Cockeyed Operamism

Yesterday, Speight Jenkins wrote this on his OperaSleuth blog. It was a great example of the way older arts leaders talk about audiences, and a cautionary tale for younger arts administrators who will be taking over for them when they’re gone.

I’m sure Mr. Jenkins meant well, but at a time when the survival of American opera companies depends on facts, numbers and rational strategic action, this sort of empty cheerleading isn’t very productive – especially when it comes from a respected executive arts leader.

Here are some tips for arts administrators who want to share good news about earned revenue and audience growth in their organizations:

If you’re going to say that sales are improving, provide numbers that illustrate the improvement. Your credibility will be greatly enhanced if you support your claims with actual evidence.

If you’re going to cling to the canard that older people will seek out your art form when their kids move out of the house, prove it with statistics. The stakes are far too high to risk the future of our institutions on a seemingly obvious but unproven hypothesis.

If you do use numbers to support your points, use them wisely. Saying that your education department is “twenty-five times more effective” is dubious hyperbole that undermines the credibility of any more reasonable numbers you might put forward.

If you believe that the current season’s subscription renewal rate is a predictor of an overall increase in sales, describe how those two things are related. A sign that core customers are content isn’t necessarily a sign that new buyers are beating a path to your door.

If you single out social media as an important tool, don’t say, “I know nothing about this stuff, but we have people who do it.” If you’re claiming that this is going to help generate sustaining audiences, you have a responsibility to know personally whether it’s capable of doing what you say it will.

There was a time when the unsupported opinions of seasoned arts executives carried a lot of weight, but with venerable institutions tanking and evidence mounting that traditional arts audiences are in steady decline, these opinions are increasingly subject to rational scrutiny. Older arts leaders who continue to speak the cheerful but vague and often irrational rhetoric of 20th century arts managers run the risk of sounding as if they don’t know what’s going on.

The only thing more powerful than the optimism of last century’s arts leaders is the business know-how and fact-based pragmatism of 21st century arts administrators who stand to inherit the realities their more wishful predecessors leave behind.


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