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Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Simple Truth Number One (of more to come)

There's a simple truth about marketing arts and culture, so simple that perhaps we have forgotten, or never called it forward. Courtesy of friend and colleague Neill Archer Roan (who visited my Center and students recently), here it is: Audiences don't buy arts and cultural events. They can't. The experience doesn't exist until well after they've made their purchase decision (even if the event is free, they chose to give it their precious time and attention). Instead, when they are deciding to give their money or time, audiences are 'buying' an expectation, an assumption, a hazy feeling of what that experience might hold.

It sounds too simple to be profound, but stick with it for a moment.

Since audiences can't buy the cultural event, why do so many arts organizations spend all of their energy selling it? Season brochures are packed with artist and repertory information, and static headshots of the artists (usually with their hands on their chin, in the standard Glamor Shot pose). Pictures of the performing arts hall or the museum are usually of completely empty spaces -- with no people at all, or just a few strategically placed -- again, missing one of the core elements of the cultural experience.

But, you say, we are what we produce. What else can we sell but the event, the show, the physical elements of the exhibit? I would suggest that, in fact, arts organizations are not what they produce. They are defined by the moment when what they produce, curate, or create comes into meaningful contact with a perceiver. The product or service requires both the art/artist and the audience, and therefore, both are part of the production.

So, by this way of seeing things, audiences aren't just required for your income and donor base, they are required to complete your reason for being. Extending it further, they are buying an opportunity to be part of that process. They are not consumers, they are co-producers.

Which brings us back to what and how we sell. Thankfully, Neill has many responses to this question, one of which I will pass along (badly, probably, but I'll trust Neill to correct me):

A key element of convincing potential audiences to choose you over their other opportunities for money, time, and attention, is 'managing evidence'. Since people cannot make an informed decision about an experience they haven't yet had, they must rely on other evidence to help them make their choice. That evidence isn't just your web site or brochure or even media reviews (although that's a big one for some art and media forms). That evidence includes every past experience they've had with an art form, an organization, an artist, or a cultural destination. That evidence includes what their friends and mentors and parents have to say. That evidence includes the resonance of your message with what they already understand, or want, or need. Ultimately, that evidence plays against their entire life experience up to the moment they engage your message, your art, and your organization.

Perhaps of greatest importance, once they find you: that evidence is forged through every single interaction they have with you, your work, your building, your public communications, and those that represent you (ushers, docents, security guards, custodians, secretaries, and so on).

Clearly, there are only small fragments of this evidence that an arts manager can 'manage'. All the more reason to focus energy in that direction, rather than selling what nobody actually buys. Of course the production side of the arts must be exceptional, and will necessarily take a large bulk of our energy. But it's not the whole story to have a better mousetrap (or ballet, or exhibit, or jazz club). As Neill says in a wonderful speech available on his web site (this is from the second on the list 'The Show Must Go On'), arts managers must work equally hard to bridge the creative product into a exceptional experience:

We have to concern ourselves as much with the message as with the mousetrap. We have to be able to handle the virtual, the intangible, and the ephemeral. What's more, we must be skilled in creating these things. In this 'Matrixesque' world where the real and unreal exist in dynamic tension, the tangible and intangible compete for top-of-mind.

Like most simple truths, this one may take a lifetime to unravel. But it lies at the core of what arts managers do, so we might as well begin to tug the string.

posted on Tuesday, May 18, 2004 | permalink