Why Strategic Planning for Artists Is Not Always the Strategic Thing to Do

ARTS SHRINK is a bi-weekly column designed to answer questions from artists and arts groups related to their arts business and practice. The Arts Shrink brings two decades of experience as an arts consultant, teacher, and mentor to the table as she responds your questions.


Dear Arts Shrink:

I have a small nonprofit theatre company. We don't have a strategic plan. I have no idea what it is or why we should do it. I could hire experts to help us but that's way too expensive. Do we really need a strategic plan?

-Orange County Theatre Organization


Dear OCTO,

It depends. Strategic planning is a big idea that means a lot of different things to different people. It is definitely not a one-size-fits-all activity and, in fact, there are times when planning can even be detrimental to an artist or arts organization.

Allow me to elucidate:

What is a Plan: It's an organized activity that sets objectives and priorities, identifies actions and strategies. Plans move from big picture to small details and action items.

When to plan: In my opinion, there is only one time to plan and that's when you want something to change. Let's say you want to increase your number of performances, or diversify your audience, or move to a bigger venue-- that's when you should consider engaging in planning activities. A strategic plan sits in the void between what you have and what you want and, if it's done well, it will help you get there.

When NOT to plan:

When you (or your organization) are in crisis: No matter what the crisis is -- whether financial, emotional, spiritual, creative, physical or other -- it is not the time to be setting future objectives or making determinations about how you'll behave in a year, or two, or three. You don't have objectivity in a crisis and your ability to be strategic is greatly diminished.

When your external environment is in crisis: While no one can completely control their external environment, when that environment is in crisis it is impossible to plan. For instance, 2009, the height of the economic implosion, would have been a ridiculous time to create, say, a cultural master plan. In order for the plan to remain viable over time, the external environment should be at least somewhat stable.

When you are content: If everything is going along okay, meaning you're happy with the work, the audience, the money, etc. then there is absolutely no reason to create a strategic plan. If everything feels okay, then you are stable. That's good. Enjoy it.

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One more thing.


How to Plan: First of all, you have to stop whatever it is you're doing and set aside special time to plan. At least a day. Since you're a nonprofit, you'll need your Board of Directors to participate in this process. If you're an individual or collective call together your Trusted Advisors, see my last post.

You might also want to include audience members or non-audience members depending on what kind of planning you're going to do. Once you've got everybody lined up, someone has to be in charge -- preferably not you. This person will remain somewhat objective and will help keep the conversation moving and everyone on target. This person should also read up on planning. There are many, many books available to buy or borrow from a library that will provide you plenty of information on the subject and the process. Together you can figure it out from there without hiring an expensive planning consultant.

You can do this by yourself but only if you're properly positioned. If you're not then planning is not for you right now. And that's okay too.


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