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Originally published Sunday, April 8, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Following the 'bright spots' of Northwest arts and culture

Even in tough economic times, cultural organizations can shine and show others how to become bright spots in a daunting landscape, writes guest columnist Susan M. Coliton.

Special to The Times

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OVER the last few years, headlines and news stories have focused on the challenges experienced by nonprofit arts groups — the reductions in contributions, the shifts in audiences and the needs for technology and infrastructure upgrades.

What we rarely hear about are the cultural organizations that are thriving despite the daunting conditions around them. These exceptional groups contribute to the health and vibrancy of our communities, even when it is difficult to do so. To move beyond these tough economic times, we need to start paying attention to these success stories.

Inspired by the work of authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation recently set out to do just that. We commissioned a report to follow the "bright spots" in the Pacific Northwest's arts and cultural sector. The goal was to discover what they were doing right, and see if other groups could replicate their actions.

Bright spots are anomalies. They have the same limited resources and operate in the same daunting climate as every other group, yet they yield dramatically different results.

On the surface, bright spots don't seem to have very much in common. Some have multimillion-dollar budgets, while others operate with modest resources and few employees. Some come from dense, economically robust regions, while others are geographically isolated.

But at the core, our research found that these groups operate in similar ways. They share the same principles — traits like transparent leadership, honest assessment, commitment to community and flexibility. These characteristics help them excel in uncertain times.

Their adeptness sets them apart from other groups in the arts community. Rather than let change paralyze them, bright spots allow change to inspire them. Rather than clinging to the past, they make themselves part of the community's future.

"Inexperienced leaders and boards hunker down and pull back in times of stress," Martha Richards of the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation told us. "The bright spot organizations are more comfortable with risk and adaptation; they are almost energized by the challenge."

To bright spots, nothing is too precious to change or address as long as it is driving their mission and meeting community needs. That could mean downsizing, rethinking audiences or revising programming. They are constantly analyzing and looking to the community for cues and adjusting to changing circumstances.

Just look at the Anchorage Opera. Like many of its peers nationwide, it was losing money on every production in 2007. Amid criticism, the opera decided to add musical theater classics to its schedule. The change drove up attendance 50 percent and attracted new audiences. Its flexibility allowed the organization to flourish.

The Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum, Idaho, noticed that some of its programming was being duplicated by other groups nearby. Rather than forging ahead with its existing schedule, it chose to respond to community needs. It cut out core music events that were offered elsewhere and brought in new programs that weren't available in the area. The change not only helped the organization, it better served the audience.

"There is no magic button," said Kristin Poole, the center's executive co-director. "It is about paying attention to how the community is evolving and how we can be responsive to that."

Bright spots are constantly rethinking, revising and refining their operations. They see uncertainty and change as opportunities — not their demise. While others are caught up in the negatives, bright spots are fueled by optimism.

Arts and cultural groups and other nonprofits can replicate this operating approach. After all, bright spots are not inventing wholly new practices. They are simply applying and refining fundamental principles available to anyone.

As a community, let's resist the urge to focus on what's not working. Instead, let's look to the bright spots for inspiration and guidance for how to navigate and remain relevant in an ever-changing environment.

Susan M. Coliton is vice president of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, a leading arts funder in the region. Previously she worked as a specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C.

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