, Easter or summer break. The interviews would allow me to better understand how thousands of alumni would like to be engaged by their alma mater. I reasoned that the students were already prepared to pay their way home, thereby reducing our travel costs, and would be willing to conduct an hour interview for the handsome sum of $50. Students saw the opportunity that the program provided and signed up in significant numbers. When deployed, the student interviewers proved to be a big hit with alumni. Many wrote me to say, "You couldn't have sent a more impressive representative." Had I waited until my staff positions were filled, our alumni donors would have felt even more disenfranchised. Had I used staff for the purpose, I would have spent at least ten times what I spent on students and to lesser effect.

I welcome your examples of how you or others that you know of have spent imagination during these or other difficult times to great effect. We're all looking for inspiration.

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