Capacity, Community & Culture: An Interview with Brett Egan of the DeVos Institute

Brett Egan DeVos Institute

Interview with Brett Egan, President, DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland

The Cultural Council has been extremely fortunate to work with the DeVos Institute of Arts Management over the past year in designing the Arts Accelerator program, a year-long initiative driven to optimize 10 Palm Beach County institutions for new investment both from the public and private sectors. A major part of that work is thanks to the participation, leadership and expertise contributed by DeVos’ president, Brett Egan. In advance of the Council’s final main session of this year’s Institute for Cultural Advancement (Major Donor Cultivation and Solicitation on April 15, led by DeVos’ senior consultant Nicole Kidston), we wanted to catch up with Brett on his experience as a consultant, on issues related to arts funding in Palm Beach County, on his background as an artist, and more.

Can you give us a brief description of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management and, especially, your role?

Brett Egan (BE): The DeVos Institute of Arts Management provides training, consultation and implementation support for arts managers and their boards. Our services are designed to assist a wide range of institutions, from traditional performing and presenting organizations, museums and galleries, arts schools and libraries, to botanical gardens, glass-making studios, public art trusts, and nonprofit cinemas, to name a few. We offer support to individuals, organizations, and—in collaboration with foundations and governments—to communities of organizations throughout the world, such as is the case in our work with the Cultural Council.

In my capacity as president, I oversee—together with chairman Michael M. Kaiser—all planning, training and consulting services offered by the Institute, specializing in strategic planning, succession planning, capital campaigns, annual fundraising, fundraising campaigns, community-based practice, human resource development, board development and institutional and programmatic marketing.

In your experience as a consultant to arts organizations worldwide, what are some of the most persistent issues that cultural organizations face every day?

BE: Some of the issues we observe in our work are:

  • The need to clearly articulate mission—both for use as an internal guide for programmatic decision-making, and to communicate one’s value proposition to the community at large.
  • Challenges in the development of an effective, systematic fundraising program supported by stable and skilled staff.
  • The development and retention of a leadership team and board able to facilitate sustained organizational health.
  • A highly-variable foundation environment, with several foundations switching focus away from traditional arts funding in light of heightened social and political pressures.
  • Resulting, increasingly fierce competition for individual donor support and board members.
  • A “haves and have nots” cultural ecology, defined by a relatively small group of wealthy, long-standing institutions and a larger group of mid-size and smaller institutions for which financial sustainability requires a substantially different, highly-entrepreneurial approach.
  • A new digital hegemony, wherein the costs of attending live performance—in contrast to its digital surrogates—have grown increasingly unattractive for many traditional consumers and, specifically, for many younger patrons for whom on-demand digital culture has steadily eroded the primacy of live performance.
  • A crowded media landscape in which even the most well-capitalized cultural institutions struggle to achieve and maintain institutional visibility.

DeVos Institute The CycleIn response to these factors, we have built a practical philosophy of organizational development, the Cycle, which observes that, regardless of art form, geography, or size, thriving cultural organizations hold several core characteristics in common:

  • Their programming is bold, mission-driven, and balanced;
  • They aggressively market that programming, as well as the institution behind it;
  • The resulting visibility produces a swell of interest and enthusiasm among a “family” of ticket-buyers, students, board members, donors, funders and volunteers;
  • They make it easy and enjoyable for that family to get more involved—to contribute money, time, or connections; and
  • They reinvest revenue produced by that family in necessary infrastructure, as well as ever-more dominant programming that, marketed well, entices a larger, more diverse, generous and connected family.

When this cycle repeats year after year, all stakeholders—staff, board and family—sense they are part of a strong, successful enterprise. For those with means, this momentum encourages increased generosity and ambassadorship; for those with skill and time, a swell of pride and focus—aligned with mission—drives increased productivity. These organizations grow steadily—donor by donor, patron by patron, ally by ally—to build and sustain dominant artistic program and financial health.

In working with the Cultural Council and the organizations involved in the Palm Beach County Arts Accelerator program, do you find any issues that are unique to our region? Or do they follow a trend that affects arts organizations nationwide?

BE: We see Palm Beach County as one of our nation’s most vibrant and vital cultural ecologies, and it is really an honor to be involved in discussion with so many of its passionate and talented leaders. We understand that the county’s cultural organizations function as a powerful driver of economic and social equity, boasting no fewer than 200 arts, sciences and historic preservation organizations that generate an estimated $633 million in economic impact and 14,000 FTE jobs for the county.

The nonprofit cultural, heritage and science sector in Palm Beach County is growing fast—we understand that over 25 major facility expansions or renovations are planned for coming years, valued at almost $450 million. With state grants declining and other public funding sources limited, our sector nationwide must be assertive in the development of new sources of revenue and partnership. This is especially the case, it seems to us, in Palm Beach County, which is relatively young in respect to some of the more “established” cultural communities around the country—cities like Chicago, Boston and New York—that have benefited from many generations of philanthropy. Organizations in these cities have been able to build, over time, the endowments, cash reserves and donor rosters that sustain nonprofits through good times and bad. In Palm Beach Coutny, so much good is happening at once—and it will take a remarkable, joint effort to ensure the community which benefits from that good is also able to support it, not only in the short-term, but for generations to come.

The Palm Beach County Arts Accelerator program, designed by the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, is currently underway in a year-long initiative to optimize 10 county institutions for new investment from public and private sectors. As one of the program’s designers, what do you want to see as a result of the program and, in your opinion, is progress being made?

BE: Through this program, we are really focused, together with our friends at the Council, on how to optimize 10 institutions for new investment from both the public and private sectors. We worked closely with the Council to identify organizations that are preparing to undertake a major fundraising effort—such as a capital campaign to build or expand infrastructure, create and endowment, form operating or programming reserves or launch a significant new program. We recognize that there is a lot of action taking place in this area simultaneously—and wanted to work with the Council to anticipate the impact of so many campaigns getting underway at the same time, as well as to support 10 organizations in doing so.

We designed the program to meet this objective. We are working with each organization to identify strengths, liabilities and needs in respect to their campaign, and to ensure that the campaign envisioned is doable at a standard of excellence on par with the historical contributions of the organization, as well as the expectations of the community-at-large.

As such, we have designed the program as a mix of in-person training and one-on-one, in-depth consultations to help tailor the program’s curriculum to the specific needs of each institution.
We have already been party to discussions with several organizations which have re-calibrated their thinking about what is possible as part of their campaign and are working to ensure that any investments made are in tandem with mission—and reality!

You were the Council’s featured speaker at the inaugural main session for the Institute for Cultural Advancement, “Developing the Ideal Board,” in October. There, you spoke about creating a “culture of philanthropy” within arts organizations. Can you discuss what a “culture of philanthropy” is and how it benefits arts organizations?

BE: Organizations that have established a culture of philanthropy recognize the critical link between philanthropy, fund development and organizational health, and the need to be surrounded by a community of connected, engaged donors who consistently invest in the organization and its art.

To do so, they have embraced an environment in which everyone—staff, board, donors, volunteers, artists—understands their role in the fund development process, recognizing that at its heart, fundraising is less about asking for money and more about creating opportunities for meaningful engagement with an organization’s family of supporters.

You are an actor, theater director and play classical piano: where do you find the time? And, how has your personal experience as an artist defined your role as an arts management consultant?

BE: (laughs) I’m not an actor any longer, unfortunately, and my directing days are over too. I realized I did not have the patience for that side of the craft (nor, surely, the talent). I’m very happy to work to support our nation’s artists from “this side of the table” now. 

I do still enjoy playing piano, although I don’t have as much time for it as I’d like, and I won’t be taking over any parties at the piano anytime soon.I mostly muddle my way through Bill Evans, Satie and the Goldberg Variations (very poorly, I assure you!) with my two-year-old daughter, Bell Scott, on my lap—whose keyboard skills will quickly surpass mine if she keeps up her interest!

Knowing first-hand what arts education can add to one’s life, I believe that our artists, and the managers and board members who keep them at work, are our best insurance against intolerance—and that’s what keeps me at work every day.