That's not necessarily the general view of the arts. The more common perception is of irreconcilable tension between artists and their counterparts responsible for keeping the organization afloat.
Weinstein, however, makes a convincing argument that the two cannot only survive together, but that, indeed, they can thrive if they cooperate.
The general director of the Pittsburgh Opera holds a Harvard MBA. He talks about the importance of return on investment and strategic planning as easily as he explains why "La Traviata" is still relevant.
The former executive director of the New York City Opera, Weinstein came to the Pittsburgh Opera in 1997 at the invitation of former general director Tito Capobianco. Weinstein's wife, Susanne Marsee, was a mezzo soprano whose career Capobianco had helped foster, and Weinstein had done some consulting for Capobianco.
In 2000, Weinstein was named general director.
His approach to revitalizing the company has been to apply disciplined financial management, put more resources into productions, encourage donors to view their contributions as investments in a regional asset and use its assets to improve the quality of the product. And, the company, which employs 27 full-time staff and 335 part-time artistic, production and technical professionals, has stretched its repertoire to include modern works and attract new audiences.
"I don't want charity dollars," says Weinstein. "I want people to invest in this opera company because they believe in this art form or maybe they believe in the importance of having an opera company, even if they don't like opera."
The tack seems to be working. While other arts organizations continue to struggle, the opera has flourished, erasing its debt and building its net assets.
Weinstein talked with Smart Business about why the arts have to be approached like a business, how modern works like "Dead Man Walking" enliven opera and why good opera doesn't mean the fat lady has to sing.
How important is it to bring business acumen to managing an arts organization?
There are two answers: Is it important to have an MBA? The answer is absolutely not. Is it important to have a business focus and apply business skills, for-profit skills, to the nonprofits? Absolutely essential in today's environment, and you're seeing more and more of it around the country.
We have a unique management setup, where I hire the artists and I'm not an artist myself. The days of a great artist like Capobianco running arts institutions, they're waning because you can't do everything yourself. Our success here at the opera has been based on applying those for-profit skill sets, for example, strategic planning.
What changes have been introduced since you became general director?
I think the biggest change from a strategic standpoint was that when I got here, the company was not doing well financially, and we've been able to turn that around. We have refocused on both financial stability and the quality of what we put on stage.
We kind of faced a crossroads when I got here. It was a $4 million opera company, not a large business, and we owed $1.6 million or $1.8 million to the bank. So there was an accumulated deficit there.
Our net assets were hovering around $4 million, and every single year, we had a structural deficit of about $750,000. So you could see we're going to go out of business fairly imminently.
With the board of directors, we figured out we had basically two paths to follow: One, shrink the company, cut expenses and try to become a $2 million company. That was one possibility. But we rejected that because we felt that Pittsburgh was too close to New York, that people here were too sophisticated to accept a minor league opera company.
We needed to work our way out of this by growing our quality and refocusing on our return on investment and have people fund us because of that. The first thing we did was quadruple our education department. Usually, people cut education when they're in trouble. We actually invested in it because we wanted to have a reason for other people to invest in us.
What was the response to the decision to include modern works in the company's repertoire?
A whole bunch of people said we couldn't do it. When I first got here, everyone said, 'This is a conservative place, they like a certain type of opera. You're not going to succeed if you go ahead and do this.'
We said we won't be a good opera company if we accept that, and so what we did was set out a plan to bring audiences along over a four- or five-year period. There are some people still who say, 'I don't like that kind of opera, I don't like you updating, I don't like you doing modern opera.' But there are other people who say, 'Do I have to see another Carmen, do I have to see another Tosca for the 18th time?'
So we have to appeal to the new audiences and not just to the purists.
Where do nonprofits most often fail?
I guess there are several things that pop into mind. One is governance. The board of directors is so crucial, and it's rare that boards function well, that they are able to assist the mission of the company the way they're supposed to.
I think the second is this question of for-profit vs. nonprofit. I think there are too many nonprofit managers who don't recognize the need for for-profit applications. They don't do the standard business things like planning and budgeting and making sure that they're into a plan, whether it's short-term or long-term.
With all of the arts organizations in Pittsburgh, is there a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar?
What we found was that in Pittsburgh, more than anywhere else in the country ... we, as an arts community, cooperate with each other. We share information. When we find a best practice, we share it. When we can drive a price down, we do shared services.
The opera, the ballet, the Civic Light Opera, all the major Downtown arts groups, we've come together and created a shared services group where, at first, we bought toilet paper and pencils and paper and lowered our costs, but then we did things like buy health care together. Now there's one health plan that everyone in the Downtown arts shares.
We're advertising together, we're marketing together. We put all of our names of ticket purchasers over the last 15 years into one big database. We may be competitors, but we're competitors like Trix and Coco Puffs. We want them to buy cereal, so as long as people are eating breakfast. We're going to help each other with our marketing plans while we compete for our share within it.
How to reach: Pittsburgh Opera, www.pittsburghopera.org