About Trevor O'Donnell

I'm an arts & entertainment consultant who's developed successful marketing and/or sales initiatives for Disney Theatrical Productions, Cameron Mackintosh, Cirque du Soleil, the Music Center of Los Angeles, Center Theatre Group, Blue Man Productions, Broadway’s Nederlander Organization and for numerous Broadway shows, performing arts presenters and nonprofit arts organizations across the US. I help my clients build larger audiences and earn more revenue by using smarter message strategies, tapping non-traditional audiences and employing innovative approaches to sales.

Patti LuPone’s “Dumbing Down” Comments Insulting

According to Variety, Patti LuPone managed to insult millions of Broadway ticket buyers AND a host of Broadway producers recently with this comment:

“I think we’ve spent — not we, but whoever’s in charge of, whatever — has actively dumbed down the audience. And so the attention span of the majority of the audience, I think, is much less than it was in the past, and I don’t think plays are going to have long lives on Broadway — I feel as though it’s turning into Disneyland, a circus and Las Vegas.”

Calling someone who spent a small fortune to spend an evening with you ‘dumb’ is probably counterproductive.

If Ms. LuPone wants more sophisticated shows with smarter audiences, she should create and produce her own material and do her own marketing aimed at drawing only smart people with long attention spans to her shows. Only then will she have the right to call her customers dumb or compare her work to theme parks, circuses or popular entertainment destinations.

And it’s not just Patti. Arts professionals everywhere regularly insult the people who pay their salaries by lamenting the ‘dumbing down’ of audiences, criticizing their shortened attention spans, and complaining about having to produce ‘popular’ entertainment to get people to buy tickets. Seldom do these folks venture outside their artsy bubbles long enough to immerse themselves in the lives and cultures of the distracted dummies they so casually disparage.

To her credit, Patti is suggesting that she’s stepping away, which is probably a good idea. If you are old, and you have strict standards that were established several decades ago, and you are disturbed by changes that are happening around you, it’s probably best to pull away from the mainstream and hold onto whatever stability you can find for however long you have left.

Meanwhile, the world will continue to change, art and entertainment will endure, and audiences – however dumb and distracted they may be – will continue to decide who belongs on the stage.

Advertisement

Should Arts Orgs Dump Social Media?

A Denver dance company did and they’re just fine.

According to a recent article in The Denver Gazette, the Wonderbound dance company chose to take the time, money and energy that once went into social media, and direct it instead into personal engagement with their audience.

According to Artistic Director Garrett Ammon, the decision had no noticeable negative effects and sales are actually up. Ammon confessed that he’s “a total lifelong tech-geek,” but suspected that the tech his company had adopted was distancing people, rather than connecting people, to dance.

“Our stated mission is to deepen humankind’s common bond, and I feel that the way social media has evolved, it is doing the exact opposite.” – Garrett Ammon

I think Ammon has touched on a deeply unsettling truth about human art forms and digital media. They may be two entirely different and, ultimately, incompatible things.

Read the article and listen to the Ezra Klein podcast that Ammon mentions. It’s really fascinating stuff.

< >

Thanks to Artsjournal.com for the heads up.

Unhelpful, Hyperbolic Blatherskite

If you believe that artists deserve to be paid, or that arts organizations deserve to exist, you’ve got to read this great post from Alan Harrison.

My favorite quote: “Outside of a very few, no one cares if a nonprofit arts organization closes except its current staff, leaders, board members, artists, and its core audience. Politicking folks may experience temporary wringing of hands, but only for show.”

Alan has committed the ultimate nonprofit blasphemy of revealing that the community is the measure of the value of an arts organization.

It’s about them.

Who knew?

How to Overcome Strategic Stalling in Your Organization

Any young arts administrator whose attempts at innovation are thwarted by change-averse leaders should read this article: “What Stops Managers from Looking to Other Industries for Inspiration.” 

The Harvard Business Journal article does a great job of describing why organizations insulate themselves from external influences, and why it’s so hard for internal change agents to obtain and exploit useful information from outside their industry bubbles.

Fortunately, the article also offers pragmatic advice for overcoming these obstacles and finding ways to introduce productive innovations.

The arts belong to a business category where customers are asked to secure access (seats, tickets, admissions) to something that takes place outside the home. This means there is a natural kinship between the arts and a broad variety of businesses that do similar things: theme parks, attractions, sports venues, popular entertainment providers, special events & festivals, travel destinations, travel service providers, tour operators, etc. All of these businesses specialize in getting customers to come out and do something, and then selling them the access they’ll need to do it. 

And they all offer opportunities for the arts to learn about and embrace new ways of getting customers to participate, and new ways to sell them the tickets or admissions they’ll need to secure their access.

This pandemic has made innovation more important than ever before. It’s time for young, smart, well-educated arts managers to infuse their organizations with fresh knowledge from outside sources, and to circumvent the efforts of well-meaning but inert leaders to stop them.

Thanks to Artsjournal.com for including this article in their excellent roundup.

An Absolute Must-See Video for Arts Leaders

Ruth Hartt has hobbled together a demo video that every executive director of every traditional arts institution should see. It’s a raw mockup she’s created to illuminate the future of arts marketing and it may well be the salvation that audience-hungry arts organizations are searching for.

Click the link above, read the post carefully and watch the video.

If you’re member of the funding community, this is what you guys should be paying for.

If you’re an arts policy wonk, this is what the policy community should be advocating.

If you represent an arts industry trade organization, this is an initiative your group should be spearheading.

If you’re a leader of an arts organization who thinks your old-fashioned, self-centered promotional boasting is a good idea, you need to stand down, get out of the way and let this happen.

Promoting shows doesn’t work anymore. We have to sell the personal, emotional, customer-centered value of going to shows and Ruth has just given us a template for doing that.

It’s time.

L. A. Times Skewers ‘Paranoid’ Art Museum

If you like stories about arrogant, imperious, out-of-touch arts organizations getting their comeuppance, read this L. A. Times article now.

In the grand scheme of things, news stories about museum directors are about as important as summer corn salad recipes or things to do over the Labor Day weekend. And news stories about publicists trying to control news stories about museum directors are of dubious journalistic relevance.

But if you’re a Covid era arts administrator who still communicates with your support systems from a position of self-important superiority, Christopher Knight’s takedown of the Museum of Contemporary Art is a cautionary tale worth heeding.

It’s also a deliciously juicy good read.

Is it a Brochure or a Text Book?

In a recent blog post on her Culture for Hire website, Ruth Hartt reminds us that it’s not a good idea to be overly didactic in arts marketing content. It’s useful advice for organizations that need to replace audiences lost to the pandemic.

New audiences don’t possess the same background knowledge that older audiences do, so arts administrators often try to fill in the gap by slipping educational content into their marketing. It comes out of an ernest but twisted sort of thinking that says, “We know you lack this knowledge so we’re going to feed it to you in this promotional material in hopes of making you a better prepared – and thus better motivated – consumer.”

You know what I’m talking about: Ibsen exposed the plight of women in male-dominated 19th century Norway; Balanchine broke free from restrictive classical ballet traditions; Kodály incorporated Hungarian folk music in his compositions; Italian opera was once a popular art form; DaVinci dissected stolen cadavers to teach himself anatomy…

Some of it is innocent, and basically harmless, but a lot of it is pedantic to the point of being insulting. And, in case it isn’t obvious, insulting new customers in an effort to make them worthy of becoming our customers is a lousy marketing strategy.

If your pre-Covid sales content was peppered with educational tidbits and you’re not sure whether it was harmless or insulting, here are three questions you might want to ask before publishing your first post-covid promotional lesson.

Are you answering the questions your new customers are asking?

These questions tend to be things like: Will I enjoy this experience? Will the people I’m with enjoy this experience? Is it worth the money? Is it going to be obscure or intimidating? Will we be safe?

You can be certain they’re not asking about Russian ballet history or late nineteenth century Norwegian class structures. If you want to educate potential audiences, find out what they’re curious about first, and then use your communications content to answer the questions that are uppermost in their minds.

Does the information promise to satisfy desires that your new audiences expressed?

If your focus groups said they just couldn’t wait to hear how early 20th century ethnomusicologist/composers incorporated folk music traditions in their works, by all means, lecture away. But chances are they said they wanted to share a meaningful entertainment experience with friends or loved ones, in which case filling your communications content with history lessons is a truly terrible idea.

Even if your audiences tell you they want to be educated, which is just great, marketing is there to promise them the educational lift they desire, not deliver it.

Are you telegraphing a lack of respect for your customers’ existing level of knowledge?

If your communications content makes people feel ignorant or under-educated or ill-prepared to be a part of your audience – or that coming to your venue will be like going to school without having done their homework – you’re probably doing more harm than good.

Instead of feeding new audiences what you think they should know, learn what they do know and reward them for their knowledge: “You know good music.” “You love great stories well-told.” “You don’t have to be a TikTok star to know that dance is the best way to express certain powerful emotions.” “Mona Lisa is absurdly famous, of course; but have you ever wondered…”

><><

The key to all this is learning what new audiences are curious about, learning what they yearn for, and respecting what they already know. Arts organizations that aren’t doing this have no business trying to teach people how to be their customers.

Three Survival Tools for Post-Pandemic Arts Leaders

Climbing out of the hole this pandemic has dug will not be easy.

Arts organizations are likely to see sharp drops in audience participation, which will be compounded by a slow build toward a new normal that could lag well behind pre-covid levels. Developing audiences during this process will be a delicate dance requiring a new set of attitudes and practices that arts leaders are likely find disturbingly unfamiliar.

Here are three survival tools that arts organizations will need in order to build sustaining audiences after the pandemic.

HONESTY

Nobody will be writhing in the aisles with their guts hanging out during your next Noel Coward play. Calling it a side-splitting, roll-in-the-aisles romp may be cute and catchy, and it may ring comfortingly familiar to older arts leaders, but it isn’t true and it’s not effective communication.

New audiences don’t respond to frivolous hyperbole. They want clear, honest, useful information that explains why your products matter to them. If what they’re looking for is a fun, stimulating way to create lasting memories with family, friends or loved ones, your job is to sell social experiences that offer lasting memories; i.e. if that memory is about sharing a funny play, you should probably say something like, “You’ll remember laughing together for a lifetime.”

Same goes for orchestral concerts, operas, dance events, gallery shows, etc. Take a closer look at your pre-covid communications and ask yourself, “Is this literally true?” “Is it fresh, direct and conversational?” “Does it accurately reflect what new audiences have told us they’re looking for?” “Does it honestly describe the experience newcomers will have when they attend our events?”

The pandemic has made new audiences more important than ever before. We’re talking survival-level importance here, so it’s time to stop spraying hokey nonsense at old insiders and start talking openly and honestly with young outsiders about how the art we sell will give them what they told us they want.

HUMILITY

Older arts leaders will find it extremely difficult to humble themselves before the audiences on which their futures depend. It goes against everything they’ve ever believed about what they’re there to do: Creating and presenting art is a higher pursuit, administered by elevated people, for the benefit of lesser souls who might be motivated to aspire.

But new audiences aren’t motivated to aspire. They don’t recognize the elevated status of arts institutions and they lack an internal impulse to ascend into the ranks of an elite cultural class. Research tells us that arts audiences want stimulating ways to share quality entertainment with people they care about. For new audiences, the relative value of an arts event may be persuasive only to the extent that it can facilitate a rewarding social experience. (Talk about humbling.)

Take another look at those pre-covid communications. What have you been selling? If you’re like most arts organizations, you’ve been boasting about how wonderful and important you think your products are without bothering to ask the folks on the outer edges of your support systems (a.k.a. your future) what they think is wonderful and important.

Arts leaders who want to grow post-pandemic sustaining audiences would do well to embrace this crisis as a chance to reconnect with their communities – not as self-important, condescending purveyors of cultural elevation, but rather as humble members of diverse societies who have as much to learn as they have to offer.

SELFLESSNESS

It’s not about you anymore.

It really hasn’t been about you for a long time, but the pandemic is about to drive this truth home with painful urgency.

Take one more look at your pre-covid communications and measure how much content was devoted to boasting about how wonderful and important you are vs. how much was devoted to your audience and how satisfied they’ll be when they attend one of your events. If you’re like most organizations, the ratio is about 95% / 5%.

Consider the Noel Coward copy above. The side-splitting stuff is about you. The laughing together line is about them. They’re both designed to indicate that the play will be enjoyable, but the laughing together line is immensely more meaningful, relevant and persuasive because it started with them and it leverages real motivating desires. (The side-splitting line started with a marketing staffer who, using no credible market intelligence, regurgitated the familiar cliches her executive director likes to read when he approves promotional materials.)

If there’s any overlap between what new audiences have told us they want and what the art we’re trying to sell is capable of delivering, this is the world arts administrators need to start living in.

Now.

<>

Ultimately, if we’re lucky, the pandemic will have had a great leveling effect, bringing the arts down off their pedestals and giving elite arts leaders the opportunity to relate to people in their communities as equals. Only then will we be able to talk with one another honestly, humbly and selflessly about what is truly wonderful and important.

Covid Could Accelerate Downward Audience Trends By Ten Years

Michael Vincent writes at Ludwig Van Toronto about a scary new trend in classical music: Orchestras that have seen incremental audience declines in recent years may be headed for a frightening fast forward.

If your cultural organization has been steadily losing audiences, the pandemic could accelerate the trend by ten years, says NYU Stern School of Business professor and New York Times best-selling author Scott Galloway. If true, this could mean a devastating plunge in paid participation for already vulnerable arts organizations.

For the last ten years I’ve been begging classical music organizations to abandon their outdated, amateurish promotional traditions and get serious about new audiences, which most have neglected to do. Now it may be too late. The classical music industry has proven itself unable to prevent decades-long audience attrition, let alone reverse downward trends, so it’s pretty clear that a ten-year jump forward – on top of 2020/21 losses – will be catastrophic.

Newer, smaller, more nimble organizations may rise to the challenge, but I fear that larger, less flexible organizations won’t be able to adapt. Survival for many legacy institutions will require a radical overhaul of deeply entrenched organizational cultures and a top-to-bottom restructuring of the way they relate to their support systems. Anyone who has ever worked with a large orchestra or opera company knows that the chances of this happening are slim.

The good news here is that this acceleration will force organizations to do what they’ve been avoiding for so many years, which is to humble themselves before the people on whom their futures depend and find more democratic ways of making themselves relevant to a broader cross-section of their communities. This is, and for some time now has been, the key to cultivating new audiences.

How about your arts organization? Are you prepared to survive a ten-year acceleration in the trends you’ve seen in the last ten years? Or, put another way, if you’ve projected where you’re likely to be in 2031 under normal circumstances, are you ready to be there tomorrow without having had ten years to prepare?

Is Your Arts Organization Humble Enough To Survive?

Doug Borwick published a great series of posts recently about connecting with communities. I think they’re essential reading for elite arts leaders who hope to recover from the pandemic.

Doug says that survival for many will depend on approaching new audiences with respect and uncharacteristic humility.

Humility.

I tend to agree with Doug, but I wonder how much humility we can expect from institutions that were designed to occupy elevated positions in their cities’ cultural hierarchies. Most legacy arts organizations were created by cultural elites who wanted to hand down the riches of fine art, classical music, theatre, opera, dance, etc. to their communities in an effort to raise people up – to improve their lives – to educate them – to elevate their status – to make them better people.

There’s just no mistaking the top-down “we’re better than you” orientation in this relationship.

And the attitude with which these organizations approached their communities has always been one of benevolent condescension. “We are wonderful and important and you, in recognition of our wonderfulness and importance, should be grateful that we’re here to make your lives so very much better.”

Humility was never part of the equation.

Today we know that new audiences don’t particularly care how wonderful and important arts organizations think they are, and they find their endless streams of self-important boasting to be unpersuasive. “Who the hell are you to tell me what’s wonderful and important? And why would I want to be improved by a bunch of out-of-touch artsy types who occupy positions of no particular status or importance in my worldview?”

This is the disconnect Doug hopes to resolve.

The question I’m struggling with is this: Can arts organizations that were designed to elevate their communities from a position of assumed superiority find a way to convince people of their value, relevance, usefulness and desirability without being condescending?

I’m not sure they can.

How about you? Is your organization a humble, respectful, deferential, coequal member of the community it serves, or does it hold itself above the community and talk down to people whose lives it thinks are in need of improvement?