Why Doesn’t The Funding Community Lead Us Out Of This Mess?

If audiences for traditional art forms are in steady decline, and the only hope for survival is attracting a dependable supply of new paying audiences, why doesn’t the funding community insist that arts institutions do professional marketing?

I know that’s a loaded question, but I can’t think of any other leadership entity that has the perspective, resources and influence – not to mention vested interest – to pull the arts industry out of its tailspin and start growing the audiences on which its future depends.

I’ve been writing for two years now about the sorry state of marketing in the cultural sector, a concise summary of which can be found here and here, and the upshot is this: the arts are a diminishing industry with a desperate need for new audiences, but arts industry leadership is comprised mostly of marketing amateurs who don’t have the education, perspective, business experience or professional expertise to solve the problem.

The most glaring evidence of this professional deficiency is a half century of banal, repetitive, hackneyed, presumptuous, conspicuously self-congratulatory and increasingly ineffective marketing content that is out of touch with the desires and expectations of tomorrow’s audiences. Professional marketers change their marketing to reflect changes in the marketplace, but arts organizations, despite chronic, long-term audience attrition, continue to speak a language that lost its persuasive potency decades ago.

I’m convinced that the arts industry needs a comprehensive overhaul of its strategic communications – something akin to what the Republican Party did during George Bush Jr’s first campaign. Inspired by the brilliant communications strategist Frank Luntz and guided by the equally brilliant but notorious communicator/media manipulator Karl Rove, the Republicans developed an entirely new language that contained a carefully vetted set of voter-centric strategic massages that were embraced and echoed by the entire party.

If you prefer a more hopeful Democratic example, simply replace Frank Luntz with George Lakoff, and Karl Rove with David Axelrod and you get a similar story. It took the Dems a while to catch on, but Barack Obama is President today largely because the party took control of its strategic messaging and found a way to galvanize and motivate a broad coalition of old and new voters. Most importantly, they found a way to speak to the base (subscribers, members, donors?) and to undecided voters (younger, more culturally diverse audiences?) at the same time.

The lesson in this political example for arts leaders is this: two enormous, complex, multi-layered, old-fashioned, ego-driven institutions with conflicting priorities and fragmented constituencies (sound familiar?) got their act together, yanked themselves into the 21st century and adopted new, sophisticated, professional and highly effective persuasive communications strategies.

By comparison, the cultural sector’s strategy is pretty much what it’s always been: find creative ways to get the word out.

Persuading new audiences wouldn’t be difficult or expensive, but it would take centralized leadership, high-level intellectual rigor and an industrywide willingness to abandon amateur traditions in favor of more sophisticated professional approaches. It’s fairly obvious that the arts don’t have the organizational capacity or intellectual chops to pull something like this off, so I can’t help wondering why the funding community doesn’t step in and take the lead: Find the George Lakoffs who can help us develop a more effective strategic language and use the influence that only funders have to insist that the new language be adopted and spoken throughout the sector.

The alternative would appear to be a long, drawn-out process of telling failing arts organizations they’re cut off when they’re no longer able to earn enough revenue, and watching the industry slowly decline as avid audiences disappear and their less avid heirs seek more attractive, better marketed forms of creative expression.


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