Have you stuck by your audience? Are you stuck with your audience? Would you like to get unstuck?
Subscriptions are dead. Subscriptions are not dead.
Frequent buying of tickets is a pipe dream. Frequency is occurring at nonprofit arts organizations that aren’t yours.
Ticketbuyers are old, want to be entertained, and dying off. Ticketbuyers are old, want to be entertained, and dying off.
Artistic leaders are flummoxed by trying to decipher an audience’s taste. Artistic leaders don’t give a rat’s patootie about the audience’s taste.
Nonprofit arts organizations have a newfound enthusiasm toward producing works by diverse artists, not only because they have a newfound enthusiasm toward DEI practices, but because it’s the right thing to do. Nonprofit arts organizations’ audiences tend not to purchase very many tickets to works by diverse artists, because their long-held enthusiasm isn’t really centered on difficult stories about other people that make them feel bad.
Nonprofit arts organizations, especially the large ones, never would have moved toward this “enthusiasm” if it were not for the killing of George Floyd, their own artists, and their fear of appearing tone-deaf to society. Nonprofit arts organizations’ audiences believe that their artistic leaders are tone-deaf to what they want, and they’ve been supporting the sector for years with donations and ticket buying.
Nonprofit arts organizations sell discounted tickets to the most popular Christmas show—seven months in advance—to provide cash flow during their most cash-strapped times. Nonprofit arts organizations have fewer tickets to sell to the most popular Christmas show at the time of production, forcing them either to raise prices on the remaining inventory or experience cash flow issues in January.
Nonprofit arts organizations cut personnel when money gets tight because that’s what their corporate board members do with their companies when money gets tight. Nonprofit arts organizations’ audiences lose trust when the “product,” which to them is the art on stage and nothing else, is lessened, endangered, too small for the venue, or of lesser production value.
Nonprofit arts organizations spend less and less money on content, ultimately choosing to close rather than change the way they do business. Nonprofit arts organizations’ audiences spend less and less money on content but still get plenty at home, where they don’t have to be in the same room as strange men wearing makeup. If they want that, RuPaul’s Drag Race is on 17 channels.
“Events,” defined here as rare occasions in which extraordinarily popular performances occur, still sell out. Taylor Swift sells all the tickets to all the shows. Beyoncé’s Renaissance Tour will sell all the tickets to all the shows. Broadway tours of Hamilton! will sell all the tickets to all the shows, at least for the foreseeable future. All these will be expensive. The idea that some people will be excluded from seeing these events will cause the secondary market to be exorbitant.
Performances that don’t fit this combination of rarity, spectacle, popularity, and phenomenon-based programming struggle, with some key exceptions, including that Christmas show. (Of course, the people attending that Christmas show only attend that Christmas show. Stop depending on them as a potential other-programming audience. Scarce marketing money down the drain.)
Since the first nonprofit arts organizations came into existence, they worked under the assumption that a combination of ticket revenue and donations would financially buttress the production of art. For a time it worked, when these arts organizations were among the “only game in town,” so to speak. Mostly, with a strong Eurocentric heritage of expressing privilege by participating in cliquish joy at “their arts organization” (generally run by old, white men, who chose other white men to direct the productions, choreograph the ballets, conduct the orchestras, and curate the museums), the idea of an audience partaking in art (rather than engaging in art) became popular enough to make the whole nonprofit arts organization work. These were the people who bought tickets. These were also the people who donated money. And as long as nothing changed in the world, these organizations could keep on producing art created by (mostly dead) white men.
In the world of ticket sales, exclusivity is profitable. Popularity is profitable. Availability is not profitable. Unpopularity is not profitable.
Accessibility, in almost every description of the word, is not profitable.
Profitable. Seems like an odd word to apply to nonprofit arts organizations, doesn’t it?
I wonder what would happen if, rather than closing up shop, there were a way for a nonprofit arts organization to determine that fame is a moot topic. Rather than using their bully pulpit to maneuver an unmaneuverable tango of popularity, relevance, and expression through the presentation of art (and using ticket revenues, reputation, and recognition as the measuring sticks for success), what might happen if these charities took it upon themselves to use their work to amplify diverse voices from their own communities, and using that art as a tool in which to make the lives of the neediest in their community better off? And what if, instead of counting the number of paying customers and the revenue they represent, the organization counted how many people were helped, in what ways they were helped, measured the solution of the community’s problems, and then shared that data so that others could replicate that kind of impact? Hmm.
Based in Kirkland, Washington, Alan Harrison is a writer and speaker specializing in nonprofit organizations, strategy, the arts, and life politics. His columns appear regularly in ArtsJournal and other major publications. Contact him directly at email@example.com.
If you’re feeling generous or inspired, just click on the coffee cup. You don’t have to, of course, but if you can afford it and find some value here, please provide the desperate need for caffeine.
Alan is always looking for good opportunities to write and consult for nonprofits that need a hand. And, of course, that elusive Perfect Opportunity™.
Alan’s new book, “Scene Change: Why Today’s Nonprofit Arts Organizations Have to Stop Producing Art and Start Producing Impact” will be published in late January. CLICK HERE TO PRE-ORDER IN THE UNITED STATES. If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE.
Recruit your local bookstore, conference panel, or boardroom to get a visit from Alan. Advance copies may be made available for those booking conferences, reading engagements, and speaking engagements. So get on it! (Please.)
And don’t forget to let Alan know if you want bulk copies for your board!