Live from WAA: Thoughts from a New Perspective

LOS ANGELES, CA., August 29, 2013 – In a twist of fate, I’m attending this week’s Western Art Alliance (WAA) Conference in the role of artist representative for Scorpius Dance Theatre, a contemporary dance company from my home town of Phoenix, AZ.  After a decade of running a statewide service organization and NOT playing favorites among a membership of 240 Arizona arts & cultural organizations, it’s revitalizing for me to focus on the national booking opportunities of just one organization that I’ve long admired.

Matt at WAASo for the last 2 days (and with one more to go), I have been standing in a 5-foot wide booth in the “commons” of the WAA conference hoping to connect with presenters who might be interested in bringing Scorpius to their community and venue.

As you may know, my forte is selling arts experiences to audiences.  Selling artists to presenters is a WHOLLY different experience – so With the joyous music of artist showcases spilling out of assorted hotel ballrooms, I’m dashing off this blog in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency – hoping to make quick sense of what I’m experiencing.

Overall, there’s a warm and friendly spirit to WAA.  It’s a welcoming and well-organized conference.  In case you’ve never been to a booking conference like this, you should know that this meeting forms a “market” in which presenters, artists and agents gather to present their services, align tour dates, and negotiate fees.  This is very much a relationship business.  Successful presenters don’t really “go shopping” here – they rely on their past experiences along with insights from artists, agents and peers to gain confidence in the shows that they will book for an upcoming season.

But here’s the bottom line, as shared by one agent with whom I’ve been kibitzing:  “The formula here is pretty simple:  the presenters are looking for a balance of shows that sell tickets, earn revenue and keep their Boards of Directors from getting aggravated.” 

Now, in all fairness – the experience of my own discussions and what I’ve observed by eavesdropping on other booth discussions – is neither comprehensive nor definitive.

Still, I want to make an observation:

I’ve heard a lot of agents & artists ask about the presenter’s venue…  How many seats? How long have you been there? What’s the closest airport? What do you present?  What has been successful for you?

And I’ve heard presenters ask about artists:  What’s their fee?  Where else are they scheduled?  How is this different from what they toured last time?

I understand the mechanics of presenting.  These are all necessary questions.

But what I haven’t heard (and, I’m surprised by this) is discussion about the presenter’s artistic or audience-building mission.  The artists and agents don’t ask and the presenters don’t offer.

  • Perhaps it’s not necessary at this stage of their relationship?
  • Perhaps such conversations take place elsewhere?
  • Perhaps presenters already understand themselves so well that they don’t NEED to revisit that discussion in this forum?

I honestly don’t know.  I’m sure there’s a good reason.

I can’t help but wonder if the reality is that for many, this booking process is really just a rote exercise of “filling in the blanks” for a calendar/budget that looks a lot like what preceded it.

But how would you change that?  Quick thought:  Rather than just a roster of presenting organizations & contacts, wouldn’t it be interesting if each included a brief statement of their “artistic mission” and/or their “community-service intentions” – so that an introduction and a “get acquainted” meeting could begin from an explicit understanding of how the artist might serve the presenters specific artistic and audience ambitions.

One presenter, upon seeing that I am representing a contemporary dance company, “waved me off” by saying that they had given up on presenting dance because having tried a local dance company, an “ethnic” dance group (his words), and a belly-dancing performance, they concluded that there’s no market for dance.  I came away from that interaction feeling discouraged for his community because it’s in EVERYBODY’S interest to help that presenter build familiarity and appreciation of his community’s audiences over time.  (Might there even be artists who would be interested in helping them get that ball rolling!?!)

Of course budgets need to be created, tech-riders exchanged, contracts signed and schedules arranged.  And nobody wants an aggravated Board of Directors.

But let’s not allow the mechanics of our business to confine our ambitions.

Let’s embrace the opportunity to UNITE artists and the organizations that produce and present them in their shared purpose:  It’s still all about engaging audiences.    

If you happen to stop by my booth tomorrow morning, I’ll be starting the conversation from a different place than I did this morning.

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  1. MWnyc says

    “But what I haven’t heard (and, I’m surprised by this) is discussion about the presenter’s artistic or audience-building mission. The artists and agents don’t ask and the presenters don’t offer.”

    A marketplace like what you’ve described at WAA probably just isn’t the place for that question.

    Bearing in mind that, in this situation, there are lots of people to talk to and negotiations to begin in a limited amount of time –

    – The artists and agents are there to line up tour gigs. They arguably don’t care about presenters’ audience-building missions, except to the extent that they can use knowledge of those missions to convince presenters to hire them.

    – Presenters might consider the question, coming from an artist or agent in that setting, to be presumptuous. (“Hey, we’re the customers here, pal.”) They might legitimately feel that their ongoing audience-building and community-outreach efforts are none of a touring artist’s or agent’s business. (They’re more likely to think that in a hectic, time limited situation.)

    – It might even be the actual case that a presenter’s ongoing audience-building and community-outreach efforts are not touring artists’ or agents’ concern – unless the engagement under discussion is a residency.

    Mind you, I do agree that conversations among artists, agents and presenters about mission and audience-building and such are good conversations to have. But I can’t be surprised that they don’t happen at a big meet market like WAA or APAP.

    • MWnyc says

      The tl;dr version:

      Performers/agents: “Mission? Eff mission. I have 2½ days to line up half a season’s worth of work. Their mission is not my problem.”

      Presenters: “You want to know about our mission? Not your problem, pal. You have three minutes to tell me how you’re going to pull in ticket revenue and not upset my Board of Directors before I walk away from you and try to book Pilobolus.”

  2. says

    Good points. At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, we start every conversation with potential collaborators/artists/presenters with discussion about our respective goals and what we hope to accomplish together. For us, the logistics do come second – the first part is about the kind of dialogue you describe. We don’t care about numbers if the mission fit isn’t right.

    That said, when I am looking to “book” an exhibition (which is more comparable to what you are describing at WAA), I make my own judgment based on the materials presented about whether there is good mission/community fit and the conversation often starts with logistics. Perhaps because these relationships are more transactional than collaborative, the conversation too is more transactional. In those cases, I feel like it’s my team’s job to do the audience/mission connection, not the producer/vendor.

    • MWnyc says

      Nina, if that producer/vendor started asking about the audience/mission connection, would you feel at all that she/he was stepping out of line?

  3. Brenda Johnston says

    I’d welcome you to come to Arts Midwest where I, a presenter, will be in one week and where I ask questions about the artist’s outreach and engagement offerings and explain what we’re trying to accomplish in terms of audience engagement and development. But in truth, we have 15 minutes, at most, in meetings to hash out as many details as possible in the marketplace–hence we meet in the evenings and mornings to further the discussions. Many of my agent/artist friends/colleagues and I use AMW to reconnect and develop/maintain our relationships while learning about new opportunities for our seasons. All this is important in order to successfully curate seasons. We’re in the business of relationships with not just with our audiences but also the agents and artists we present. A lot of business continues when we return home. And we haven’t even mentioned the block booking that happens with fellow presenters and how that plays into decisions. I’m quite disappointed that from one day, one agent interaction, you’d so massively judge us presenters and the way you perceive us to do business. You clearly don’t understand the entire process and what lies ahead in the months that follow the conference nor the amount of research we do prior to arriving at the conference. As for modern dance, I gladly present it knowing it’s a difficult sell but see it as my job and the job of the companies I present to help teach my audience the language of modern dance and give my audience the opportunity to expand its horizons. I look for companies that offer enriching outreach and pre- and post-show opportunities that allow my audience to connect more closely to the art and artists. If you can’t provide that, we don’t have a deal. It saddens me if/when a presenter gives up but clearly the companies that have been booked didn’t help him/her do enough to engage the audience. Like Nina said, the collaboration wasn’t correct.