First of all, how are you and your Family doing in these COVID-19 Times?
Robert L. Lynch : Thankfully, my family, including my 96-year-old mother who lives alone on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, are all doing well at this time. Our 60+ staff members also are all doing well having been working from home now for four-and-a-half months. Some of their parents and siblings and one of our board members have gotten sick with COVID-19 but they all seem to have come through it OK. So I feel very grateful.
Tell us about you, your Career, how you Founded or Joined Americans for the Arts
Robert L. Lynch : My arts career began over 45 years ago—you could say further back even, when my garage band The Rising Suns emerged out of Boston College High School in the ‘60s. In college I was an English major focusing on poetry and that led to me writing a freelance article for a newspaper in Northampton, Massachusetts, four years after graduation that steered me to an internship and a career in arts administration. In 1996 I managed the merger of the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies—where I had spent 12 years as executive director—with the American Council for the Arts, to form Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving local communities and creating opportunities for every Americans to participate in and appreciate all forms of the arts. During my tenure at Americans for the Arts, I have overseen six mergers and created the Americans for the Arts Action Fund and its connected political action committee to establish arts-friendly public policy through engaging citizens to advocate for the arts and arts education.
How does Americans for the Arts Innovate?
Robert L. Lynch : Our organization innovates by working in a constant state of strategic planning starting every three years, with a three-year plan, but reassessing and revising on an ongoing basis. We also try to unleash the creative potential of our staff team by spending a great deal of time on strategic direction but giving a lot of leeway for them to initiate programs and alter as necessary.
How does the Coronavirus pandemic affect your Business and how are you Coping?
Robert L. Lynch : These are very difficult days – the coronavirus has had a devastating effect on arts organizations and artists. Our studies to date show $9.1 billion in losses to nonprofit arts organizations resulting from the pandemic. Ninety-four percent of creative workers have experienced a loss of income, and nearly two-thirds have become fully unemployed.
The CARES Act federal relief programs for organizations and for creative workers are complex, so we at Americans for the Arts have spent a great deal of effort advocating successfully for this arts relief and then subsequently assisting the arts field to learn about the intricacies of these programs so they can access the resources. Artists are seeking information about how to avoid financial collapse. Our work to train and support the arts nationwide continues, even as our major in-person events have shifted to a virtual format.
Did you have to make Difficult Choices and what are the Lessons Learned?
Robert L. Lynch : It is difficult from an organizational management standpoint to send over 60 staff home, to expect that work will still continue at a high productivity level, to cut expenses that are most often seen as essential, to take the risk of moving dozens of in-person programs—some with over 1,000 participants to a virtual format. With budget cuts to every one of our income areas, there will be more tough choices to come.
The lessons learned are that while not a perfect scenario, all those choices worked—people are resilient and adaptable. Our audiences kept coming. We are lucky in that what we do, information, advocacy, research, can transfer more easily into a virtual world than perhaps many of our constituents whose audiences need the concert hall or in person theater experience more so we look for ways to help them negotiate the reality of their new worlds.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, and how do you project yourself and your organization in the future?
I find being in touch with family and friends even if via Zoom is a great stress reducer. Also, I play at least one guitar and maybe on piano song each night and that really helps.
Who are your Competitors? And how do you Plan to Stay in the Game?
Robert L. Lynch : We are a nonprofit organization and in normal times don’t have competitors per se, but rather strategic partners that we work in tandem with. They include federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts, arts and culture organizations, local arts agencies, arts councils, departments of cultural affairs, state arts advocacy organizations, and more. These organizations form our core membership of about 3,000 organizations. These strategic partnerships are crucial to Americans for the Arts because they champion an idea that is central to our day-to-day work: the arts are a vital tool—we like to say a “secret weapon”—that can address wide-ranging challenges across sectors and from every corner of our country.
However, these are not normal times and all three areas of our and most art organizations’ income, earned revenue, private donors and government resources are mightily challenged. As available resources dwindle, competition for those resources has to intensify. All arts organizations, ourselves included, must reinvent their marketing and each part of the traditional marketing mix of product, price, promotion, place.
Your Final Thoughts
Robert L. Lynch : Arts participation, whether in school or in the workplace, strengthens our creativity muscles, which builds that creativity—the fuel that drives innovation. The arts foster inspiration, empathy, and leadership — all which establish a platform to innovate in an ever-evolving economy and competitive global landscape. Right now artists who have lost their jobs are innovating remarkably – in the midst of this crisis they are facing, they are making art at an extraordinary rate, often for free, because they know their communities need it right now even at their own hardship. But they cannot and should not be expected to do it for free. The arts need all of our support right now, whether through large-scale advocacy efforts, or as small as tipping a street musician or paying for a Zoom art lesson for your child.