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May 3, 2004

Performing arts and higher education

Back in March, I participated in the latest American Assembly, which explored the co-evolution of the performing arts and higher education in the United States. The convening was based on the premise that these two cultural engines had supported and advanced each other's work over the past fifty years, and that their future could be given more intention, more direction, and more success if we called that co-evolution forward.

The American Assembly conference model is quite intense...with 70 or so dignitaries sequestered in a mansion in upstate New York for days on end. We talked, we ate, we drank cocktails, we talked more. And we all came to realize what a complex interconnection we had come to explore.

Colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher education were the backbone of performing arts touring in the 1950s, and continue to be primary comissioners of new work. A large bulk of professional performers are trained and acculturated in higher education arts programs, many now discovering a complete disconnect between what they learned and what they need to know to succeed as engaged professionals. And both higher ed. and the professional performing arts now find themselves with serious, structural problems that actually might be addressed by a better connection.

I bring up this conference now because the Assembly recently posted its final report from this event on-line, along with two video keynotes, one by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger and the other by Nancy Cantor, president of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (I'd recommend Nancy's if you only watch one).

It's a rich and dense conversation, and clearly just the beginning.

Posted by ataylor at 11:25 PM

May 4, 2004


There's a word that's guaranteed to cast a glaze over the eyes of my arts management students, to encourage a silent slouch in the nonprofit board room, and to dampen even the liveliest discussion of the arts. The word is 'policy,' and it's arguably one of the most important words that arts managers don't want to say.

The deadening dullness the word inspires in most conversations is a result of a skewed perception of what it means. It calls to mind European cultural ministries, impenetrable stacks of documents written in legalese, and congressional debates among elderly former-attorneys with watch fobs. Policy is boring. Policy is bad. Policy is contrary to the creative spirit.

But what would happen if we perceived policy in a different way:

Policy is constraint on behavior.
Constraint is the essence of art.

Policy is ultimately an individual, an organization, a community, or a larger collective saying: 'we can choose to do things a thousand ways, but together we are going to choose one particular way.' When used properly, policy can direct our attention to appropriate goals and means, and can make our work clearer and more transparent to those around us.

But why, you say, would creative people want to limit their choices? Because that's, actually, what exceptional creative people do.

When a poet chooses to write a haiku, when a painter chooses a certain canvas size to work with, when a composer chooses an instrumentation or musical style, they are choosing a set of rules that constrain their available choices. They do so because, in part, those rules help direct their creative energy, provide them an obstacle to push against, and focus their work. The creative constraints of these forms can often be quite unforgiving. But it is the struggle of creative vision against constraint that makes great art.

It may be difficult to see the connection between choosing a haiku form and drafting returns policies for a box office, or fiscal policies for the annual budget, or grant policies that determine a foundation's funding preferences. But all of these are constraints on behavior, self-imposed for the most part, that are designed to help a creative endeavor channel its work in appropriate ways.

Policy is only dry and dull because we're not seeing it right, and worse yet, not using it as an essential and intentional element of our creative work.

As G.K. Chesterton stated decades ago:

''Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.''

Posted by ataylor at 1:45 PM

The high cost of being 'free'

British museums are still pondering the net effect of eliminating entry fees at the 50 government-funded national museums and galleries, most of which are in London. Announced with great civic pride and pomp back in December 2001, the elimination of entry fees was an attempt to make great art and culture available to all.

Depending on how you measure, the initiative has been either a great success or an on-coming train. How could it be both? Do the math:

  • Museums that previously charged entrance fees have seen a 72 percent boost in attendance; some museums have seen attendance jump 120 percent.
  • Most of that increase in traffic came with little to no corresponding revenue stream. Cafe and shop sales were up a bit, but not dramatically. The government provided a larger subsidy to those museums that were charging admission before the change, but not to those that weren't. And there's no promise that the additional subsidy will continue.
It's the classic arts challenge of 'death by success.' When every sale or visitor costs more than the revenue it generates, significantly higher volume doesn't improve your bottom line, it destroys it. For the museums, more visitors mean more maintenance, more service personnel, more administrative staff, and more overhead costs. Worse yet, higher volume can also lead to a skewed perception by government and other funding sources about how much subsidy the organizations actually need (just look at how busy they are, they should be ready to make it on their own). Of course more audiences are good, but such growth must be balanced with a thoughtful eye on capacity and capital, and the long-term health of the institution and its community.

From the sound of it, the government perspective is already skewed about why citizens weren't participating in the arts in the first place. Said a spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the original sponsor of the initiative:

'It is a key part of the government's cultural policy that obstacles to admission should be tackled....Clearly admission fees are the greatest obstacle.'

What about education? What about apathy? What about the relevance of museum programming to the lives of their communities? What about a general drift in leisure time toward mass media and commercial entertainment? What about seismic demographic changes in the surrounding population -- from immigration to ex-migration to average age?

And what about the non-governmental museums in the UK that continue to work on all the issues above, now struggling against 'free' competitors, and a population encouraged to believe that preserving and presenting great cultural works actually has no cost?

If cultural institutions aren't valued by their communities, that's a much deeper problem than price-sensitive consumers. Despite the rosy take on the initiative on the DCMS web site, it's clear that at least some British museums are now wondering if their government isn't helping them to death.

Posted by ataylor at 3:17 PM

May 7, 2004

Back from the brink

The national arts news seems peppered this week with financial Hail Mary's and returns from the grave, among them the recent salvation of the Cincinnati Symphony (username:, password: access) from a $1.8 million hole, and the New Hampshire Symphony's slow return from a $250,000 shortfall.

The Cincinnati Symphony is clearly the happier of the two, since the estimated $1.8 million came from a single anonymous donor:

The exact amount of the deficit -- partly due to the declined value of the symphony's endowment because of a downturn in the stock market -- will not be known until the fiscal year closes Aug. 31. The donor's one-time gift is to cover the symphony's operating deficits from the fiscal years 2003 and 2004, plus any additional amounts that may accrue, said Daniel Hoffheimer, president of the symphony's board.

New Hampshire is having a bit more of a slog to get out of the fiscal ditch, and is really only half-way there. Says Executive Director Douglas Barry:

'I feel very confident, with the help of our board and the help of our community, we can help bring the organization back on its feet and be stronger than we were in the past. But weıre still not out of the woods yet...'

More proof that the nonprofit cultural business model, and the management of same, were both forged in an era of exceptional growth (in audiences, in the economy, in labor, in funding sources). It will require increasingly Herculean efforts like these to keep pace with the old model, until we can forge a better model for modern, slow-growth, or no-growth times.

Posted by ataylor at 12:32 AM

May 11, 2004

Invention, innovation, and the arts

The May issue of MIT Technology Review (okay, I read weird stuff) is all about invention -- the brain-flexing, rule-bending process of creating something radically new. Throughout the issue, the articles repeatedly make the distinction between 'invention' and 'innovation,' and warn us not to confuse the two. According to economist Joseph A. Schumpeter, 'invention' is the birth of new ideas; 'innovation' is the transformation and bundling of those ideas into marketable products and services; and 'diffusion' is the distribution of those products and services across markets.

When you bridge those terms from technology to artistic expression and experience, you can see a similar trinity of types in what artists and arts organizations do: 'invention' is the creation of radical new ways of saying and ways of seeing; 'innovation' is the preparation and packaging of those ideas to connect to an audience; 'diffusion' is the final delivery of that innovation and the economic models that keep it flowing.

When seen this way, you could argue that the massive growth in arts and cultural activity in the United States over the past 50 years has been about innovation and diffusion, rather than true invention. Building and blending creative forms invented centuries ago (theater, opera, orchestral performance, and such), creative people have found new innovations in how to bundle and present these forms to wider and more diverse audiences, while funders, nonprofits, universities, and others have built a new infrastructure to distribute them across the country.

This innovation and diffusion in the arts has been a glorious thing, to be sure, allowing more people access to more creative experiences in more small towns and big cities. But what if we stepped back to ask how we might increase invention in the arts -- completely new ways of seeing, saying, and being -- rather than innovation? Then, it becomes essential that we know the difference. According to one column in the MIT issue by Michael Shrage (free registration required for access), that difference is fundamental and complete:

The simple truth is that the economics of invention are profoundly different from the economics of innovation. Being 'first to file' has nothing to do with being first to market. Being first to market has nothing to do with being first to profitability. Being first to profitability -- and this is key! -- has virtually nothing to do with how quickly, deeply, and ubiquitously an innovation spreads. In other words, there is no meaningful correlation -- let alone causality -- between a 'successful' act of invention and a 'successful' marketplace innovation. None.

Other articles in the issue suggest that big companies are not the ones to most successfully advance invention. In fact, in many ways, they are the worst. Big companies are overly responsible to their shareholders for maximizing gains (in the arts, substitute boards and donors and sustainability), leading them to emphasize innovation rather than invention. Further, because they aggressively seek their dominant niche (electronics, genetics, biomechanics, etc. -- in the arts think dance, theater, musical performance, etc.), they draw inflexible boundaries around the questions they ask, often missing the cross-connections where true invention may arise.

Again, bridge to America's arts and cultural infrastructure...big nonprofits with large endowments, medium-sized organizations now feeling a squeeze to build their earned income, and small organizations flailing to stay solvent. Extending the argument above about invention, the larger and mid-sized organizations may be the least likely to foster and push true invention in creative experience. Their economics lead them to innovation on existing ideas, and diffusion of proven successes. That leaves the small, the informal, and the individual to carry the banner of invention.

But who's there to help them? Certainly not government funders, like the NEA, who are increasingly celebrating masterworks from the past and supporting the established institutions that display them. Not foundations, who also want to make a safer and more public splash with their shrunken capital funds. Not individual donors, who are conservative with their legacies, and wary about supporting creative styles that, by definition, don't yet exist. And not the free market of ticket buyers, who also manage risk by purchasing what they already know.

In the for-profit world, large corporations are coming to realize that they can't invent and shouldn't try to do so themselves. Instead, they outsource invention to a growing group of smaller, crazier, and insanely creative companies. These 'brainstorming laboratories,' as they are described in one article in the MIT issue, hire burning intellects from dozens of different fields, make physical and temporal space for them to bump into each other, and discourage the traditional barriers between disciplines and industries that often blinkered their work. The resulting inventions may take generations to actually bring to the market, but one or two short-term hits will, they hope, fund the process along the way.

So, big companies (in the for-profit world and in the arts) have an essential role to play in fostering invention -- outsourcing and supporting radical creation while they continue to milk every nickel out of innovation and diffusion. But this role requires them to recognize their own limits, and to get over their self-definition as engines of invention. Beyond that, according to columnist Michael Shrage, established companies have another essential job: priming the audience to welcome new ideas into their lives. Without the demand for new things, Shrage argues, the supply of invention will just pile up, undiscovered and unexplored, and innovation and diffusion will never carry them forward:

...the technical excellence of an invention matters far less than the economic willingness of the customer or client to explore it. A customer's readiness to innovate is what makes invention possible.

Posted by ataylor at 12:22 AM

May 12, 2004

Innovation in a box

Following up on yesterday's post about invention, innovation, and diffusion in the arts, I had a great opportunity to explore what role architecture can play in fostering the creative impulse. Even though my neighbor blogger James S. Russell is far more qualified to attack the issue, I've never let the lack of actual knowledge stop me from ranting in the past. So, here it goes.

The opportunity came in the form of the new Frank O. Gehry building on the MIT campus in Cambridge, MA, that just opened last week. The building was designed to house a bunch of insanely smart and potentially creative individuals, from the Laboratory for Computer Science, to the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, to the Laboratory for Information Decision Systems, and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, along with classrooms, open spaces, a 'student main street', and such.

According to at least one MIT official during the early phases of construction, quoted in the Boston Globe, the purpose of the building was to be radically different than the traditional academic structure:

''We're in the innovation business and what we're looking for is a building that will encourage innovation,'' said John Guttag, head of MIT's electrical engineering and computer science department. ''Which is very different from a lot of other buildings, where if you say what do you want to accomplish, you'd say efficiencies. We're looking for the good ideas....It's not the number of people per square foot, but the number of ideas per square foot.''

In typical Gehry fashion, the building is an amalgam of swoops and curves, what one early critic called 'a drunken barn dance as it might be represented in a Disney cartoon.' It holds 'villages' of offices, and clusters of specialists, with lots of huge chalkboards (yes, chalkboards, not marker boards or digital drawing screens) for students, faculty, and teams.

I'll let the professionals critique the facility and its success...I thought it looked cool. More interesting to me is the juxtaposition of the new architecture with the architecture it replaced. MIT's famous Building 20, which stood on the same ground, was one of the most ugly, plain, bland, unhealthy, and boxy looking structures you could imagine (here's a lovely photo essay to prove it). As MIT provost Robert Brown commented: ''Building 20 never had spaces that inspired anyone to do anything.''

And yet, Building 20 was home to an astounding collection of inventions and innovations over its five decades during and after World War II. Called the 'magical incubator,' the facility was the birthplace of microwave radar, atomic clocks, Doc Edgerton's underwater cameras, James Worden's solar vehicles, Noam Chomsky's linguistic innovation, and other discoveries.

The irony shouldn't be lost on arts and cultural managers. We continue to build a massive infrastructure of new performing arts halls, museums, exploratoriums, and other intended hothouses for creative experience -- most of them glorious, massive, shiny, spacious, comfortable, and opulent. And yet, for many of us, our most powerful engagement with creative expression has come in a shabby theater with horrible sets, in a smoky underground jazz club, in a terribly cramped exhibition space, or at a sweaty outdoor festival with dismal acoustics.

It wasn't the building that inspired us. It was the connection within it. At best, a building can frame our experience, and then get out of its way.

The challenge of constructed space, especially space designed to encourage innovation and creativity, is balancing the impulse to hard-wire the way we think people should interact with the need to let them find their own way. Building 20 was a blank canvas, horribly blank. That, and the brilliant bunch of individuals that it housed, may have been the source of its magical powers.

As my father says of working there -- 'I could drive a nail anywhere, and not worry about it.'

I'm not suggesting that we build ugly, constraining, dark, and claustrophobic buildings for the arts -- God knows we've got plenty of those. I'm just offering the idea that the true power of the creative experience (for both artist and audience) might live somewhere other than the steel, granite, and glass.

Posted by ataylor at 8:28 AM

May 13, 2004

On collaborative marketing

A short and relatively information-free article in The Herald announces a new collaborative arts marketing initiative in Glasgow. Nine of the leading arts organizations in town have already signed on. Says the article:

Glasgow Grows Audiences, funded by around £180,000 from the Scottish Arts Council and the city council, will act as a marketing organisation for the theatres, galleries and companies based in the city...

It's hard to say exactly what this initiative will do for £180,000, but it's worth noting another attempt in a seemingly growing trend in community/regional arts efforts. Collaborative marketing initiatives range from basic aggregated arts calendars and on-line features (such as PortalWisconsin), to full-fledged marketing service organizations that provide a spectrum of support, consulting, research, and communications services to their member clients (like the Collaborative Arts Marketing Partnership [CAMP] hosted by Arts Council Silicon Valley).

Mixes of the two approaches can be found in ArtsBoston (consolidated calendar and web site, discount media buys, professional development, cross-promotion), and ExperienceColumbus (more of a tourism-promotion vehicle).

These initiatives are usually born from the frustration of funders, who keep seeing their money go to arts organizations that can't connect to an audience, and who eventually wonder if a more systemic intervention might be in order. That's what led the Knight Foundation to fund such collaboration in at least three cities (Charlotte, Long Beach, and Silicon's a story about the launch of Silicon Valley's version in 2002).

While well intentioned, the same collaboration challenges probably plague all of these efforts -- usually the least likely to play are large, established organizations (because they have a professional staff for marketing), and the little ones (who don't even have the staff to do what they already do). That leaves the middle folks and the commercial venues to post events to the system, leaving it without the comprehensive listings that might make the resource a first destination for potential consumers. Without that prime traffic, such initiatives can become large administrative efforts with little actual return.

But there's something in the collaborative marketing effort that's worth exploring -- especially when it encourages more sophisticated and consistent audience and market research. It's good to see Glasgow and others giving it a try. Let's hope they strive to learn from those who tried before them.

Posted by ataylor at 8:34 AM

May 14, 2004

Weblogs extended

Weblogs like those on ArtsJournal and around the world have disrupted the traditional communications stream for ideas, public discussion, news, and information. At least one arts organization is now engaging that disruptive force for their own creative work.

Seattle's On the Boards, a contemporary performing arts nonprofit, just launched a series of weblogs on their own website (thanks to the good folks at ArtsJournal) that extends the power of public voice to their audience and a few select commentators. After the opening of each show, select bloggers will comment about what they saw, and audience comments will be posted to the system as well. The system now has two shows up for comment, with one blogger entering their opinion just 40 minutes after seeing the opening last night.

It's nothing new, even for arts organizations, to have a discussion list or threaded conversation on a website. But the standard technology for such features lacked energy, and usually died from lack of use. The weblog approach provides a more curated and focused approach to the same idea, by making a few interesting people responsible for posting their ideas, and giving them the tools to do it well.

But what if those comments are negative about the performance or the organization? On the Boards has a great response:

Actually, we expect there will be criticism; we're very critical ourselves. But part of being an organization dedicated to contemporary performance is experimenting. And sometimes experiments don't work out. It's only by trying new things and seeing what works and what doesn't that better art gets made. If we don't make mistakes and miscalculations, then we're not taking enough chances.

Art should move you. Good art should make your blood boil. Great art should grab ahold of your soul and compel you to respond. No reaction is the worst kind of failure for an artist. Unfortunately, for most of us, there are too few opportunities to get embroiled in passionate discussion about art.

Arts organization could never really control the public opinions of their audiences and critics, and they generally lost credibility when they tried ('...the performance...was....good...' says the New York Times). Weblogs such as this are an attempt to turn that perceived weakness into a own the conversations they generate, good and bad, and make them part of the art.

Posted by ataylor at 7:59 AM

May 17, 2004

Valuing the arts in Silicon Valley

Jack Fischer in the Mercury News offers a summary and commentary (username:, password: access) about a recent Silicon Valley Arts Summit. The summit brought community and arts leaders together to explore the role of the arts in San Jose and its surrounding area.

According to the official conference web site:

Attendees left the Arts Summit with a renewed sense of excitement about regional arts, a realization that they are part of a collaborative effort that has the power to strengthen the regional arts infrastructure, and a commitment to active participation in that effort.

That's grant-speak for 'we had a nice conversation, and we're not sure if anything will come of it.'

According to Fischer's commentary, the event was an attempt by the non-profit American Leadership Forum to give members something to lead. However, he says:

Really bold leadership would have drawn up a budget for the summit, then used the money to endow a fund to subsidize the rent of the area's artists, musicians and choreographers, who still receive no housing help from the city. The record is that talk begets talk. Perhaps action would beget action.

The new twist on these 'arts summits' (okay, not that new) is the focus on the creative workforce, in addition to economic impact of arts audiences (when you think about it, the creative class discussion is just another flavor of economic impact, really). At the Silicon Valley event, that thought was further extended to discuss the public education system. According to Fischer again:

Sir Ken Robinson, a Los Angeles-based senior adviser to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, said at a luncheon meeting of corporate CEOs at the summit that the real key to broader support is remaking a public educational system that was created for an industrial society. Robinson said that system is outmoded because it gives highest priority to math and science, followed by the humanities and, last of all, the arts.

But in the post-industrial world that Silicon Valley epitomizes, surveys show that among corporate managers' greatest concerns is where to find creative employees -- individuals, Robinson said, with precisely the skills the arts engender, like generating ideas and solving problems in new ways.

Fischer is right to be moaning a bit about the now stale (and seemingly endless) conversations about valuing the arts in terms of urban economics. And he offers some great quotes from Ben Cameron's closing keynote to reinforce that point (here's one: ''People don't say, 'You know, honey, if we go the theater tonight it will generate five to seven additional dollars for the local economy,' or 'You know, children in communities with art museums score 50 points higher in their SATs.' . . . They do it because it's fun.'').

But he may be making a different mistake in longing for the days of the Medicis and the Renaissance patronage system in arts and culture:

...the Medicis weren't asking Michelangelo why this was good for business.

Much of patronage way back then was about exercising and demonstrating power and affluence. It may be better to consider a new balance and incentive system for supporting cultural expression, rather than returning to an ancient one, or remaining stuck in our current economic impact trap.

Posted by ataylor at 9:09 AM

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 by ataylor at 10:52 AM

May 20, 2004

Thanks for making my point

Following up on my last post, posing simple truth number 1 about engaging audiences in arts and culture, Vancouver offers this proof of concept. The struggling Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts is flailing around for an audience, even though they book shows that do well in other markets.

Says Dennis Law, one of four Denver-based brothers who own the facility:

'I'm spending a lot of money and trying to do my best. But if people want this to succeed, they have to help me,' he said, appealing to the city's arts lovers to call, write or e-mail him with programming ideas that would work.

Given the simple truth that audiences buy expectation rather than performances, and given that consumers can't really say what they want until they have it, and often not even after that (see this earlier post for more), Law is looking in the wrong place for inspiration.

There is an art to preparing a performing arts season that suits a market and an audience -- but that also nudges them slightly out of their comfort zone. There is a strategy for taking that season and presenting it to a community in a way that will engage them. There is a trap in thinking that a beautiful hall, an exceptional show, and a glitzy brochure is all it takes to make things work.

As Theater Communications Group Executive Director Ben Cameron has said on several occassions:

'Our mission is the orchestration of social interaction, in which the performance is a piece, but only a piece, of what weıre called to do.'

More on this coming in 'simple truth number 2.'

Posted by ataylor at 8:39 AM

May 21, 2004

If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em

In an unusual strategic move described in the Nonprofit Times, the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, and its Atlanta Symphony Orchestra division, recently purchased a professional telemarketing firm. The $3 million purchase of MKTG Teleservices from Media Services Group, Inc., created in a new subsidiary to the nonprofit, now called SD&A Teleservices. From the story:

ASO's Wade said the organization had several reasons for pursuing the company, but a key factor was the changing business environment for orchestras, which have seen several challenges in recent years.

'Orchestras and performing arts in general are increasingly constrained in tickets they can sell and money they can raise, and the ability to control costs,' he said. 'Part of what led us to this project was trying to be creative and innovative.'

It also seems that the Woodruff Arts Center was already shelling out the cash to the firm before the purchase, with $638,872 in marketing services in a recent fiscal year.

The new iteration of the firm will specialize in fundraising and ticket sales for culture and arts nonprofits. But it seems clear that the ASO and Woodruff see it as a profit-making venture.

The challenges of for-profit ventures owned or operated by nonprofit organizations are vast and various. Chief among them is the potential distraction from the nonprofit's original mission, as the demands (or even the success) of such ventures begin to grow.

The article quotes Kevin Giglinto, vice president of sales and marketing at Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who makes it clear that his organization isn't interested in such for-profit ventures:

'No, we're not getting into the telemarketing business,' said Giglinto, when asked if the Chicago Symphony was looking into any earned income avenues....Instead, Chicago Symphony's focus is on getting more people in the seats through ticket price reductions and packages, and a rush-hour concert series from 6:30 p.m. ­ 8 p.m. that will launch this fall, he said.

'Our focus is to find new ways to put the product into market,' he said. 'We're looking at ways to break down barriers to entry.'

This one will be worth watching.

Posted by ataylor at 9:06 AM

May 24, 2004

Simple Truth Number Two

Last week I posted simple truth number one for arts and cultural marketing: namely that audiences don't buy an event, but the promise of an event. The thought of the arts as an 'experience good' -- that is, a product or service that you can't know until you experience it -- isn't a radical thought, but it's an essential basis for how we should engage our audiences.

While it can seem insanely complex to engage audiences one at a time instead of in bulk, given that each of them will have different expectations about the experience, there's another simple truth that eases the burden just a bit: only a small percentage of any arts audience actually buys the tickets.

This simple truth comes courtesy of arts marketing and audience research firm Audience Insight LLC (project director Alan S. Brown), and the Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study for the Knight Foundation (which I've mentioned before). Says the report:

At any given ticketed performance of music, dance or theater, a majority of those in the audience did not personally buy a ticket. Someone else bought it for them. The average number of tickets per order, industrywide, is somewhere around 2.5. Of the people who did not actually buy their ticket, a portion of them did not engage in any part of the purchase decision process at all. They accepted an invitation from a friend or family member.

What does this mean on a strategic level? It means that when you look out on an audience at a performing arts event, or watch people enter a museum exhibit, you are not seeing a bunch of qualified prospects for future engagement. Less than half of that room contains qualified prospects, the other half are those they invited to come.

Of course, you may say, there are husbands and wives, arts lovers and their dates, parents and their children, but that's only part of the story. Brown suggests that there are actually two types in any audience -- initiators and responders -- and only one of those two is really likely to buy another ticket.

What motivates these 'initiators' to select events, invite a group of friends, and manage the logistics of a social night out? According to the Knight study:

Initiators are psychologically wired to 'get it together' when it comes to cultural events. Some Initiators do the organizing because no one else is around to do it ‹ 'If I donıt do it, it won't happen.' In some cases, they are single adults or are in a relationship where the other partner does not share the same cultural interests....

There are other, more subtle reasons that drive Initiators to do their thing. In the focus group discussions, several participants suggested that initiating cultural outings satisfies a deep need to nurture and enrich the lives of their friends and family. For these people, the process of working through the logistics of planning a cultural outing (identifying activities, contacting people, getting the tickets, etc.) is meaningful because it satisfies an emotional need to nurture.

It's a common strategy of arts groups to capture as many names of their attendees as possible, and to blanket all of them with information, brochures, direct invitations, and discounts. This simple truth suggests that there is a smaller, more powerful group in that bulk list that deserves the bulk of your attention. They are the ones that call the box office to order more than three tickets more than once a year. They are the ones to set up an eVite that bundles a cultural event with dinner before and drinks after. They are the ones pointing and talking in your gallery with their friends and family around them -- adding meaning and context to the cultural experience of others.

In short, these are the evangelical travel agents that should spark the love and energy of any marketing manager. And these are the people we need to empower. Help them find you. Help them succeed in their social engineering projects. Give them the tools to be smarter about your art offerings to their friends. And stop trying to market their friends directly -- it's a waste of your money and your time.

There are initiators out there. Find them, help them, feed them, and get out of their way. It's a simple truth with powerful implications.

Posted by ataylor at 8:25 AM

May 25, 2004

The arts uncubator

The idea of a business incubator has been around for along while now, especially in cities encouraging 'light industrial' or technology start-ups in the for-profit world. The purpose of an incubator, as its name implies, is to provide space and resources for new business ideas (seedlings) to take root and grow. The ultimate success measure is when these small businesses grow large and self-sufficient enough to move out of the incubator space and into their own offices and warehouses.

The traditional incubator model includes subsidized rent in flexible warehouse/office space, access to financing, and management support and training services. According to the National Business Incubation Association (yes, again, there's an association for everything):

Incubators nurture young firms, helping them to survive and grow during the start-up period when they are most vulnerable. Incubators provide hands-on management assistance, access to financing and orchestrated exposure to critical business or technical support services. Most also offer entrepreneurial firms shared office services, access to equipment, flexible leases and expandable space -- all under one roof.

Always eager for a good idea, arts and city planning folks around the country have applied the same idea to artists and arts organizations. The 'arts incubator' is now a frequent initiative in community development plans, not just to foster arts activity but to revitalize blighted areas of town (see Flashpoint in DC, or the arts incubator in Arlington, VA, or another in San Jose, CA, or this book on the subject).

Arts incubators can be fabulous ways of aggregating resources, sharing space and infrastructure, clustering creative individuals to encourage collaboration, and bumping up the quality of work and quality of life of their participants. The challenge comes when such efforts inherit the end goal of their for-profit counterparts: growth and graduation.

Search most of these arts incubator descriptions, and you'll find the word 'growth' all over the place. The success measure, implicit or explicit, is to grow arts organizations out of these shared spaces and into their own. The extension of that assumption is that most will also 'grow' into individual nonprofit status, get their own governing boards, raise their own endowments or annual contributions, and move to self sufficiency.

For many small arts organizations and individuals, however, administrative growth can equal creative death. As I've ranted about before (here for example), when growth is the unquestioned goal, the administrivia of organizational life can quickly out-muscle the flexibility, creativity, innovation, and excitement of small arts activities. I've seen so many small arts organizations struggling under the weight of their corporate status and the structure it brings. Most of them only moved to nonprofit corporate status because they didn't know they had another choice (or several choices, for that matter), and because 'that's what arts organizations do.'

The truth is that there are many ways to align corporate status, tax status, resources, and energy to serve a creative mission. One of them is the traditional, stand-alone, nonprofit organization. But our collective emphasis on that model as 'best for all' has been a key part of the current challenges we now face in the industry.

So, what if an arts incubator worked specifically to keep arts organizations from growing in the administrative sense? What if they provided all the benefits of nonprofit status without encouraging individuals or organizations to move toward 'owning' those benefits themselves (primarily receiving tax-exempt contributions for most, but also the benefits of nonprofit bulk postage and other fiscal privileges)?

To tweak the metaphor, perhaps we could call these 'arts uncubators.' They would provide subsidized space, administrivia, payroll, and fiscal receivership/agency. But the goal of growth would be clearly and explicitly removed from the equation.

There are likely many attempts to do just this. If you know of some, please send them along.

Posted by ataylor at 8:54 AM

May 26, 2004

Exploding myths

I go on and on about false metaphors, management myths, and bundled assumptions in this weblog, so I thought I'd give some space to someone else doing the same (better than me, I'll admit). I stumbled on this great speech by James Allen Smith of the Getty Trust (look to the right column of the page), that provides one of the clearest and most concise economic overviews of arts and culture that I've read.

A favorite part is his overt challenge to the persistent myths that cloud our thinking about arts and culture funding, economics, and policy, quoted below:

The starving artist is a myth. Underfunded, underemployed, less well paid than others of similar education but not impoverished.

The lack of a government commitment to culture is also a myth. NEA and NEH appropriations are a fraction of what they were at their peak, but we do ourselves a disservice by ignoring the many other commitments to culture that the federal government has made and kept and that states and localities have expanded over the past two decades, even in the face of federal contraction. In our multilayered federal system the public sector commitment is fragmented and hard to appraise completely, but there is indeed a commitment, and it is substantial. Some argue that it remains stronger and more secure because it is fragmented, because there is not a single target for budget cutters to strike. We should also understand that some of our approaches are envied in other parts of the world, particularly the strong role played by private philanthropy. Sustaining and encouraging private philanthropy through the tax code has been a consistent policy choice since the 1910s. Whether we are weakening that one substantial pillar of support by gradually reducing the estate tax remains to be seen.

That we have no cultural policy in the United States is also a myth. Our policies are plural and decentralized, sometimes rooted in policy decisions that enhance the private sector and the private individual's role, such as the tax code, sometimes embedded in approaches to other policy objectives when cultural means are used to pursue economic development ends or community building goals. It is a characteristically American mix. Policies are formulated at every level of government, and they are profoundly intertwined with decisions made in the private sector by individuals, philanthropic foundations, nonprofit cultural institutions, and commercial enterprises. The ''nation's'' cultural policy -- as distinguished from a ''national'' cultural policy -- is complex and multi-faceted. Our cultural policies are grounded in the charitable deduction; copyright law, which seeks both to guarantee financial rewards to those who are creative whatever the field and to enhance the progress of the arts and sciences...; trade policies, which have helped make cultural industries the source of over $60 billion in foreign earnings; and the First Amendment, which gives constitutional protection to freedom of expression and will continue to mark the front lines of our culture wars. Moreover, cultural concerns intersect with policy decisions that are being made in many areas: elementary and secondary education, juvenile justice, local and regional development, conservation and tourism, among others, all of them policy domains with major cultural policy consequences.

Great stuff.

Posted by ataylor at 8:58 AM

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