Together But Separate: Performing Arts Mergers and Retaining Organizational Identity

The performing arts world in the U.S. is undergoing tectonic shifts — economic, social, and technological. A 2010 RAND report observes that while a few very large nonprofit and commercial organizations are growing and thriving, many mid-sized organizations are struggling just to cover their costs and could be in danger of disappearing altogether.

It is no wonder then that in order to cope and adapt, performing arts organizations have begun to experiment with shorter seasons, restructure their programming, or explore strategic partnerships. This month’s launch of the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance is the result of a three-way merger of an orchestra, ballet, and opera in Dayton, OH, and an example of how organizations can take a challenge and — out of it — create something new. Local and Nonprofit Times coverage highlights the anticipated benefits of the merger, including: consolidating back office operations, marketing and ticket packaging, and of course new opportunities for artistic collaboration. The Dayton merger also illustrates a characteristic that is key in the context of performing arts mergers: organizational identity. As Nonprofit Quarterly noted, “Just because they are getting hitched does not mean that the groups will lose their individual profile. Each organization will keep its own identity and gifts can be designated to donors’ favorite groups. They also each have their own artistic director.”

Although the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, Dayton Ballet, and Dayton Opera are now all part of the new Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, they remain an orchestra, a ballet, and an opera, each with its own artistic integrity and character. There is no need for them to relinquish their individual identities for the sake of the merger or a new name; the Alliance is an “additive” identity rather than a replacement.

East Bay Performing Arts, in the San Francisco Bay Area, took a similar route. Having completed their merger in 2010, the constituent organizations — a symphony, a chorus, and a youth orchestra — continue to maintain their own names, websites, and artistic directors.

Identity can be a sensitive issue in merger negotiations, but essentially it matters less what you call the partners than what they can achieve together. Although the same might be said of mergers involving organizations in other fields, performing arts organizations have unique opportunities to leverage their differences for the good of the collective, introducing each of their respective audiences to the work of the other two, developing collaborative works, and offering their communities new arts experiences.

Attending an East Bay rehearsal of the choral work Carmina Burana earlier this year, it was easy to see how a bold partnership among diverse arts and styles can spotlight the best of each. Performed in January to fete the the formation of East Bay Performing Arts, the program featured musical direction by Oakland East Bay SymphonyOakland Symphony Chorus, and Oakland Youth Orchestra, each in turn, taking an already iconic work and making it a grand and family-friendly treat.

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