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.


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”

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?

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?

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

This great commentary from WBUR in Boston came to my attention through 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


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

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

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.

Two Days To Respond To Ticket Requests?

In my last post I took issue with the troubled Washington Ballet for their narcissistic marketing content.

Today I’d like to point out another sign of nonprofit foolishness in DC.

On the Washington Ballet’s website, in the section promoting Nutcracker party packages for groups of 20 to 200, you’ll find this little gem:

“Please complete the form and a member of our ticket services office will contact you within two business days to assist you with your event.”

Two days.


I want to buy 200 tickets to your most profitable annual event and you don’t have time to pick up the phone? And you want to take two days to respond to my request? Are you fuckin’ kidding me?

If I want 2 of the cheapest balcony seats, I can go online and get instant satisfaction, but if I want 200 orchestra seats, I have to sit on my ass and wait for your organization to dig up some low-level staffer who may or may not have the time to call me back?

How dare you?

Here’s a little bit of basic math for the folks at Washington Ballet: The customer who books 20 seats is ten times more important than the customer who books 2 seats. And the one who books 200 is one hundred times more important. These volume ticket buyers are among Washington Ballet’s most valuable patrons, but the folks who run the company are just fine with making them fill out a form and wait for two days to get basic customer service.

And then these leaders have the audacity to complain in public about empty seats!

I’m sorry, but if you can’t pick up the phone and talk to someone who wants to buy 200 tickets – or even 20 tickets – you don’t deserve to be in business.

If you don’t understand why this is true – for the Washington Ballet or any other arts organization that squanders this type of demand – consider these facts about volume ticket-buying clientele:

1. People who buy tickets in volume have numerous options. Every restaurant, party venue, attraction and entertainment provider in the area is competing for their business, and the smart ones employ commissioned sales professionals who know that if they don’t pick up the phone when it rings, somebody else will.

2. Volume buyers who get the service they deserve become repeat buyers. Volume buyers who don’t get the service they deserve go someplace else.

3. Volume buyers resell your tickets to people your marketing doesn’t necessarily reach. In other words, they’re out there doing your job for you – at no cost!

4. Volume buyers are among your most vital links to new customers. The people these buyers bring with them are the new audiences that you and your peers have been whining about not being able to reach for the last 20 years.

5. Volume ticket buyers comprise one of the few remaining under-developed markets that arts organizations have yet to explore. Many of these folks are business people who’d be happy to patronize your organization, but who have no interest in being treated like your least important customers.

Here’s some serious sales advice for the Washington Ballet:

  • Cut that horrible “fill out the form” line and replace it with this: “Call our VIP Party Sales Line to reserve the best seats and begin planning your event.”
  • Make sure a sales professional who can go into the system and reserve seats out of live inventory picks up this line every time it rings.*
  • Forward the line to a dedicated salesperson’s cell phone after hours.
  • If the call can’t be answered immediately, make sure the client gets a call back ASAP.
  • Take the credit card and sell the seats on the spot if the customer is ready to buy. Otherwise, hold the seats and offer terms designed to help the client follow through on the purchase (not terms designed to uphold box office traditions).
  • Offer a web-based form if you like, but make sure somebody responds to inquiries  regularly throughout the day.

Getting into the holiday party business without offering professional customer service is foolish and counterproductive. Offering lousy customer service to the people who buy the most tickets is unprofessional and, well, just plain stupid.

If you’re an arts leader who thinks your organization has too many empty seats, rather than talk about it with your daily newspaper, why not wander down to the group sales office, pick up the phone for a change, and talk about it with someone who wants to buy a lot of tickets?


*Some organizations have ticketing infrastructures that prevent their outside sales personnel from reserving seats out of live ticket inventory for their clients. If this is true in your organization, change the system now, even if it means renegotiating venue contracts or facing down an entrenched box office union. There is absolutely no legitimate excuse for withholding open ticket inventory from a willing volume buyer when single-ticket buyers get instant access. None.

When Narcissists Look Out At Empty Seats

I just read about troubles at the Washington Ballet. Seems they’ve got a lot of empty seats.

Followers of this blog know that when I read about troubled arts organizations I go straight to their marketing materials to look for problems.

So I went to the Washington Ballet’s website, read the entire thing, including the online season brochure, and found content there that was almost exclusively about the organization and how wonderful and important they think they are. Nowhere in all that copy and all those images could I find an answer to the question, “Why would someone like me want to go to one of these performances?”

Here’s my advice for the Washington Ballet: Cut 50% of the self-important, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory nonsense you call communications and replace it with content that’s about your customers and how happy they’ll be when they plan a night out that includes one of your shows.

It’s not about you anymore.

Hasn’t been for decades.

This is something you should have learned by now.

Make it about them and you’ll sell more tickets.




Painting by Jody Kelly