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A New Approach to Crises for Arts Managers

Sunday, April 13, 2014, started out as a normal day for my dear friend and former fellow arts manager, Krista Blackwood. She and her theatre staff at the White Theatre inside of the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City (U.S.) were preparing for a matinee performance of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and children and their parents were arriving for the annual “KC Superstar” auditions – a youth talent contest. A man, now identified as Klu Klux Klan leader Frazier Glenn Cross pulled in to the theater’s parking lot and opened fire, killing a young 14-year-old boy on his way to the audition and his grandfather. During the next hour, Krista and her staff acted not only as first responders to the victims in the parking lot, but also became responsible for protecting patrons, children, volunteers, and artists from the active shooter, whose whereabouts on the theater campus were unknown. As she herded patrons into secure areas, she did not know if one of those was the active shooter, or if he was just around the corner.

There were many dynamic aspects of the crisis that affected Krista and her team’s response that day. While her theater had an emergency plan, it was part of the larger community center’s plan and no one on the theater’s staff knew who the facility supervisor on duty was on that weekend. The theater doors locked only from the outside, leaving patrons and staff vulnerable. Also, this crisis was not one that gave any prior warning, unlike a severe weather event that allows for a more orderly evacuation to a designated shelter-in-place.

Research on crisis situations

During the many hours of talking with Krista, wanting to offer support and comfort, I couldn’t help but think that it could have just as easily been me during my eight years working in and managing an arts center that had hundreds of children, patrons, and artists moving in and out of the facility on a daily basis. Inspired by her story, I began dedicating my academic work and research to readiness in the arts. I conducted a study in 2016 in my home state of Missouri, U.S. Not surprisingly, a majority of the involved arts organizations didn’t have, or weren’t aware of having, an emergency plan. This reflected national findings by the National Coalition for Arts Preparedness and Emergency Response 68 percent of arts and culture organizations “had experienced a crisis situation and did not have a plan in place before the event, and still did not have one in place afterward.”

Despite my initial assumption that organizations’ lack of preparedness for a crisis was due to a small budget and subsequently few full-time staff, there weren’t significant trends to prove that was true. Lack of time, money, skilled labor, and resources were all symptoms of an even deeper issue: crisis management was not a leadership priority.

Need and responsibility for crisis management

I now believe that at the heart of the issue of crisis management for our sector is a type of apathy. There is just no enthusiasm or interest in emergency management, so it doesn’t take priority. There seems to be conventional wisdom in Western cultural sectors that technology, highly trained emergency officials, and other governmental authorities will handle our acute crises for us.

However, these conventions are being disrupted by the effects of global climate change and the mass migration of populations as well as political and economic uncertainty. The increased frequency of natural disasters, their costs, and a societal shift in liability for disasters should force every arts manager to take pause. Consider the current lawsuit against the Royal Opera House wherein a former stage manager is suing the company for £200,000 for physical and psychological injuries – including post-traumatic stress disorder – for *almost* being hit by a heavy stage curtain (Kirk 2019). Or the heartbreaking story of Max Harris, the soft-spoken and misunderstood artist turned “facility manager” of the Ghost Ship Warehouse artist collective in Oakland, CA. He took on the facility manager position untrained because he wanted to trade his labor for rent and studio space. He is now awaiting trial for the deaths of 36 people who died in a tragic fire during a concert at the warehouse in 2016 (Weil 2018).

If emotional narratives aren’t enough to encourage arts managers to prioritize preparedness for a crisis, then the rising costs of crises should. The 2018 World Disasters Report, produced by National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, highlighted that while there were fewer disasters globally, the cost of damages has risen. Even if governmental funds exist to aid in recovery efforts in many countries, heritage sites and cultural venues can wait for ages for that money to be utilized. Entire towns can be wrapped in a bureaucratic tangle of recovery grants, distributions, regulations, and political infighting. This forces cultural organizations to consider cash reserves and internal policies for handling a crisis while waiting for governmental assistance.

Crisis as usual

I argue that the best method of addressing the lack of preparedness is for arts leaders to manage as if crises were a normal, valued, and decentralized part of cultural management activity. From a broader, philosophical perspective, we can use the trailblazing ideas of Elizabeth Anderson, a Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. She is dramatically changing how we think about a free and equitable society. Her collaborative approach to building societies is one where history, equality, and freedom don’t work in opposition to each other, but are instead mutually dependent on each other. She believes that by expanding the range of valued fields within a society, we become more free and fair people. If we apply this paradigm to arts management, we can expand our framework of the valued fields of management activity to include preparedness in order to achieve a microcosm of the democratic ideal: Artistic programming is a valued activity as it leads to our desired outcome of a more enlightened and engaged people. Budgeting, fundraising, and marketing are also valued fields of arts management activity that ultimately lead to the desired outcome of a more enlightened and engaged people. It is now time to include crisis readiness to that list of valued fields. A readiness that is a collective initiative, one where all stakeholders feel a sense of responsibility and duty. One where emergency trained personnel, executive leadership, private and public funders, and all levels of staff are mutually dependent on each other to prepare and respond accordingly.

At the intersection of artistic, financial, and administrative success for our cultural institutions is the willingness and ability to protect them. This willingness and ability cannot be left to only trained emergency personnel. Such officials typically don’t understand the inner workings of an arts environment – an environment that functions on rather informal and organic systems, and sub-systems, to operate. Additionally, the actual first responder to an incident is often the arts manager on duty—or a stage manager, a docent, a student, a janitor—before emergency officials arrive.

Therefore, the crisis planning process should include input and feedback from all levels of operational, administrative, and artistic staff in the following areas of a comprehensive plan:

  • A policy statement that outlines the purpose and goals of the crisis plan as well as its scope;

  • An organizational chart that designates responsibility and authority in crisis planning and during a crisis;

  • A situational analysis, otherwise known as a risk assessment, to determine the vulnerabilities of the organization and its readiness for a crisis;

  • Checklists for preparedness, response, and recovery;

  • A communications directory that is considerate of the operational staff on-hand at any given time; and

  • A training and drilling program with varied educational formats (simulation, video presentation, tabletop discussion, etc.) to prepare staff, volunteers, and other stakeholders when and how to respond when a crisis occurs.

The crisis planning process must be predicated on the idea that the systems we put in place to protect ourselves and our valued institutions will, at times, fail. We can't rely on those systems to protect us without also taking some personal (and leadership) initiative to prevent and respond accordingly.

Only hours after Krista and the rest of the theater’s staff responded and safeguarded patrons, including children, did they learn that the shooter had never left his car. He drove to another facility up the street and shot another victim before driving to a nearby school where he was found by police and arrested. This was seemingly an unimaginable event, but the reality is that most crises are.

Lee Ben Clarke, Rutgers University professor of sociology and author of “Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination”, explores socio-political influences in disasters and encourages a “disasters are normal” approach. He believes they are “as normal as love, joy, triumph, and misery.” As the purveyors of art and culture, we explore all of these emotions and consider them a part of the normal human experience. However, it is going to take more localized efforts, greater collaboration, and a sense of urgency to make crisis preparedness a “normal” aspect of arts management. Up until now, there have been relatively few resources in the English language that specifically aid arts leaders in crisis management for their organization. (A tried and true practical guide is Building an Emergency Plan, published by the Getty Conservation Institute (Dorge, Jones 1999).) I am honored to be teaching the first professional development course on arts emergency management of its kind – offered by the University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts – and am hopeful that courses like these, integrated into arts administration curriculum, will aid in the crisis preparedness movement.


Clarke, L. B. (2006): Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination. University of Chicago Press.

Dorge, V., Jones, S. L. (1999): Building an Emergency Plan. A Guide for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions. Getty Conservation Institute.

Gostoli, Y. (2018): Italy's ghost towns lie in rubble 2 years after quake. Deutsche Welle, 6 October.

Heller, N. (2018): The Philosopher Redefining Equality. Elizabeth Anderson thinks we’ve misunderstood the basis of a free and fair society. New Yorker, 31 December.

Kirk, T. (2019): Royal Opera House stage manager sues for £200k after he is almost crushed in curtain fall. Evening Standard, 5 February.

Weil, E. (2018): He Helped Build an Artists’ Utopia. Now He Faces Trial for 36 Deaths There. New York Times online feature, 12 December.

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