I’ve Been Wrong This Whole Time

This blog is about eight years old. If I were to sum up its contents in one statement, it would be this:

With audiences in steady decline, traditional arts organizations need to stop broadcasting how wonderful and important they are and start engaging more humbly, generously and directly with new audiences. If these organizations expect to survive, they must focus on what future audiences want and use more professional, customer-centered marketing to demonstrate how art will satisfy their yearnings.

Sadly, I’ve been barking up the wrong tree for eight years.

The statement is true, but the audience is wrong. Most traditional arts organizations can’t do it, and beating them up over something they can’t do is pointless.

What I’ve come to understand in some 35 years in the arts is that arts organizations – especially legacy institutions from the 20th century – tend to be insular, self-centered and elitist by design. Many were created by people who believed themselves to be superior and who meant to celebrate their superiority by indulging in “high culture” pursuits with others of their class – and, yes, offering such pursuits as aspirational products to others just below them on the social ladder. These institutions served large audiences, to be sure, and they’ve done immeasurable good for their communities, but their essential natures are tied to their origins, and asking them to save themselves by becoming something other than what they were created to be is unrealistic.

I called out the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in my last post for publishing 130 shameless selfies in their season catalog, but the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is no more capable of producing customer-centered communications than any other venerable old orchestra. It’s not in their nature. Never was. Their new young staffers may propose something more outsider-oriented on occasion, but the decision makers – the gatekeepers of the founding mythology – will inevitably suppress such anomalies long before the offending material is deployed.

I showed your new mockups to the board chair and he agreed it’s just not us.”

If lumbering old arts institutions are destined to die in the next few decades, their demise is not a failure of administration, it’s a function of their DNA. They’ll die naturally alongside the generations of elite supporters, executive leaders and insular artists they were created to serve – while the folks on the lower rungs who were once invited to aspire will venture off to find more relevant ways to enjoy artistic expression.

The good news is that art will survive – as it always has – and that people will find new ways of coming together to share creative endeavors. And perhaps they’ll build new organizations around these endeavors that are more flexible, less condescending and more meaningfully engaged with their participants. If we’re lucky, these new organizations will understand that transience is an indispensable component of creative expression — no art form or institution deserves to be permanent — and that the ultimate beauty of art may well lie in its perishable nature. Can you imagine anything more heartbreakingly beautiful than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s final performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?

So if you’re an arts marketing professional who works in one of these older organizations, relax. Enjoy the ride. If your institution expects you to publish an endless stream of shameless selfies, publish the best possible stream of shameless selfies you can. Be really, really good at doing what your leaders think you’re there to do and don’t beat yourself up if the world outside is moving on without you. Your job is to do traditional nonprofit arts marketing. If it were to reverse decades of audience attrition and fill theaters, galleries or concert halls with new audiences, you wouldn’t be doing traditional nonprofit arts marketing.

And if you’re a leader of one of these venerable institutions, please stop fretting about new audiences. Sitting in conference rooms talking about younger, more culturally diverse customers when you’re not doing anything about them is disingenuous at best. You don’t know these people, you don’t really want to know these people, and the likelihood of your seeking them out, getting to know them, and letting them teach you how to engage with them on a level they’ll find sincere and persuasive is exceedingly slim. You already have an audience. They really like your selfies. Be good to them. Find others like them if possible. And if their numbers are dwindling, plan your twilight years together with grace and dignity.

Interestingly, as I was drafting this post, I came across this article about Aubrey Bergauer at the California Symphony. Ms. Bergauer is living proof that what I’ve been talking about all these years actually works, but she’s a millennial, she’s the boss, she serves a market that thrives on innovation, she actually wants to engage with outsiders, and she leads an organization with comparatively little institutional baggage. It’s thrilling to imagine that she might be the salvation everyone’s been hoping for, but if history is a guide, her approach is likely to become just another fad that arts leaders earnestly discuss at conferences, but can’t actually implement in their own organizations because…, well…, it’s just not us.

As for me, I’m pretty much done. There are only so many ways you can say it’s not about us anymore in an industry that, in so many high profile cases, never really was, and will probably never be, about them. Fortunately, my blog and book are being taught in arts administration programs around the world and young arts hopefuls have been unusually receptive to the message. I hope they’ll be able to make meaningful change where meaningful change is worth making.

Thank you all for reading. Maybe we’ll meet again one day in Chicago at that amazing Beethoven concert.

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2 thoughts on “I’ve Been Wrong This Whole Time

    • I heard a story once on NPR about a trio of Tibetan monks who were invited to a museum in San Francisco to create a huge, elaborate, multi-colored sand painting – a mandala – and after a week of painstaking labor, just as the work was nearing completion, a woman burst through the velvet ropes and kicked sand all over the gallery. The museum staff and onlookers gasped in horror while the crazy woman danced and the delighted monks rocked back on their heels and laughed and laughed and laughed.

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