As the arts world rushes to point fingers at San Diego, allow me to chime in with this: The cause of death might also be crappy marketing.
Every time a major arts institution announces financial difficulties, I go to their season brochure to look for clues as to what might be preventing them from selling enough tickets. I did this today with San Diego Opera’s season brochure and found a marketing tool that was designed and written in the late 1970s when Danny Newman wrote “Subscribe Now.” The names and dates are different, but this brochure was developed to sell tickets to my grandmother (who died, by the way, back in the 1980s). My guess is that if you took all the subscription brochures out of the SDO’s archives and lined them up on the conference table, you’d see a chain of unrelenting sameness dating back more than 30 years.
General & Artistic Director Ian Campbell said, “The demand for opera in this city isn’t high enough.” I think what he meant was, “We’ve been doing the same marketing we do every year and it’s not working anymore.”
Professional marketers respond to changing market conditions, which means their marketing strategies evolve to keep pace with changes in the world around them. Arts organizations, meanwhile, tend to do what they’ve always done and then blame the world for not producing the sort of consumers who respond to the marketing they do.
A part of me laments the tragic passing of institutions like this. Another part believes that arts organizations that refuse to learn how to persuade new audiences deserve the fates they create for themselves.
My heart goes out to the thousands of young, culturally diverse people in San Diego who won’t have a chance to become opera fans. I’m sorry we never bothered to learn how to talk to you.