The Wrong Way to Attract Audiences

For those of us involved in the arts, the past few months have been a time of… well, high drama.  President Trump jolted the country by unveiling a budget that called for the elimination of funding for the NEA (along with the NEH and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).  In response, there has been a flurry of articles, studies, and discussions that have explored how and why the arts are important.  There is a new interest in detailing the value of the arts, and what benefits they convey upon individuals and society as a whole.  A key part of this emerging discussion has been how to show relevance, as well as how the arts can improve their relevance. Several of these articles have been brilliant.

But not all of them.

Yesterday, George Patrick “GP” McLeer, Jr., Executive Director of the South Carolina Arts Alliance, tossed his hat into the ring with a blog helpfully titled Ten Things in the Arts that Should Die.  This article focused on 10 things arts organizations could do to attract people and make themselves more responsive to their community.

And my first thought was, “here we go again.”  Yet another well-meaning arts aficionado has posted a click-baity list about how to save the arts.  And indeed, that seems to be the case.  But as I read through the list I became convinced it wasn’t simply light-hearted, but a recipe for disaster.

I don’t doubt GP’s sincerity or commitment to helping the arts, but as the Board President of an arts organization, an arts administrator with years of experience under my belt, and as an active performer, let me share a few thoughts about this list’s problems.

* * *

1. Predatory Docents

“The entire 90 minutes we were in the museum, a docent followed us like hawks. Ten to fifteen feet behind us at all times, this docent moved when we moved, paced when we paced, and probably breathed at the same rate as us. It was threatening. As an avid arts supporter and museum attendee, I also felt offended.”

GP relates a story that he was essentially followed around a museum by a docent for 90 minutes, and it really put him off.  Um… okay.  Honest question:  is this a significant barrier for someone attempting to enjoy art?  Patron experience is a serious subject and many arts organizations struggle with it.  Retention is important; it doesn’t help an arts organization to bring people in if these newcomers are so unhappy they never return.

But this?

A hovering docent could be a busybody making sure the patrons are up to no good, sure. But there could be a number of perfectly benign reasons for their presence.  It could be an attempt to provide exceptional customer service—docents don’t have the luxury of mind-reading to know when a patron will have questions.  It might also be a case where the museum keeps staff moving… I’ve been in many facilities where I kept running into the same staff members because we were rotating through a space at the same pace.  Or, it could be this particular docent rather than company policy.  In the years I managed front of house staff, I knew there were certain folks who were much more black and white about their tasks. Sometimes this was a good thing, especially when other staff members were more in the “people pleaser” camp.

Did he mention this experience to the staff?  Surely as an arts administrator, GP knows the importance of feedback… it usually leads to a more immediate response than posting a blogpost about it some time later and hoping the offending museum recognizes itself and makes a course correction.

But regardless, I’m surprised that this is a big enough concern that it is actually interfering with a generation’s appreciation for art.

 

2. Lack of Late Seating

“If you are a venue, and you have the ability to have late seating. Offer it. Sometimes people run late. Sometimes the babysitter gets stuck in traffic and makes everything run off schedule. Sometimes your own venue’s layout is so confusing it takes a newcomer 15 minutes to find the front door. It happens.”

Hoo-boy this is a tough one… an issue that has long bedeviled the performing arts.  There is indeed a customer service rationale for letting people in after the performance has begun.  As GP points out, someone has paid for that seat, and should be able to make use of it.  And I realize that in any group of, say, 2,000 people, statistically there is bound to be a small number that experiences some form of unfortunate delay.  I myself have experienced nerve-wracking delays that were (and sometimes were not) of my own making.  I get it.

But.

The problem is that once the performance has begun, there is no way to seat people without causing a distraction to the other 2,000 who did manage to arrive on time.  It takes them out of the scene, and disrupts things for everyone else… including the performers.

Why do folks feel entitled to interrupt everyone else?

Plan ahead.  Plan accordingly.   Yes, emergencies happen.  But please consider that the “oh, I’m just taking my seat” approach will have negative implications for everyone else in the room.  And will put the staff in an awkward position, as disgruntled patrons will blame the staff for the interruption and wonder why late-comers’ needs trump theirs.

Sorry, but a wide-open policy of letting people come and go would have a huge negative impact, and is unfair to everyone else who did play by the rules.

 

3. Ticket Fees

“Just give me one price and have it include the fee. Life’s easier that way. We all know it costs money to print a ticket. I don’t have to pay a ‘handling fee’ when I an apple at the farmer’s market. I pay $1.00.”

*Shrugs* I see your point, but guess that’s a personal thing.  I would say that there’s a whole marketing philosophy around the psychology of price points.  There’s also a strategy behind it, such as placing extra facilities fees so that patrons know where their money is going.  It’s not just the arts that do this—this is similarly a fact of life for sports, airline tickets, etc.

 

4. Venues Only Open on Show Days

“The most ironic complaint I hear in the industry is from venues who say they are having a hard time attracting new audiences and their venue is only open one hour before show time and 30min after. Well, sometimes I can’t be there at 7:30pm every time you have a show. Sometimes, your season of shows doesn’t intrigue me. But you know what? If you encouraged people to come work in your lobby during the day, buy a coffee from the concession stand, or even just had the doors unlocked to the lobby…”

Turing the lobby into an off-hours nightclub? It sounds hospitable, but I don’t know if I can adequately express what a bad idea this is.

To begin, what GP is suggesting would require a significant number of staff—including bartenders, servers, cashiers, security, facilities and a supervisor.  For food service there would have to be some sort of staff to get food, rotate through inventory, and store/discard it when closing.  At the end of the shift, there would need to be some sort of custodial staff passing through, and a finance person to handle the money.  Plus, there would need to be heating, electricity, and all those fun incidental expenses.  Cash sales would have to cover all these vastly increased costs.  Many places couldn’t pull that off, lacking the financial and human resources required.  Especially since this would be happening at off-hours.

Since these things would be happening at off-hours, it would be hard to attract consistent foot traffic to make this model work.

And consider that most lobbies aren’t really designed for this sort of thing—they exist to funnel patrons inside the auditorium, and are not necessarily well-designed for casual cocktailing.  Most spaces are geared for a rush of pre-show and intermission traffic, and don’t have the amenities that people expect from their nightclubs or social hangouts.  Many places don’t even have commercial-grade kitchens or food storage equipment. Would the local health inspector approve?

There’s also the danger of mission creep.  Most arts organizations are 501 (c) 3 nonprofits, not well-equipped to take on a for-profit enterprise.  This endeavor would need to be managed, marketed, and supported so that it didn’t become a huge financial liability, and all that would pull resources away from the core competency of making great art.  Plus, this enterprise would be competing against other for-profit businesses that do this as their main function… the art-nightclub would be directly competing with real-life restaurants.  And its a cutthroat business, too.  Bedlam Theatre here in the Twin Cities tried to make a go of it with a bar/restaurant appended to its main stage—and its struggle for solvency and ultimate closure reveal the very real dangers in trying this approach.

And worst of all, per GP’s example, all this organizational chaos and expense is happening in the service of attracting a person who isn’t intrigued with the organization’s schedule, and doesn’t find it convenient to make it to the performance start time.

Wow.

To be clear, some organizations can use their facilities in this manner.  Some are able to rent out the space for special events, usually managed by a dedicated Special Events or Rental Manger.  Others like Mia (Minneapolis Institute of Arts) here in town have added an event called Third Thursdays to attract people in a night-club setting.  Third Thursdays is successful, but notably has a corporate sponsor that underwrites the events.  Lacking these things, and a stable system for financial/administrative support within the organization, GP’s idea is a dangerous proposition.

 

5. Software Only Good at One Thing

“Why on this great Earth can we not develop a ticketing, donor, email marketing, and finance software solution that integrates in a website of any platform. All-in-one.”

They can’t?  Tessitura? Patron? With respect, this isn’t the first time someone thought about integrating ticket sales, donations, and marketing in one program. Several programs fit this bill.

 

6. Large Institutions Keeping Quiet on Advocacy

“We need our large, nationally, regionally, and locally recognized institutions to come out and join with their colleagues and speak up for the industry. It’s time to step up.”

They don’t? I can’t speak to the situation in South Carolina, but this is emphatically not the case in Minnesota.  I’ve seen studies that show this is not true elsewhere—for example, large organizations are at times so visible and so predominant that sometimes smaller groups feel their voices aren’t getting heard.  Our Minnesota State Arts Board is sometimes accused (unfairly, in my mind) of showing undue favoritism toward the big, marquee players in town.  There is also a  fear that the big players are using Arts Advocacy Day and similar events as marketing tools for themselves, essentially co-opting what should be grassroots organizing events. I don’t believe this happens, but I understand where this fear comes from.

 

7. Organizations Ignoring Community

“Dear large performance venue: When’s the last time you featured local musicians on your stage?”

When was the last time, you ask?  Well, for Orchestra Hall, this happened… last week.  It hosted local rapper Dessa in a sold-out weekend of performances with the Minnesota Orchestra that people are still talking about (here’s a great review from The Current, and one from the Star Tribune).  The Ordway’s massive new huge production of West Side Story has national performers, yes, but the actor playing Tony is a fantastic local guy and several  of the dancers are locals from Teatro del Pueblo, who are part of a program to develop local talent so they will have a larger profile.  There are national/local performers at the Guthrie, and the Minnesota Opera has a residency program that routinely features local performers among the imported talent.  These are all large-scale organizations with multi-million dollar budgets, and both national and international reach. And they all use locals.

 

8. Beginner Art Classes That Cost More Than Rent

“One…How can you be exposing people to art when they simply can’t afford your beginner level course? Second, why are beginner level classes so expensive to start?”

I see the point, but… you hit on the key point yourself: people need to get paid.  For whatever reason, artists are routinely asked to freely give away time and talent, and this should stop.  It took long years of training and specialized education to become an artist… morally, they should be paid market value for their work. The high prices usually represent the real-world costs of putting on such a program. Plus, most artists are not making a fortune and often juggle multiple gigs and teach on the side—simply giving away free lessons isn’t sustainable.  Are they expected to provide supplies, too?

I’d also point out that many organizations do try to make their art as accessible as possible, through outreach, partnerships or otherwise.  In many cases, these outreach/engagement activities are underwritten by foundations or corporate sponsors because the costs to run them are high and outside the reach of the normal budget.  Again, it’s usually a stretch for a nonprofit to give away services… especially when they represent an important income stream.

And for what it’s worth, most artists I know are very much aware of the need to build a new generation of enthusiasts, and work hard to find ways of engaging people.  Or training people… or mentoring people.

 

9. Not Posting Salary Ranges for Open Jobs

“Just put the salary range up there. If you’re embarrassed by the number, then you may need to address why you’re embarrassed – or just own it! If you’re not embarrassed by it, then you should be proud of it.”

This… is a problem?  I’ve always known roughly what the salary range is for jobs I’ve applied for—this helped me determine if the opportunity was worth pursuing.  If I couldn’t find set number, I could usually figure it out from the title and going to a site like www.salary.com.

 

10. Not Teaching Any Business to Arts Majors

“Every arts discipline major – even at a conservatory – should be required to take at least one class in arts management, or a similar field. Required.”

Agreed we should do more of this… but there would be challenges to work through.  By extension, should we also do this for biology majors?  Should this be part of coursework in Seminary?

Conversely, should we teach arts and humanities to business majors?

* * *

Again, I hate to dump on a guy I’ve never met for putting together a well-meaning list.  I just don’t think this list will go very far in addressing the questions the field needs to grapple with, and I don’t know that they speak to the question of relevancy.

I’ve written more extensively on my my ideas about how to attract younger audiences, but let me provide a quick list of what I think art organizations should do to to thrive and ensure their relevancy:

  • Create a strong mission. Define who you are, what you do, and who you do it for.
  • Keep editing your work so that you can focus on what you do well.  Allow yourself to say “no.”
  • Find your comparative (or competitive) advantage, and stay within it.
  • Find your audience and give it what it wants.
  • Engage in the community.  Provide the art that the community needs.
  • Find a way to study your art’s impact on the community, and be able to communicate that.
  • Don’t be afraid to try things, and don’t be afraid to fail. Just give yourself contingencies.
  • Stay true to yourself.

These steps are basic, but they’ll go a long way.

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