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Parallel Decision-Making

Math for Arts Administrators Part IV: A Parallel Universe to Part III

My recent article about the implications of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle's application on revenue management was decidedly tactical. This next part in the "Math for Arts Administrators" series explores a more strategic question: How can we explain contradictory opinions and decisions in our arts organizations?

As mentioned in my previous post, Los Angeles is home to two plays referencing awesome ideas in physics. The play not yet discussed on this blog is the Geffen Playhouse production of Constellations. Dubbed "the astrophysicists rom-com" by our critic of record, Charles McNulty explains it rather succinctly:

"Scenes are replayed in revised form to suggest a world that is infinitely larger than our understanding... 'In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.'"

Beyond compelling performances and excellent direction, the premise of this now-extended production offers value to the thoughtful arts administrator. How do nonprofit arts organization stakeholders (board, staff, and patrons) make decisions and why are they frequently in conflict?

Most of the conflict stems from another basic idea in physics: time. Single ticket buying audiences make decisions in increasingly narrow and late windows. Marketing and fundraising professionals make decisions in campaign-wide windows. And board members and artistic/managing directors make decisions which should be far longer-term: hiring selection for senior leadership, capital campaigns, adopting new initiatives, etc. To crudely summarize, audiences make decisions for the month, administrators make decisions for the year, and board members make decisions for the five-year plan.

In healthy arts organizations, there will inevitably be constructive/positive conflict between audience, artistic, and administrative interests. In unhealthy organizations, this conflict becomes negative and, frequently, this negativity stems from a misunderstanding of each entity's role in time.

Board members step out of their time and into that of the arts administrator when they direct campaign-specific advertising and fundraising decisions. Admins step out of their time when briefing the board on detailed audience/donor metrics. And have you noticed long-time patrons step out of their time and into yours rather frequently: "I've been a subscriber/member for the last twenty-five years and I think you should present [insert name of play or piece here] next year."

So the next time a decision comes down from the board, up from a patron or out from the administration, look at the clock that comes attached to it. While certainly bad decisions can be made regardless of chronology (more to come on that in a future article), understanding the timeline of the entity making that decision can aid in a healthy acceptance of it.

[As an aside, this recently published article in the Washington Post is just an excellent read.]

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