Three Survival Tools for Post-Pandemic Arts Leaders

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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.

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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

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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?

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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?

“A Museum Conceived at the Cocktail Hour”

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Washington Post architecture critic Phillip Kennicott, in his review of the new “Planet Word” museum, recently said this:

“Planet Word, which feels a bit like a museum conceived at the cocktail hour, … inhabits essentially the same universe as most of the museums that preceded it a century ago: It hopes to raise up the discourse, and spread the blessings of the educated and elite to those who hope to be educated and elite.”

This quote blew me away because it so perfectly describes legacy arts organizations and it illustrates why so many are in such deep trouble. Spreading the blessings of the educated and elite is a highly questionable undertaking these days and tomorrow’s audiences aren’t begging to be raised up by people who look down on them.

As we come out of this covid crisis, many traditional arts organizations will be forced to acknowledge the shameless condescension inherent in their missions, and consider whether they’re talking down to communities that aren’t looking up. If new audiences are happy with their place in the cultural hierarchy and just looking for stimulating ways to spend time with peers, arts organizations will have to stop trying to yank them up a ladder they don’t want to climb.

The pandemic is going to bump a lot of elite arts leaders out of their mahogany-paneled conference rooms and down out of their ivory towers and insist that they relate to the people in their communities as equals.

It’s tragic that it had to happen in such a disruptive way, but such displacement is long overdue, and it may turn out that having elite arts leaders relate to their communities as equals – virus or no virus – is the most productive way forward.



Is It Time To Professionalize Arts Marketing?

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I read this great post by UK arts pro Michelle Wright at Arts Professional today. Wright makes a clear, well articulated argument for professionalizing fundraising.

As you read it, feel free to substitute marketing wherever she says development.

I’ll show you how it works in this lead-in from her fine article.

”Recruiting on the basis of passion for the arts doesn’t make sense in vital income-generating roles… Sector leaders need a talented pool of fundraisers with recognised knowledge and skills.”

”Recruiting on the basis of passion for the arts doesn’t make sense in vital income-generating roles… Sector leaders need a talented pool of marketers with recognised knowledge and skills.”

Who are arts marketers? Where do they come from? How did they ‘end up’ in the arts? Where did they study marketing? Did they study marketing? What professional standards does the industry use to assess their preparedness for their jobs? Are they marketing professionals or arts marketers? Should they be both?

As we emerge from this covid crisis, it’s worth asking – again – If the amateur marketing we’ve grown so accustomed to can save professional art forms.

 

Does L.A. Need Another Elite Arts Complex?

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I’ve been following the LA Times’ classical music critic, Mark Swed, as he champions the development of an elite cultural complex designed by architect Frank Gehry and located next to Disney Hall, the Music Center, The Broad museum, MOCA and the Colburn School in Downtown Los Angeles. This massive new mixed-use commercial complex – The Grand – is meant to tie these disjointed arts venues together, add more performance venues, humanize a sterile stretch of Grand Avenue and provide amenities that expand the area’s destination appeal.

Planning for such a project was well under way when I worked at the Music Center some 20 years ago. My various roles in marketing and sales there often took me into L.A. communities where I learned just how shockingly unengaged the Music Center was with the world around it. Most of the the Black and Hispanic people I met, for example, didn’t know what the venerable old Music Center was or what went on there.

If you read Mark Swed’s articles, you can see this disconnect at play. His commentaries are love letters to Frank Gehry, one of the world’s most elite white architects, and they’re passionate arguments in support of an upscale project designed around traditional Eurocentric arts institutions and their affluent audiences. He’s careful to mention non-traditional arts and audiences, of course, but these mentions are usually tagged-on afterthoughts or obligatory inclusions. Here’s an example from the end of a paragraph extolling the virtues of one of Gehry’s new theaters: “It could just as importantly welcome dance and musical theater created in L.A.’s diverse communities.” 

I’m sure the people who live in those communities will be thrilled that the conspicuously non-diverse planners of this project have condescended to imagine that they might also be included.

Cultural complexes that are designed to serve diverse, multicultural, de-centralized urban populations don’t talk about the people they’re meant to serve as afterthoughts or use the word ‘could’ when discussing what the facility is designed to do. It’s clear that this complex is being built for and will be dependent on a class of Angelenos who spend serious money on tickets to classical concerts, dance, theatre, opera, etc. and who eat at pricey restaurants, shop in trendy stores and stay in fancy hotels.

I have to admit there’s a part of me that finds the whole thing appealing. Marketing events at the Music Center was always an uphill battle. The show had to be really desirable because getting there was a chore and there wasn’t much else to do in the neighborhood. But now with a shiny new mall attached and a broader selection of dining options, it should be much easier to encourage ticket buyers to come. If I were a marketer of cultural events on Grand Avenue, I’d be one of the project’s biggest cheerleaders.

But as an outside observer, I can’t help wondering in this era of Black Lives Matter upheaval if it’s wise to invest so much money in such an elite enterprise that’s relevant to such a narrow slice of the region’s population. All that money being invested in one “center” by one starchitect in one place for one group of affluent arts patrons seems hopelessly out of touch and old-fashioned.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to imagine all that money being invested in a collection of small, local, organic, de-centralized, non-traditional arts venues designed by a diverse group of young architects for an inclusive range of artists and audiences who are products of, and who have a direct, personal investment in the communities they inhabit?

Personally, I think that would be just grand.

 

Interesting Downtime Reading for Arts Pros

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This great commentary from WBUR in Boston came to my attention through Artsjournal.com. I recommend reading it.

It describes exactly how marketing works in just a few short sentences – useful stuff for folks who will eventually need to bring audiences back into theatres, galleries and concert halls. Arts administrators who have never really understood how marketing works will need this fundamental understanding more than ever as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.

Julio Vincent Gambuto, the author of this essay, is a filmmaker who takes a bleak, dystopian view of the way marketers will manipulate people into resuming their mindless over-consumption, so it’s not a cheery piece. But it does zero in on an ultimate question for managers of arts brands: How will we rewire the hearts of our post-pandemic patrons?

“Smart marketers know how to highlight what brands can do for you to make your life easier. But brilliant marketers know how to rewire your heart. And, make no mistake, the heart is what has been most traumatized this last month. We are, as a society, now vulnerable in a whole new way.”

Marketers will jump to capitalize on this vulnerability. Some will use it in shallow, callous ways to sell us things we don’t need, that can’t heal or that have no intrinsic value. Others will use it to make people whole again.

The need for heart healing will be overwhelming when the Covid-19 crisis is behind us. Successful cultural organizations will be the ones who make the most credible case for well-being through art.

The #1 Reason People Attend Arts Events

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The NEA just released its latest survey of public participation in the arts.

When Americans were asked why they attended at least one artistic, creative, or cultural activity during the last 12 months, 82% said it was to socialize with family or friends.

Thanks to the NEA we know that people make their participation decisions primarily for social reasons having to do with their desire to share worthwhile experiences with those they care about and want to spend time with. The emphasis is on the social experience and not necessarily on the event they choose to share.

Or, in other words, it’s really more about them than it is about us.

This is not news. The NEA has been tracking this for a long time. We know that it’s about them, yet the entire canon of culture sector communications – NEARLY EVERY PROMOTIONAL MESSAGE WE PUBLISH – is still entirely about us and how wonderful and important we think people should think we are.

If you’re a marketer and you know what motivates people to buy your product, this is what the content of your marketing should be about. If you’re an arts marketer and you know the primary reason people attend arts events is to socialize with family and friends, your marketing must be about the joys of sharing your products with family and friends – at least as much as it is about the superior attributes of your organization and its products.

It’s not rocket science. Good marketing is about learning what motivates our customers, and then leveraging that information to get them to buy what we’re trying to sell. 

The fact that ailing arts institutions refuse to do this is heartbreaking. And the fact that American arts leaders have never been trained to understand that this is how marketing actually works is a tragedy.

Every couple of years the NEA hands us this insanely useful information. Every couple of years I write this post. And every couple of years American arts institutions continue to send out the same insipid, selfie-stuffed nonsense they’ve been spraying at the world since Danny Newman first screamed SUBSCRIBE NOW! back in the 1970s.

The answer to this audience crisis is simple: Find out what people want then help them understand how our products will satisfy their yearnings.

The NEA just told us what our customers want (again). Our job is to use all of the extraordinary communications resources at our disposal to convince tomorrow’s audiences that among all of the ways they could possibly spend quality time with the people they care about, our arts events are their best possible choices.

If you want to increase sales, start using photos of happy people enjoying one another’s company at your events. And when you write copy, always start by answering the question, “When I look for ways to enjoy quality time with friends or family, why the hell should I choose you?”

 

I’ve Been Wrong This Whole Time

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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.

130 Selfies at Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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I just read Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2019/20 Season Catalog. The publication contains nearly 130 images and not a single one shows customers enjoying their time together at an event.

Research consistently demonstrates that people go to arts events to share meaningful experiences with people they care about and want to spend time with.

Effective marketing demonstrates how a product will satisfy customer desires.

Thus, if you know your customers want meaningful experiences to share with others, you’ll do two things:

  1. Show people enjoying one another’s company while consuming your product.
  2. Show why your product is the best product to share.

In other words, you’ll do what professional marketers do and make your marketing content about your customers and about how happy they’ll be when they buy what you’re trying to sell.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s marketing shows how wonderful and important the Chicago Symphony Orchestra thinks their customers should think the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is.

In a statement about its current labor dispute, the CSO says it’s working tirelessly every day to earn enough money to keep its artists well compensated.

Given how vitally important it is for arts organizations to be more engaged with their customers’ desires and expectations, I can’t help wondering how much work it would take to replace a few of those 130 selfies with pictures of concert-goers having a great time together at an event.