Diane Ragsdale address to Australia Council arts marketing summit

US arts philanthropy expert Diane Ragsdale gave the keynote address on the subject "Surviving the culture change" to the Australia Council Arts Marketing Summit held in Melbourne on 3-4 July 2008.

I must preface my remarks by saying that my views are personal and should not be taken, necessarily, to be the views of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  I also wish to say that my perspective is decidedly American as that’s the reality I know.  Just as I believe that US arts leaders could benefit greatly from hearing your perspectives on these issues - and I look forward to hearing them throughout the day - I hope that hearing some ideas and examples from the US will be valuable to you.

The title of this address is “Surviving the Culture Change.”  Some of you may be wondering what I mean by “the culture change,” and so I’d like to start with an anecdote and then describe some of the changes we’re seeing in the US.

About 2 ½ years ago, I attended a retreat with leaders of a dozen orchestras, at which one lamented, likely reflecting the sentiments of more than a few in the room, “I feel like I’m the Captain of the Titanic, and there’s an iceberg ahead, but rather than being on top steering the ship I’m in the bowels shoving coal in the furnace.  I’m afraid if I stop shoveling coal we’ll run out of steam, but I know that if I don’t start steering the ship soon we’re going to hit an iceberg.”

It’s not the most uplifting image.  And, indeed, we are in exciting, but turbulent times.

In the August 2006 issue of Inside Arts, Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was quoted saying, “…the primary issues facing the American arts at present are not financial.  They are cultural and social.  We have a society in which the arts have become marginal.  We are not producing another generation of people who attend theater, opera, symphony, dance, jazz and other art forms.  Most of these audiences have declined in the last decade, some of them precipitously.” 

Chairman Gioia paints a sobering, but accurate, picture.  The largest generation - the Baby Boomers - have sent their kids to college, have plenty of gray hair on their heads, know the difference between a Malbec and a Red Zinfandel, and can pick out a fine triple cream brie.  But despite displaying considerable evidence of disposable income, ample leisure time, and sophistication appear to be less inclined than the generations before them to participate in many of the “high brow” art forms. Studies have indicated that many Americans actually have more leisure time than ever , but they appear to be choosing to spend it differently. Boomers are gardening, building decks and tiling their bathrooms, and preparing gourmet feast for their friends and families - activities which appear to have been elevated from chores to enjoyable ways to spend a Saturday afternoon.  And they are, in fact, participating in arts and entertainment activities. They are learning how to play the guitar, taking photos with their digital cameras, renting films on Netflix, and at 55 they are still going to Paul McCartney concerts.  In other words, contrary to what many arts organizations thought, once these Boomers hit 55 or 60 they didn’t suddenly develop a deep desire to attend a Beethoven concert, or a Balanchine ballet, or a Shaw play. 

And their kids?  The echo-Boomers? They are creating playlists for their Ipods, making videos and posting them on YouTube, building avatars and living in Second Life,  managing their MySpace and Facebook pages, creating mashups, voting for their favorite American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance contestants, and writing blogs. And they are creatively engaged and satisfied by these experiences. 

About 14 years ago I learned a brutal truth about the human condition, and in particular about the relationship between many Americans and the arts.

I was teaching a general survey course, Intro to Theater, at a small public university in Idaho, a rural state known mainly for its potatoes.  On the first day of class each term I would ask the 120 or so students to raise their hands if they had ever seen a professional theater production.  About 10 hands would go up.  I would then say, “Raise your hand if you would like to see one.”  15-20 hands would go up.  Remember, this was before podcasting, blogging, YouTube, MySpace, Iphones, and P2P file sharing revolutionized communication and social networking. 

So, I would ask of the remaining students, “Why wouldn’t you want to see a play?”  The answer was generally, “I’ve gone this long without seeing a play, and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.” 

The brutal truth is … you don’t miss what you’ve never had.

As a result of new technologies, generational shifts and economic divides, changing demographics, increasing diversity in cities and town across America, a trend towards anti-intellectualism, increased competition for people’s leisure time, cuts in funding for the arts in K-12 education, the decline in arts coverage in newspapers, and many other forces, we are seeing a profound shift in the interrelated relationships between people, space, time, and art, and changes in the ways that people create, consume, commune, and communicate. This is the culture change to which I am referring. 

So what does this mean for the arts? 

Russell Willis Taylor of the Washington, DC-based National Arts Strategies said to me once, when I asked her what were her greatest concerns for the arts, that she was troubled by the fact that arts organizations in the US can’t easily explain to people why they matter. I would say that this - the fact that the arts don’t appear to matter to people in the US - is one of the most serious consequences of the culture change.  This is the iceberg… this is the thing, which if we don’t start dealing with it, could sink us.

So now we’ve established what the culture change is.  Before I talk about some ideas for surviving it in particular, I want to back up a bit and reflect on survival in general.

Last summer, on the recommendation of a field colleague, I read the book Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales.  Gonzales spent years trying to understand why some people survive harrowing circumstances and others do not and trying to determine whether there are common characteristics of survivors.  I was particularly interested in a chapter in which he examines how people get lost.  

Gonzales explains that the way we navigate in life is by forming and following mental maps:  literally pictures in our minds of particular areas or routes.  Gonzales says you get lost when you “fail to update your mental map and then persist in following it even when the landscape,” (the real world), “tries to tell you it’s wrong.”   Edward Cornell, one of the scientists Gonzales showcases in the book, gives an example of this.  He says, “Whenever you start looking at your map and saying something like, ‘Well, that lake could have dried up,’ or ‘That boulder could have moved,’ a red light should go off.  You’re trying to make reality conform to your expectations rather than seeing what’s there.  In the sport of orienteering, they call that ‘bending the map.’”  

Many arts organizations appear to be bending the map, working from outdated mental maps of the cultural landscape, outdated conceptions about the value of their organizations to the community, outdated ideas about who lives in their communities, what those individuals value, and what role the arts do or do not play in their lives. 

Gonzales describes five stages that a person goes through when lost, which correlate with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Gonzales says that the final stage, acceptance, is the one that separates those that survive from those that don’t. 

Here’s how he describes it, “… as you run out of options and energy, you must become resigned to your plight.  Like it or not, you must make a new mental map of where you are.” Not where you wish you were. “To survive,” he says, “you must find yourself.  Then it won’t matter where you are.”   

Gonzales also says that one of the most difficult steps a survivor must take is to discard the hope of rescue.  

So, wait a minute, does this mean, podcasts can’t us?  How about Facebook? I keep having this picture in my mind of arts organizations huddled up, frantically flipping through some metaphorical 21st century audience development playbook, trying to figure out the perfect combination of plays that will win over younger audiences:  Should we get rid of subscriptions? Stream podcasts? Produce videos for YouTube? Hire DJs and VJs to play in the lobby after the show? Have a MySpace page? Text our patrons on their cell phones? Remake the season brochure? Host some sort of amateur art competition? 

Maybe! But we can’t answer these questions until we answer some more fundamental questions.  Yes, we need to bring our marketing into the 21st century; but first, we need to bring our missions into the 21st century.  This is less a failure to sell well, and more a failure to see well - a failure to see that our communities have changed, and that art and artists have changed, and that we, perhaps, as institutions that exist to broker a relationship between the two (communities and artists)  have not changed in response. 

A couple years ago I interviewed a Stanford University professor named Jim Phills about his book, Integrating Mission and Strategy for Nonprofit Organizations,   and one of my questions was, “What advice would you give to a world-class orchestra whose audiences were declining and whose deficit was growing?”  He said, “If you are an orthodox orchestra, the reason you are losing audience members (from your viewpoint) could be that the world is not good enough for you.  But art really exists only in relation to audiences and their experience, particularly the performing arts.  So if a symphony is seeing declining audiences, then the questions are: Would you sooner close your doors than change what you do?  What is it that’s important to you and why?  You cannot, however, answer these questions without considering your need for audiences and/or enough people willing to subsidize you.  And the fact is the number of people willing to subsidize something that is narrowly enjoyed may diminish over time.  At which point, you will need to be prepared to go out of business.”

He hastened to add, however, there is another option “there are organizations who are redefining their missions in relation to people.” 

To survive the culture change, we need to start by accepting that (1) it exists and it has fundamentally changed our world; and (2) to solve the mystery of why 30-year-olds won’t buy tickets to the symphony, we’re going to need to put more on the autopsy table than the season brochure. 

The late, great thinker Susan Sontag once wrote, “Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.”

I take particular note of the words, “precarious attainment of relevance.”  Organizations cannot be granted relevance in perpetuity based on their laurels.  To exist, to thrive, in the 21st century, arts organizations need to be willing to adapt in order to attain, maintain, or regain, their relevance. 

The ability to adapt is one of the keys to survival, and can be very difficult for industry leaders.

In The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman says that the great company IBM nearly self-destructed because it stopped listening to its customers and stopped creating value that mattered for them. Friedman explains that “when a company is the pioneer, the vanguard, the top dog, the crown jewel, it is hard to look in the mirror and tell itself it is in a not-so-quiet crisis and [that it] better start to make a new history or become history.”  

IBM made a new history.  And so must we.

Those that are losing audiences but are unable to adapt, or that refuse to adapt, may one day find themselves caught off guard by the radical reinvention of what it means to be an arts organization that is already coming from a company that’s five years old and has a relatively miniscule operating budget, and that was started by talented 25-40 year olds, who (at least in the US, you might have a different situation here) have passed on, or left, mid-level posts at larger institutions because they were not excited by the artistic programming, or saw no hope of promotion, or didn’t feel encouraged to contribute creatively to the mission of the organization.  But that’s a topic for another day. 

Today’s topic is surviving, adapting to, the culture change.  With your indulgence, I’d like to lay out ten ideas for doing this.

1. Unsustainable Growth + Silos = Mission Creep = Bad News

Over the past few decades, the US nonprofit arts and culture sector focused on building supply and capacity, on the assumption, I suppose, that demand for the arts would grow at the same rate.  We tripled the number of organizations and built bigger and better facilities.  Arts organizations created hierarchical corporate structures, professionalized their staffs, and increased the size of their operating budgets, the number of programs, exhibits and performances they offer, and the number of seats in their halls.  And now organizations are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to grow demand to match the current supply of arts in the US.  At the recent National Performing Arts Convention in Denver, Colorado, over 2,000 arts organizations participated in a 1st Century Town Hall Meeting for the Performing Arts and the following issue was identified as the #1 issue:  “Our communities do not sufficiently perceive the value, benefits, and relevance of the arts, which makes advocacy and building public support for the arts a challenge at every level.”  It also makes building demand very difficult.

US Arts organizations are competing fiercely for audiences and resources. 

Very few arts organizations in the US could be considered prosperous; almost all are, to some greater or lesser degree, undercapitalized.  One consequence of this, as Jim Phills writes in his book on mission and strategy, is that a desperation for resources makes an organization more likely to pursue opportunities that are inconsistent with its mission, the inevitable result of which pursuits is mission creep—which he defines as “the blurring of the organization’s mission over time as it seeks to take on activities outside the scope of its core competencies.”   

But here’s the rub! Those activities that are outside of the scope of an organization’s core competencies have an inflationary effect on the budget—which leads to a greater desperation of resources—which can lead the organization to take on more activities outside of the scope of its mission in order to secure resources—which leads to more mission creep! It’s a vicious cycle.

And silos are aiding and abetting organizations in this behavior. I have experienced and observed time and again that the blurring, stretching, and compartmentalization of mission is fostered by the hierarchical corporate structure that organizations adopt, which puts making the art, selling admissions, raising money, balancing the budget, education, and understanding the community into different silos, and often creates competition for resources among these departments.  Furthermore, these departments often have competing core values and measures of success.

Beware building supply without building demand as it puts you into permanent shoveling coal mode.  Beware money (from funders or the market) that lures you off mission.  It’s a Faustian bargain.  Over time it will cause you to lose ownership of your mission.  And beware silos.  Organizational silos remind me a lot of the dissociative personality disorder, compartmentalization, which essentially allows you to split your psyche apart and keep those parts from mixing.  It’s not a good thing. 

These are a few of my least favorite things and, combined, these practices can make it very difficult for you to adapt.
 
2. Don’t Conflate Money or Attendance with Impact

While coal shoveling might keep an arts organization going year after year, in the same way that being on a resuscitator is really not the same as being alive, staying afloat is not the same as having impact.  Furthermore, even selling a lot of tickets should not be conflated with having impact.
 
In his book Convergence Culture  Henry Jenkins talks about a new configuration of marketing theory that he calls “affective economics,” which seeks to understand the emotional underpinnings of consumer decision-making.  He says that commercial entertainment companies are beginning to realize what their fan communities have been saying for a long time: that what is more important than the number of people who buy your product or watch your television show is the depth of their loyalty and the quality of their engagement.  Jenkins gives some examples of this trend.

He tells a story about Coca Cola CEO, Steven J. Heyer, who said in his keynote address at the 2003 Advertising Age conference that Coke would “use a diverse array of entertainment assets to break into people’s hearts and minds. In that order.”  Heyer said Coke was “moving to ideas that [would] elicit emotions and create connections.  On Coke’s Web site consumers can share personal stories about their relationship with the product—stories that get organized around themes such as “romance,” “reminders of family” “childhood memories” or “times with friends.”   Speaking to this room of advertisers, Heyer said, “The ideas which have always sat at the heart of the stories you’ve told and the content you’ve sold … whether the movies or music or television … are no longer just intellectual property, they’re emotional capital.”

In his book, Jenkins also introduces the ideas of Kevin Roberts, the CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, who argues that the future of consumer relations lies with ‘lovemarks’ [as opposed to ‘trademarks’] which are more powerful than traditional ‘brands’ because they command the ‘love’ as well as the ‘respect’ of consumers.  

These companies are talking about love and connections between people.  And they are selling soft drinks and soap!  And along with HBO, they are beating us at our game. These companies are smart because they understand that emotions and connections between people are strong, that many people are searching for meaning in their lives, and that consumption exists within a social and cultural context. 

In her article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Let’s Put the Word ‘Nonprofit’ Out of Business”  Claire Gaudiani has proposed that we replace the word ‘nonprofit’ with ‘social profit.’  I like this idea because it forces us to remember that we are nonprofits because we exist to create value for society, rather than profits for shareholders.  It reminds us that, we too, exist within a social and cultural context—and if that context changes, so too must we change.

There is a real danger if we continue to conflate growth of the budget, economic impact, or
commercial success, with creating meaningful impact on individuals and on society. 

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater in NYC and one of the leading thinkers in American Theater recently wrote, “Over the [past] 30 years, the American non-profit theater has been operating in an economic environment that increasingly has valorized the market as the primary, almost exclusive way of measuring value.  As a result, many of the leading non-profit theaters have blurred the line between commercial and non-profit work.  Even when they have been most brilliant and successful, there has been a real cost: a narrowing of the social and artistic agenda, and a diminishing of the vigor, bravery, diversity, and importance of the American theater.”

Arts organizations need to find a way to assess their progress in—for lack of a better goal—making great art that matters to people—as evidenced, perhaps, by increased enthusiasm, frequency of attendance, the capacity and desire to talk or write about one’s experience, or in some other way respond to the experience, the curiosity to learn about the art form and the ideas encountered, the depth of emotional response, the quality of the social connections made, and the expansion of one’s aesthetics over time.

We can’t declare mission accomplished just because we get people in the door—we need to care about how the experience has affected them. 

3. Go Cellular

In 2005, I read an article in The New Yorker, by Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Blink).   The article was called “The Cellular Church” and was about Rick Warren, head of one of the most successful mega-churches in the US. The way these churches maintain a “sense of community” as they grow very large, says Gladwell, is by creating “a network of lots of little church cells – exclusive, tightly knit groups of six or seven who meet in one another’s homes during the week to worship and pray.” 

The church has thousands of volunteers who are charged with getting to know each member that walks in the door and getting that new member plugged into a small group, formed around shared hobbies and interests – knitting, quilting, mountain biking. These cells effectively function as social networks, fueling deep friendships between church members.  What’s clear from the article is that people who are in small groups are more likely to show up at church on Sunday, stay a member of the Church longer, and give more money. These mega-churches are succeeding because they understand that for most people, it is the social connections they form as an aspect of going to church that in large part drive them to attend and donate.  Without the small group, Warren explains in the article, going to Church with 5,000 people could feel pretty impersonal. Perhaps a bit like going to a concert hall with 1,800 people? 

In the 2006 New Zealand Arts Survey, the number one reason for decreased participation, given by 56% of survey responders, is “Less Time/Other Commitments.”  One might assume, perhaps, that the top reason for increased participation would be “More Time/Fewer Commitments.”  It’s not.  29% of survey respondents said they were attending more frequently because they had someone to go with, and 20% said they were attending more frequently because they were “more interested” in the arts.   The survey noted that when participants in the “low attendance segment,” in particular, were asked why they are attending more often now than they were three years ago, this segment (more than the others) identified the need to be encouraged by their social network to attend.  

Saying “no time” reminds me of the oft-used, let-me-down-easy breakup line:  “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Like these churches, arts organizations need to foster small-group, socially-driven arts participation.  Here is, I think, a radical, but brilliant example of an arts organization building community. 

Earlier this year, the Foundry Theater in NYC did a performance called Open House that examined the long term impacts of the escalating costs of real estate on people in the city and citywide anxiety over housing costs and neighborhood change.  The two-person play took place in two dozen apartments across New York City, which the Foundry located through an “open call.”  When patrons bought their tickets, they signed up to see the performance at one of 24 residences around the city.  I signed up to see Open House at an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Before the performance started I was able to mingle with the actors and production staff, and the other 30 or so patrons, enjoy some beverages and snacks, and meet the performance hostess and hear the history of the apartment.  At the end of the performance, everyone was invited to stay and eat, drink, and talk.  When the entire project was over, the Foundry invited all the individuals, couples, and families that had opened up their homes—who came from all income demographics and from neighborhoods across the five boroughs—to a dim sum party.  As I understand it, not only did these generous city dwellers break bread together, but friendships were formed. The Foundry is an exemplar.  They are not content to simply produce great art.  They are creating great community.

4. Let The Art Dictate The Space—Not The Other Way Around

Choreographer Elizabeth Streb, who describes her work as wrestling-meets-ballet, gymnastics, and circus, has been asking questions that challenge accepted assumptions about dance for more than 20 years.  About ten years ago, she says she observed that the only “public” thing she did was invite strangers into a theater for a ticket priced $25.00 - $85.00.  She says she decided to re-make the where and how of making her work and in 2003 she opened a garage in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  In four years she’s turned that warehouse into a true community cultural center.  How did she do it? For one, she opened the doors and let people come by anytime – to watch rehearsal or just to use the restroom.  She added popcorn and cotton candy machines and let people walk around and eat food during the performances.  I’ve heard Streb say that rather than being a “church” - a place you visit once a week for a sacred experience, she wanted her space to be more like a 7/11 - which is a 24-hour convenience store in the US.

In order to facilitate social behavior, art spaces need to places where people can commune with each other and with artists. 

Lobbies need to be more than holding pens. A kiosk with a pot of coffee and a tip jar, or a “mini-bar” with $8 beers stuck in the middle of a cramped or cavernous room with gray walls, no comfortable seating, harsh lighting, no music, nothing to engage with visually, and that shuts down after intermission, doesn’t cut it anymore.  Lobbies could be living rooms, galleries, book shops, Internet cafés, or really great bars - the third space, as they say. Center Stage Theater in Baltimore has a new “GenNext Initiative.”  In the past year they’ve remodeled their lobby in order to create a more relaxed and social environment.  They’ve also hired a GenNext Coordinator who produces events - parties with performance art and fashion shows—as a way of attracting younger people to the building. 

And of course, like Elizabeth Streb, we need to think bigger than just our lobbies.  Perhaps we need a moratorium on the construction of traditional museums, concert halls, and proscenium theaters and we need to allow for the fact that if we want to engage new audiences, and work with contemporary artists, we need 21st century spaces.  We need to create spaces that are suited to the way artists are now making work and that encourage a more dynamic interaction between artists and audiences.

A great example of this is 3Legged Dog in New York City, which is a hi-tech hybrid space that is intentionally designed to allow artists to work across platforms and disciplines and as dynamically as possible with new media technologies.  I saw a production called Fire Island a few months ago, which is about a bohemian island off the coast of Manhattan.  When the audience members arrived, they were invited to enjoy complementary food and wine, and then, rather than sitting in chairs, to grab a beach blanket or beach chair and arrange their seats anywhere in the open space.  The production incorporated gorgeous panoramic film footage on enormous concave and convex screens that enveloped the space and that was deftly edited against a live performance, featuring at least a dozen actors, who performed their scenes in and around the audience and throughout the open space.  There was a live band with a Tuvan throat singer and the wine continued to be poured freely throughout the performance.  It was a sublime experience.  Here are two more examples:

I find it fascinating and inspirational that The National Theatre of Scotland, a young company, run by young artists and administrators, made the bold choice when it was formed not to build a facility.  On the NTS Web site it says: “With no building of its own, the National Theatre of Scotland will tour to big theatres, small theatres and places where theatre has never been, across the whole of Scotland and beyond.”   I hope no one ever convinces them to build a space after all.

And, finally, we need to be prepared to think virtually.

As many of you probably know, Australia Council has a Second Life artists-in-residence program and recently three artists from the program created a real-time 3-D art project called Babelswarm, which is a simultaneous installation in Second Life and in a real world gallery, where visitors can be involved directly in its creation via a computer interface.

I was taken with the following quote by Chairman James Strong on the ACA Web site:  ‘It is vital that government supports and fosters new digital creative practices and inventiveness in the realms of online worlds, gaming and media arts.  The Australia Council supports artist residencies in many places in the real world; it is only natural for us to help artists explore the creative possibilities of residencies in virtual worlds.”   I couldn’t say it any better.

5. Fuel A Fan Base: Sample & Share!  

The rule on the Internet is: sampling is free. You can listen to an entire CD before you purchase it. In order to reach broader audiences arts organizations need to create free and low-cost opportunities for people to sample and share their art through mediated and live experiences with others.

In October 2006 I went to a really good concert by the American Composers Orchestra, which by and large does new and experimental compositions—they deeply serve a narrow niche in NYC. I experienced a terrific new composition, accompanied by a great video. Unless you could get to NYC on October 13, 2006, there was no way for you to hear and see this piece.  And yet, if the ACO had put the recording of the piece, with the video, on their website, and allowed people to experience a 3 minute sample for free, or download the whole piece for $1 or $2, I would have emailed at least a dozen people the day after the concert and said, “go to the Web site and check out this piece – it’s fantastic.”  And if the same thing had happened last week, I could have posted a message on the wall of my Facebook page, and reached every friend I have.

And the fact is that if I encourage my friends to buy that song and video, it’s going to mean a lot more to them than if the ACO does. And if the premise of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail is true—that the future of culture and commerce lies not in creating blockbusters but in creating and mining niche markets—then the ACO might be amazed at how many people around the world would pay $2 to download that new music and video piece that they currently cannot access any other way. 

This is not about top down control from arts organizations; it’s about allowing patrons to be active participants and turning them into devoted fans and catalysts for participation by others—in other words, driving word of mouth.  When the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis presented the group GobSquad last year, they were amazed to find that one of their young patrons went home that night and made a video response to the piece and posted it on YouTube.  They began thinking, “How do we generate more of this?” which is the exact right question to ask. 

Albums and CDs have long been considered the loss leaders for popular and indie bands who make most of their money from concerts. I find it interesting that more and more artists are giving their music away on line as a way of generating awareness, building a fan base, and developing an audience for their live performances.  Is there, perhaps, a future where we give away, or sell at very low-cost, mediated experiences, as a way of generating interest and demand for live experiences? 

Certainly the Metropolitan Opera in NYC is having a go at such a strategy, and appears to be meeting with great success.

Locking down the art—having an across-the-board proprietary stance—is no longer a viable option.

But why did that young girl go to GobSquad in the first place? And why was she sufficiently enthused to go home and make a short video response and post it on online? I would wager that it’s in large part because The Walker’s contemporary programming is particularly appealing to younger audiences, and because they have done an exceptional job at reaching teen audiences through their longstanding Teen Arts Council.  This brings me to point 6.

6. You Can’t Fix It In Post

You may have heard that we’re having a presidential election in the US this year and that a comparatively young man named Barack Obama has emerged as the presumptive nominee for the democratic party.  According to a Washington Post article, “just before every presidential campaign of the past few decades, the media have heralded The Year That Young People Will Actually Vote. Yet each of those years turned out to be a youth turnoff.  The last time more than half of 18-to-24-year-olds voted in a federal election was 1968.”  This year appears to be different.

According to an article in Time magazine, Obama’s “campaign has become the first in decades, maybe in history, to be carried so far on the backs of the young. His crushing margin of victory in Iowa came almost entirely from voters under 25 years old, and as the race moved to New Hampshire and Nevada, their votes helped him stay competitive. In South Carolina … Obama's better than 3-to-1 advantage among under-30 voters more than neutralized Clinton's narrower edge among over-65s.”

The article goes on to say that “the art of political organizing is in the midst of a broad philosophical overhaul that erases many of the old distinctions between young voters and their elders. Basically, it's 19th century politics using 21st century tools. The idea is rooted in a deceptively simple truth: voters are more likely to go to the polls if they are asked face-to-face by someone they trust.” 

Rock-the-Vote spent a lot of time and money in 2000 and 2004 trying to get 18-24 year olds to vote. And while there was a modest bump in participation in these two elections, all the advertising and guilt-tripping in the world were not going to convince the majority of 18-24 year-olds to get out of bed and cast a vote for the candidates on the ballots. 

It appears 18-24 year-olds are showing up for three reasons:  (1) First, and foremost they are turned on by Barack Obama - what he is saying resonates with them; (2) in the past five years social networking tools have made it possible for these digital natives to spread their enthusiasm at rapid speed; and (3) Obama’s campaign understands how to engage in this new civic space. I am convinced that reasons two and three won’t get you very far without number one.

Meaning no podcast, YouTube video, or other new media strategy is going to make 25-year-olds want to go to a performance that doesn’t seem relevant to their lives. Arts institutions that want to play a significant role in their communities in the future must be aware and sensitive to the current and changing social and ethnic demographics of their communities as they program. 
A study by Paul DiMaggio and Toqir Mukhtar indicates that in the US the only art forms experiencing increases in attendance are museums and jazz clubs. The report speculates that this may be because Jazz is inherently an ethnically diverse artform, and that museums have worked very hard in the past 10-15 years to make their programming and exhibits more diverse. 

While attendance has declined at many major orchestras in the US over the past several years, the LA Philharmonic has been playing at near capacity.  A 2006 article in The New York Times  states that the LA Phil’s programming - modernist-leaning and often inventively theatrical - has won the envy of music lovers across the country.”  The Times writer, Allan Kozinn viewed the transformation of the LA Phil under Esa-Pekka Salonen as a “lesson in how to update an august cultural institution without cheapening its work.”  The article noted that despite the assertion from other orchestras that new music doesn’t sell tickets that the LA Phil sold 93 percent of its tickets that year (a much higher percentage than many leading orchestras in the US these days). 

Salonen was not an overnight success in LA.  In the Times interview, he admits that he “started off maybe a little harshly” at the Phil and that he “wasn’t really having a dialogue with the audience.”  That he was “doing the ‘medicine’ thing.”  Salonen talks about having come from Finland where “there is almost no diversity” and then landing in LA.  He says he realized over time that his “rigid Northern European ideas were not necessarily valid in a culture that had such a “degree of diversity”.  Salonen’s programming evolved in response to his engagement with the community.  This wasn’t about pandering; it was, to use his word, “dialogue.”  The LA Phil’s new music director, 26 year-old Gustavo Dudamel, another bold choice, also appears to be someone that will engage deeply with the diverse communities of LA.  With his role as conductor of The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and his development through the el Sistema Venezuelan youth orchestra movement, there is no doubt that Dudamel will have an impact on LA, and vice versa.

In an essay in the new book Entering Cultural Communities, Morris Fred and Betty Farrell write, “The awareness that there are other traditions, values, and interests in the arts with appeal to a more diverse range of arts audiences has been slow to take hold or to challenge the status quo in the mainstream cultural sphere.  But the notion of equity is now being added to the long-held tradition of excellence in the arts, and the ethos of exclusivity has begun to give way to a commitment to inclusivity.”   I highly recommend this book, which features several case studies and examples of arts organizations that have strived to achieve both equity and excellence in their work.

This is not about commercialization of the arts; it’s about understanding the communities you serve.  Who are they?  What are their core values?  How does your programming reflect that you understand these things? You don’t need to serve everyone, but you need to be clear about who you are serving, and why.

Just a quick sidebar here on ticket prices:  I firmly believe that in the US if we want the arts to matter to more people we must address the fact that arts organizations have raised ticket prices to a such a level that they have created a psychological barrier, if not an actual economic barrier, for most Americans.  It may be true that young people will fork out $180 for sneakers and beg their parents to pay twice that to take them see Miley Cyrus, but it appears many are not compelled to pay the same to see a classical music concert.  Furthermore, the perception that the fine arts are only for wealthy people persists in the US.  I’m not advocating that all ticket prices must be low; but the arts must address these perceptions. 

7. Let People In On The Action

Once Elizabeth Streb opened her warehouse she started noticing that her patrons literally wanted to get in on the action, so she put in a trapeze and started to teach people how to fly.  In four years, her school has grown from 10 to 40 classes per week for preschoolers, elementary and junior high school students, and adults, and enrollment and tuition income have increased ten-fold. Education and access are now core to the mission of STREB.  The organizational materials state that the company’s approach seeks to demystify the process of making art by bringing the once private creative activity into the traffic of everyday existence.

Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago has an exemplary program called First Look 101 in which they invite 101 patrons to join them at every step along the rehearsal process.  They attend the first read-through, blocking rehearsals, and tech. 

But letting people in on the action isn’t only about inviting them into the artistic process.  It’s also about sharing the limelight.  In the 2004 pamphlet Pro-Am Revolution, How Enthusiasts Are Changing Our Economy and Society, Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller write:  “Pro-Ams—people pursuing amateur activities to professional standards—are an increasingly important part of our society and economy.” 

The Internet has given everyone with access the tools to create and distribute their own art. Arts organizations could become mentors, resource providers, or sources of content that could be re-purposed by amateur artists.  Or they could invite pro-am artists to submit artistic work that could be displayed on their Web sites as a way of building community—and, who knows, maybe even finding new talent or new programming ideas.

For an exhibit of an avant-garde multimedia group called The Residents, MOMA in NYC curated 11 videos to accompany a short audio piece by the Residents.  These videos were created by the general public in response to an open call. The top 11 videos curated by MOMA, were then posted on YouTube, and the public was invited to weigh in, and vote for their favorites. From the public feedback, MOMA ultimately determined which videos to screen at the museum.  This is a great example of unleashing amateur creativity and public participation.

Here’s another:  Auckland Theater Company’s Open Call.  Ten participants were selected through a nationwide audition process, which was open to anyone 18 to 25 years old with no professional experience as an actor to be in an adaptation of Taming of the Shrew.  One online reviewer called it “the most vibrant, engaging and truly alive 90 odd minutes of theatre I have ever witnessed from Auckland Theatre Company.” 

What about patron as pro-am critic? If the consumer has achieved tastemaking status anyway, then why not elevate seasoned patrons to the role of reviewers and encourage them to write reviews, posted as blogs on your Web sites? Prior to joining the Foundation I was the managing director of a Seattle-based organization called On the Boards that presents avant-garde music, theater, dance, and anti-disciplinary performance art from around the world.   With the help of Doug McClennan at ArtsJournal.com, artistic director Lane Czaplinski and I started what is believed to be the first patron review blog in the US in late 2003.  It’s been incredibly successful. 

Patron reviews not only give your organization critical information about what patrons are thinking, but help patrons build community, and improve their capacities to process, discuss and understand what they have experienced—in other words, develop cultural literacy.  It also promotes alternate viewpoints from those espoused by the local art critic - let’s not forget that art is subjective, after all; and, in the absence of a review, a patron review is a strong substitute for satisfying those “latemovers” who need to hear what people think before they will buy tickets. And they may trust your patron reviews more than they trust the local critic, anyway. 

8. Be a Concierge:  Filter and Make Recommendations

One of the greatest challenges for consumers created by the Internet is having too many choices—people are bombarded with information. Consumers increasingly expect customization, and for retailers to understand their preferences and market to them accordingly. Recommender-sites understand this. Arts organizations, on the other hand, really don’t get this and are generally terrible at helping patrons make smart, satisfying purchase decisions.

Arts organizations tend to tell the public “We’ve got 8 or 18 shows this season, and they are all fantastic (!!)” Well, they may all be pretty good, but they are not all the same, and by not helping patrons find the play that they are most likely to enjoy seeing, there is a greater likelihood that they will either choose none of the above; or not have an enjoyable experience. 

Arts organizations need to get beyond transactional experiences and become arts concierges:  responsive, reliable, and trusted friends who help patrons make decisions about what to see, who to invite, and where to go for dinner before hand.  They also need to help people sort through the vast array of cultural options in their community and make better decisions.

I’ve often wondered why arts organizations don’t cross promote and upsell more often.  If you buy a book on Amazon, it often encourages you to buy another book by the same author and get both at a discounted price.  If I buy a ticket to Three Sisters on one theater’s Web site, why doesn’t the site then say, “You bought a ticket to Chekhov’s Three Sisters.  Here are other cultural activities that might interest you.  Bundle any of these other items with your ticket purchase and receive a discount on all the items.” If every cultural organization did this in partnership with other cultural organizations I would almost guarantee we could actively increase cultural participation.  We live in a time when most people don’t have a culturally sophisticated friend or relative to help them engage with the fine arts so arts organizations need to take on this role. But being arts concierges, filtering, and building partnerships organization by organization may be just the beginning.

9. Aggregate Supply and Demand for All Culture 

Imagine this idea scaled for an entire city.  What if all the products from all the arts organizations in Melbourne were aggregated by a site called “MelbourneCultureClub.org” and you could get a periodic email in your in box making personal culture recommendations to you from everything that’s happening in your city.  In much the same way as the online dating service Eharmony uses surveys to gather information and match people up, a community-wide Web site could collect data on patron preferences - favorite composers, actors, directors, authors, styles, types of experiences, books, movies, televisions shows, radio programs - and develop a sophisticated recommender system.  Coupled with a social networking site and patron reviews these tools could help patrons make more informed decisions, make recommendations to each other, and perhaps even entice patrons to try performances they might not otherwise have sought out.

And what if this aggregation of products and customer data meant that local citizens, and tourists who belong to the CultureClubs in their home cities, could create customized subscriptions or vacation packages with the click of a button?  To create basically horizontal packages bundling artistic experiences across the product lines of the various organizations?  For those that don’t feel comfortable creating their own package, the site could suggest some thematic packages: “A Masterworks package” an “An Avant-Garde package” “A Wholesome Family Entertainment package” a “Hot Art with Cool Parties package” etc.

Whether pre-packaged or customized, by bundling horizontally, one play on your season, or one exhibit in your museum, could appear on hundreds of niche packages. And what if these packages weren’t limited to nonprofit fine arts organizations? What if they included nightclubs, commercial theater, films, gallery exhibits, books, cds and other entertainment? Blasphemy?

In fact, why not tie a site like this to Amazon, NetFlix, Public Radio, TV, Cable? What if because you bought a ticket to a play through a site like this, you could automatically get an alert when the play was being discussed on your local public radio station?  What if the interview was automatically downloaded as a podcast to your device of choice, or emailed to you? Andrew Taylor and I started brainstorming a concept a couple years ago called Amazon-Live. (BTW you can read Andrew’s blog on artsjournal.com)  What if, because you bought a particular Shostakovich CD, Amazon alerted you when a piece on that CD was going to be played by your local orchestra?  What if you were one click away from buying a ticket?  Does bundling with commercial product make us sleazy or super smart? 

In 1992 sociologist Richard Peterson coined the term Cultural Omnivore to describe the tendency of many people to develop tastes for everything:  high art and pop culture and everything in between.   We may have a generation of cultural omnivores out there, but we’ve made it difficult for them to feast because we’ve created silos between high art and low art, and between the disciplines of music, theater, dance, opera, and the visual arts. Why not help these omnivores find their ways from Six Feet Under to the playwright Adam Bock?  In the minds of the consumer, it’s all culture.  By maintaining our “separate and better than others” status the arts could be losing their spot at the banquet.  Rather than competing against one another to sell subscriptions and single tickets, perhaps arts organizations could work together to increase cultural participation—create “Cultural Omnivore Subscriptions.” 

We can aggregate supply and demand for culture, and grow the pie for everyone, or we can have turf battles.  If we choose the latter, I fear that HBO, American Idol, book clubs, cooking, knitting, gardening and home improvement, and now even Coca Cola, will beat us at our game.

10. Beware the Search for Silver Bullets and Innovation for Its Own Sake

There is no formula for how we engage people in the new civic space. The answer is not “podcasts + Facebook + $10 tickets.”  I recently saw the ENO/Met production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, directed by Phelim McDermott, co-founder of the Manchester-based theater company, Improbable.  My colleague at the Foundation, Susan Feder, recently pointed out a line by Mr. McDermott in the program notes that I think has pertinence to this conversation.  “Improvisation as we practice it is less about being quick-witted and wacky and more about embracing paradoxical skills.  These include the ability to be courageous and decisive while at the same time open and vulnerable to whatever happens around you.  We work on developing the ability to be humble, not armored, in the face of unexpected events …”   Sounds like Mr. McDermitt could have written a chapter on Deep Survival.

Innovation has quickly become a buzz word among arts funders and organizations in the US the past few years.  Unfortunately, a call for innovation for its own sake too often results in a scramble for wacky ideas.  This is not the answer.  There’s no silver bullet that will conquer the culture change.

What do the many organizations I’ve cited today have in common?  First, their artistic leaders were involved in and deeply committed to their transformations.  Second, they do not behave as if achieving artistic virtuosity and being relevant to the community are competing or mutually exclusive goals. They are pursuing both excellence and equity.  Third, they had the courage, capacity, and willingness to adapt. 

The ability to adapt is critical to surviving disasters, and it’s also a characteristic of high-impact organizations, according to a 2007 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.   The author of Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales, says, “Those who avoid accidents are those who see the world clearly, see it changing, and change their behavior accordingly.”  

He also says, “People survive better in numbers.”   Interestingly, another of the characteristics of high impact organizations is their ability to network and build effective partnerships in order to achieve greater social impact.  Finally, Gonzales says, “Plan the flight and fly the plan.  But don’t fall in love with the plan.  Be open to a changing world and let go of the plan when necessary so that you can make a new plan.”  

The American writer, philosopher and publisher Elbert Hubbard said, “Art is not a thing; it is a way.”  We must forge the way with art. As Jim Phills said, there is an alternative for an organization that’s struggling to survive.  It doesn’t have to close its doors—it can create value by redefining its mission in relation to people.  It is not acceptable to have merely transactional relationships with our patrons—to create artistic experiences and sell or give them away without regard for the capacity of people to receive them and find meaning in them. We must understand that audience development is not about derrieres in chairs, but rather about brokering a relationship between people and art.  And in order to do that job well we must be open to the ways that art and artists are changing, and the ways that society is changing.

In 1963, the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III proclaimed, “the arts are not for the privileged few, but for the many. Their place is not on the periphery of daily life, but at its center.”  America didn’t fulfill Rockefeller’s vision in the 20th century.  But wouldn’t it be great if we could do it in the 21st?  If we can be open to, and courageous in the face of, the changing world, I believe we can.

I’ve talked about some new, perhaps even impossibly new, ideas.  I want to end today by sharing a 60 year-old idea from Lewis Hyde.  In his 1945 book, The Gift, Hyde says, “The art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience—that work is received by us as a gift is received.  Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price.”   Hyde says that whereas “the commodity moves to turn a profit, the gift moves to the empty place.  It turns toward him that has been empty-handed the longest, and if someone appears elsewhere whose need is greater it leaves its old channel and moves toward him.” 

Perhaps it’s time for us to stop waiting for people to find us, to appreciate us, and instead move toward them; seek to understand them; break into their hearts and minds—in that order. 

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