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Making Disasters the New Normal

While many arts managers and artists have begun to prepare for the potential fallout of federal and state arts funding cuts and other setbacks under the new administration, how many have considered how prepared their organization is to handle emergency situations?

In the wake of executive orders, frenzied social media posts, and reports of potential cuts to the arts and humanities, many of us have missed (or only briefly skimmed) the news of natural disasters that have hit parts of the country just in the past few weeks. There has been record-breaking flooding in Southern California that destroyed a cultural WWI icon, deadly tornadoes and storms in Georgia that forced the Albany Museum of Art to close temporarily, and severe ice storms in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Plains that forced organizations to cancel or postpone concerts and events.

As a former regional arts agency executive that managed an arts center, I know how difficult it can be to prioritize emergency preparedness. In the context of an average day for an arts leader, preparedness typically does not take priority; after all, arts administrators oversee complex administrative and artistic operations to keep their organizations functioning. The probability of failure in meeting fundraising, budget, and attendance goals is significantly higher for an arts manager than the off chance of a data breach, server breakdown, active shooter, fire, or severe weather situation.

However, our current social, cultural, and environmental climate is cause for any arts manager to consider emergency preparedness strategies just as they would other organizational priorities. (Not to be dramatic, but the Doomsday Clock did just move closer to midnight!) No matter the emergency, we have the responsibility to protect lives as well as the priceless collections, archives, and expensive equipment in our facilities during an emergency situation.

Every time I read about a disaster or emergency situation in the news, I wonder: how prepared was the facility’s staff to deal with the situation?

After conducting research in 2016 on 28 Missouri arts facilities regarding their preparedness for emergency situations, I discovered that the level of preparedness is low. While budget and staff size were certainly barriers in emergency planning for the organizations, the true barriers appeared to be prioritization and motivation by those towards the top of the org chart.

My findings coincided with 2008 initial survey research conducted by South Arts and featured in the National Coalition for Arts Preparedness and Emergency Response’s 2012 white paper. In the survey, the top reasons given by arts administrators regarding why they didn’t have an emergency plan was “not knowing where to begin,” and “planning is not a priority for the organization’s leadership.”

Now is the time for us to consider shifting our fundamental thinking about disasters as arts managers. What if we as arts managers began to consider disasters as normal as our next exhibition, community event, or concert? What if we discussed disaster preparedness strategies as part of our routine staff and board meetings? What if we included emergency planning as part of our organization’s annual strategic plan alongside marketing, artistic programming, or fundraising?

Lee Ben Clarke in his book, Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination, states, “Disasters aren’t special. They are as normal as love, joy, triumph, and misery. Looking at disasters as normal is both interesting and practical.” He connects disasters with the emotional aspects of our daily life, the very same emotional aspects we address and interpret for the public through our artistic programming.

Purposeful action is needed in times of chaos, and while planning doesn’t always prevent disaster, it allows us to streamline our efforts in a creative, positive, and efficient way.

View blog on Americans for the Arts ARTSblog.

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