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Article Published: 01 Feb 2021

Well-Laid Plans

A new Wallace Foundation toolkit helps arts organizations address future scenarios.

In the face of uncertainty, it’s best to plan ahead. Nobody can be thoroughly sure of how the COVID-19 crisis will develop or when it will end, but arts organizations nonetheless have to be prepared for all possibilities. That is why the Wallace Foundation, working with the arts consulting firm AEA Consulting, has released Navigating Uncertain Times, a set of tools designed to help arts organizations rehearse strategies for the future.

“When COVID struck, nobody was really talking about long-term scenario planning,” notes Daniel Payne, managing principal at AEA. “Organizations were asking themselves questions like ‘How are we going to pay people?’ and ‘When will we open our doors again?’ Of course, they have to respond intelligently to the present situation. But it is important not to get lost in the here and now and to look at the long-term horizon.”

Navigating Uncertain Times presents four potential “future states of the world,” The scenarios range from the benign — “cooperative living,” which assumes that the pandemic gets under control in early 2021 — to the dire — “social disintegration,” anticipating a widespread decline in social life and support systems. A set of worksheets helps users assess the scenarios and apply them to their own organizations.

In order to explore the toolkit’s possibilities and give its beta version a test drive, OPERA America this fall assembled a group of six dynamic general directors, including E. Loren Meeker, general and artistic director of OPERA San Antonio, and Arizona Opera’s Joseph Specter. The administrators used the tools to stimulate discussion within their own companies and then convened to share approaches and insights. AEA’s Payne monitored the OA meetings and used the findings to hone the final product.

“We’re in a period of time as an industry where we have to be able to turn on a dime,” says Specter. “This exercise compelled us to find some kind of comfort in this nimbleness.”

The toolkit gives its users leeway to proceed as they see fit. Meeker used the materials for planning sessions with two members of her OSA staff. “Our company is still building its foundation,” she says. “We’re just learning the basics of strategic planning. If I hadn’t had the tools, I’d be searching for scenarios of my own on how to survive the pandemic, and it wouldn’t have been as efficient.”

Specter, on the other hand, assembled a group that included two Arizona Opera directors, the chairman of its board, the owner of its performance venue, and an outside business consultant. The group focused on two of the Navigating Uncertain Times scenarios. “We knew that we would not be able to go into the implementation guides in a deep dive — people have limited time,” Specter says. “But we had a robust discussion. This is something I will be bringing to my regular practice.”

The Arizona Opera discussions helped Specter understand how the present situation might shape his company’s course in the future. “The epiphany was that, even as we look forward to returning to in-person productions, the presence of the digital realm will probably become core to our offerings,” he says. “How do we harness what’s authentic to Arizona and make it of value to an international audience online? If we can live through the discomfort of asking that question, it will add to the value of our institution.”

This article was published in the Winter 2021 issue of Opera America Magazine.