With graduation right around the corner, I thought I’d share some advice for senior arts administration majors who are thinking about starting out in marketing. I’ve met several young people in the past year who expressed an interest in arts marketing and who asked me if I thought it was a good direction. Here’s what I said:
1. If you’re planning to become an executive leader, don’t go into marketing. Arts leaders tend to emerge from art, management and fundraising, which are, and have always been, the legs that hold up the cultural sector stool. At about 35 or 40 years old, arts marketing is a relative newcomer that the cultural sector still regards as somewhat of an alien encroachment. This isn’t a growth industry and insiders rise further faster, so don’t waste time on an outside track.
2. If you’re serious about marketing, the arts are a terrible place to learn how to do it. Arts marketing is a quirky, idiosyncratic, quasi-professional hybrid that’s informed primarily by history, habit and the egocentric opinions of well-intentioned but inexpert executive leaders. Better to get a job in the commercial sector, learn real marketing, then return to the arts if you still want to later on. The professional expertise you bring with you will be invaluable.
3. If you do decide to forego marketing on your way to the top, try not to become a well-intentioned but inexpert arts leader. Marketing is an increasingly sophisticated professional discipline that requires hands-on experience, professional development and in-depth understanding of statistics and communication theory. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, becoming an arts leader won’t make you a marketing expert so you’ll need to learn as much as you can along the way.
4. Whatever direction you choose, make sure you master data and learn to let it tell you what to do. The era of marketing by expert opinion is over.
5. If current trends continue, centralized big money institutions that offer traditional, passive artistic experiences like classical concerts, ballet, theatre, opera and to some extent fine art will give way to smaller, more participative, community-centered organizations that encourage individual creative expression. As this happens, senior staff positions that pay decent salaries (like marketing directors or marketing VPs) will grow fewer and well-paying jobs will be reserved primarily for chief executives and fund raisers.
6. If you’re planning to reverse audience declines by changing the way big arts institutions do business, you might want to recalibrate your expectations. Large nonprofits and their executive leaders are change-averse by design. It’s built in. Stability, consistency and risk avoidance are fundamental aspects of traditional arts management because big, expensive art can only thrive in safe, predictable environments. Ironically, these qualities also make traditional organizations vulnerable to rapidly changing market forces so many of them will fail as a result of being inflexible. If you expect to influence change in the arts, don’t waste time trying to rescue the dinosaurs. Be the change you expect.
7. If you are not naturally inclined to interact personally, warmly, humbly, generously and sincerely with ordinary arts participants you might want to select another profession. The crumbling arts infrastructure we’re so desperately trying to prop up was created by aloof cultural elites, fourth wall-loving artists and behind-the-scenes administrators who erected massive institutional barriers to genuine audience engagement. Our job coming out of this mess will be to reconnect on a personal, human, democratic level with the people we’re here to serve.
8. If you’re tempted at any point along the way to believe that it’s about you, your organization or the art you make or sell, get up out of your chair, leave your office, exit the building, find some of those younger, more culturally diverse people you’ve been wanting to attract and ask them what they think it’s about. If there’s overlap between what you think it’s about and what they think it’s about, that’s what it’s about.
9. If you think sales is something icky that happens in the telemarketing room or when the intern listens to the messages on the group sales line, think again. Sales is today what marketing was back in the 1970s – the future of audience development.
10. If deep in your heart of hearts marketing is what you want to do, by all means do it. Be really good at it and don’t let some jaded old-timer tell you it’s not worth doing. The arts need good marketers who are as passionate about marketing as they are about art. And the arts need leaders who, because they rose out of audience development, know how to make policy decisions that influence audience growth and earned revenue.
So if you’re graduating this spring, congratulations and welcome. There’s never been a more interesting or important time to get involved with growing arts audiences because the sales, marketing and engagement work we do today will determine, to a large extent, whether there will be arts jobs we can all do tomorrow.