A Question of Focus

In my last post, More or Different?, I said I was going to present a sequel detailing an alternative way to think about expanding reach in arts organizations. What I have in mind is a mental model I suggest to students when introducing marketing ideas. I begin by asking them to explain why there are (seemingly) hundreds of kinds of toothpaste on the shelves in drug stores, grocery stores, and big box conglomerates. Their eventual conclusion is that companies do surveys and learn that consumers want many different kinds of toothpaste. (And, in most cases, apparently, those survey-based decisions are rewarded with sales.) I then ask them, if they would get a symphony orchestra’s season brochure announcing a season devoted exclusively to Beethoven’s symphonies, how would that decision have been made? They eventually realize that while there are some members of the public who would ask for that, the choice was not the result of market surveys, it was the choice of some one or ones inside the organization who wanted to do it, based on commitment to/belief in Beethoven’s music. The focus of the first is on the consumer; of the latter on the product.

The not-for-profit arts industry is a mission-based one. We exist for a purpose that is bigger than consumer desires. Education is/must be at the core of our work because, if for no other reason than that’s why we have the 501(c)(3) status. A consumer-focused approach like the one that yields miles of shelves of toothpaste is not appropriate. At the same time, operations must be economically sustainable and demonstrably of service to the community. A focus that puts the product first does not meet this standard.

My “solution” is to focus on the mission in the context of the community. That is, how can music (or theatre or dance or painting . . .) that feeds the soul address issues and concerns of a broad range of people? This may involve re-imagining existing work, presenting it in different ways or contexts; it may mean supporting the creation of new work addressing new ideas or made up of different materials (cultural styles). This mission-focused solution is relatively easy to say. It is very difficult to do. It often requires a new mindset about our art. It also requires many skills that are not traditionally native to artists and arts organizations. It demands being “in” and “of” the community. But it appears to me to be essential to a viable future.

It’s not about “dumbing down,” “selling out,” or pandering. It’s about being appropriately responsive, with the cultural tools at our disposal,  to the needs of our communities.


As I was getting ready to hit “Publish” on this post, I saw a post on the current Americans for the Arts’ ArtsBlog featuring Emerging Leaders. Kacy O’Brien, in Tossing Small Stones to Change an Entire Landscape, describes the experience of her company, Passage Theatre in Trenton, NJ, engaging with the local Latino community. With work created out of a developing relationship, “the response from the Latino community—and from Passage’s regular patrons—was overwhelming. Attendance was high, new patrons came through our doors, and the talkbacks were rich and emotional.”

I love it when an example comes to me unbidden.

And Ms. O’Brien’s close was particularly powerful and apropos of this post:

Most arts institutions aren’t nationally recognized, but we don’t need to be—that would diffuse our impact. Within our communities we can be potent, viable, and beloved. . . .

Arts institutions won’t be able to serve all of our communities all of the time, but if the majority of arts institutions serve many parts of our community in ways that matter, together we will be tossing the small stones needed to change an entire landscape.



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  1. says

    You certainly nail some of the technical fixes that organizations can use to be appropriately responsive to their communities (presenting in different ways, re-imagining existing work, etc.). Yet, If in any major urban center, one compares the composition of the Board and staff of the organizations that soak up 90% of the resources (the deciders) with the composition of the community that all the decidin’ is being done on behalf of; the lack of any semblance of alignment is glaringly evident. And it won’t be until we demand greater alignment that an arts organizations’ well intended program, always excellent or educational—or often both, will be seen as anything other than another overpriced, irrelevant product being pushed. No we need not sell out nor pander, we simply need our 501c3’s to be of and for the communities from which they demand their sustenance.

  2. says

    Excellent article, and I love your metaphor. But I would take your essential points event further.

    There’s a big difference between marketing toothpaste and symphony performances. It’s pretty obvious that the cost of making toothpaste is so little that it is barely a consideration in its sale. For each dime in ingredients there’s ninety cents profit that goes to pay for everything else, like advertising, marketing, packaging, with still lots left over for the owners of the brand.

    Music is not like that.

    Every time the Concertmaster picks up their bow at the beginning of a concert, there is no profit, just a huge deficit, even if every seat is sold.

    Nevertheless, as you so succinctly point out, finding the programming that makes sure those seats are filled with warm paying bodies is key to keeping that loss to a minimum. And music managers must listen to their ticket buyers with as much seriousness as they pay to the musicians themselves.

    With audiences aging and attending less, the future is less certain than anytime before.