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

The Pacific Symphony is “Unsustainable?” Really?

I hate buzzwords. I hate it when people casually throw around jargon as a substitute for real-world knowledge. I hate it when people paper over complicated, nuanced issues by tossing out an oversimplified term or phrase.

And I really hate when those tossed-off buzzwords aren’t even true.

“Sustainable” is just such a buzzword that sets my teeth on edge.

I freely admit that like all popular buzzwords being bandied about right now, there is value to it. 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.  And I applaud the notion that we have to be planful, and think of the future… not just the fleeting needs of the moment.

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

And far too often, the people misusing this term seem to run arts organizations… organizations like the Pacific Symphony. 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

Astonishingly Bad Analysis of the Minnesota Orchestra

Approximately two weeks ago, Twin Cities Business published a story about the Minnesota Orchestra that is, to be blunt, terrible. The entire purpose of the piece is to raise questions about the sustainability of the Orchestra’s future, based on suggestions that the recently-signed contracts with the musicians and Music Director Osmo Vänskä are overly extravagant.

Every aspect of this piece is bizarre—its underlying premise, its use of evidence, its timing, its assumptions, and its overall approach to non-profit management.

With respect, the only questions it truly raises are those pertaining to why it was published in the first place.

Emily Hogstad has debunked several points over on her blog, Song of the Lark, and her points are well worth reading. But the piece irritated me enough that I’m going to post a rebuttal of my own. Continue reading

Cost Cutting or Quality?

[In one of my very first blog posts, I mulled over the idea of danger of prioritizing cost cutting over product quality.  Given the developing situation in Atlanta, I thought I’d revisit the post, and see if it still had value today.]

One of the recurring refrains of the recent labor disputes plaguing the classical music world has been the need for organizations to cut costs. The imperative to cut costs is widely regarded as self-evident, obvious and somehow immune to challenge. So when an orchestra or opera company runs into financial trouble, there has been a natural reaction among many in the community, to instinctively reach for the budget scissors as the first and only solution.

But although that’s a natural reaction, it may not be the best reaction. Continue reading