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. Continue reading

Clichés Abound in WSJ’s Analysis of the Met Opera

And I have officially had it.

Yesterday Terry Teachout published a story in the Wall Street Journal that casts a long glance at the problems the Metropolitan Opera is currently facing.  And I’m fairly confident my scream of frustration could be heard all the way in Manhattan.

I don’t want to bash Mr. Teachout, whom I’ve never met.  I don’t wish to disparage his writing, his obvious experience, or even knowledge of the arts.  I should also point out that we’re in full agreement that Mr. Gelb has run out of ideas about how to run the Met, either artistically or organizationally.

But I must take issue with this article.  Unfortunately, it tosses around every wrong-headed cliché about the arts and arts management that I’ve been trying to put to rest since my blog’s inception, including Baumol’s cost disease, an outdated report from the NEA, and the use of paid capacity to measure financial success.

How is it that demonstratably false ideas can take such a powerful hold on our collective consciousness?

While I can’t take up this larger question, I can certainly rebuff the points of this specific article. Continue reading

Unfair Criticism of the Lyric Opera

So the Lyric Opera of Chicago released its financials from fiscal year 2015, along with a brief statement explaining what the numbers mean.  In essence, the story is this:  The Lyric Opera balanced its budget last year, with $74.8 million in operating revenue and $74.8 million in operating expenses.  It did this in part by raising $37.2 million in contributed income (up from $31 million last year) and $29.7 million in ticket sales (down from $32.6 million last year).

Some commentators saw this as good news, and reported it as such.

Sadly, others took a less sanguine approach, and reported this same story like this:

The Lyric Opera [balanced its budget last year, with $74.8 million in operating revenue and $74.8 million in operating expenses.  It did this in part by raising $37.2 million in contributed income (up from $31 million last year) and] $29.7 million in ticket sales (DOWN FROM $32.6 MILLION LAST YEAR).!!!!!11!!!!1! Continue reading

An Orchestra Marketing Campaign… Without An Orchestra


That was the sound of me staring at the computer in stunned silence, trying to take in the new marketing campaign of the Binghamton Philharmonic in New York.

It isn’t just that the marketing campaign, in my opinion, is flawed… it is the way that is flawed.

Essentially the Binghamton Philharmonic has created an advertising campaign that scrupulously avoids mentioning the orchestra. Continue reading

Minnesota Orchestra Balances its Budget!

Hooray! A very nice bit news has started making the rounds—the Minnesota Orchestra has posted a balanced budget for the just-ended fiscal year. The Orchestra’s press release is here; additional coverage can be found at the Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio, and Pioneer Press.

Without further ado, congratulations to all involved! This is a tremendous accomplishment.

Of course there are a few obvious caveats, including the fact that these are the preliminary, unaudited results.

But still. This is a phenomenal achievement. The numbers tell the tale: Continue reading

Plotting Out Success: The Mission-Money Matrix

A short time ago, I posted my general thoughts on the notion of “sustainability,” detailing some of my issues with how performing arts organizations (and by extension, non-profits generally) have been using this concept. Or to be more accurate, how they are misusing the concept.

But this of course brings up another set of questions: specifically, how does a group determine if its programs are truly sustainable? Or in a broader sense, worth doing?

I’d like to suggest a tool I’ve used quite successfully in a couple of groups I work with: the Mission-Money Matrix. This is a simple graph that helps an organization determine if a program or activity is worth the investment of time and resources that an organization puts into it.

In essence, it provides a quick reference tool that allows you to evaluate a program’s sustainability in a holistic way, covering mission and finances within the overall framework of your organization’s capacity. Continue reading

4 Keys for a Successful Arts Organization

As I’ve been commenting on the recent plague of labor disputes that have engulfed the classical music world (most recently the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, but also the Metropolitan Opera and Minnesota Orchestra), I’ve made references to artistic strategic plans and artistic bottom lines. Some criticized the very idea of these concepts, remarking that they are superfluous—suggesting, apparently, that an arts organization should just get on with the business of “doing” art without wasting too much time thinking about it.

I disagree. In today’s competitive environment, an arts organization that wants to survive has to do more than just going around “arting.”

I would argue that a successful arts organization needs to tend four key areas if it is to thrive: artistic development, financial development, audience development, and administrative development. Moreover, these four areas need to be developed in tandem with each other—they fit together like interlocking puzzle pieces. If one is underdeveloped, the structure as a whole won’t work.

Let me explain. Continue reading

Making Sense of “Sustainability”

Ah, “sustainable.” It is a buzzword of the moment, showing up in discussions ranging from the environment, manufacturing, agriculture… even the arts. Of course, everyone wants to be sustainable, thinking that they, their product, or their service will stand the test of time and last forever.

Like all popular buzzwords there is value to it, and I applaud the notion that we have to look at both the long-range prospects and the long-range effects of the things we do.

But as often happens, the term has been misused by people who fundamentally misunderstand its meaning.

I’d like this willful misuse of the term to stop—particularly among arts organizations. Continue reading

Reaching out to Millennials

One of the ideas I’ve pushed relentlessly on my blog is the notion that classical music is not dead. And I truly believe it—despite a wave of panicked stories that seem to rely on nothing more than conventional wisdom, many ensembles have reported record-breaking years in terms of fundraising and ticket sales. Sure, there are some groups that are having a rough go of it, but overall I think the arts, and classical music groups specifically, are in pretty good shape.

That said, there are some trends going on that we have to pay attention to, in order to keep our futures bright. Continue reading

A Reply to Karen Cohn

Opera lovers—and really, everyone from the world of classical music—remember all too well the near-collapse of the San Diego Opera from earlier this year. But although this meltdown made many headlines and sparked many conversations, I never wrote about it here on my blog. This wasn’t for lack of interest… the truth was I wasn’t needed. San Diego took care of that problem itself. Continue reading