Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Five Ways to Cope

In my last post (scroll down), I shared five trends that are driving the planning and operating agendas of arts organizations. Since the trends were, frankly, quite depressing, I closed by saying I'd share some strategies for how to cope with--or even take advantage of--these trying times...

Focus on Excellence
Last July the Kennedy Center's Michael Kaiser shared his thoughts about how organizations could cope with a financial crisis, and the one piece of advice that stood out for me was his admonition to NOT sacrifice artistic quality to save a few dollars. What I particularly noted was that he wasn't just saying "hire the best performers;" instead, he said "showcase new and exciting work." The lesson is, I think, people have seen Macbeth and heard Beethoven's Eroica; but they probably haven't seen Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" or the latest work by Philip Glass. In his experience, during tough economic times, patrons will pay to see something they haven't seen before (that has an excellent reputation) and not pay to see "the sure thing" that they probably have seen many times before. Keep your programs fresh...

Bring your Show to Where the People Are
Why should Philadelphia have all the fun? Two of the most moving examples of "taking it to the people" are the Opera Company of Philadelphia-led "Random Act of Culture" that involved dozens of local choruses, the "Halleluia" Chorus from Handel's Messiah, the Wanamaker Organ, and Macy's department store in downtown Philly; and their equally inspiring rendition of the "Brindisi" chorus from Verdi's La Traviata in the nearby Reading Market. These are extreme examples of what performers have known for ages: sometimes the best way to get people interested in your programs is to reach out to them first--in supermarkets and farmer's markets, in train stations, ski lodges and waterfront parks. Flash mobs may be the extreme version of what is a pretty good strategy for opening up your doors to younger audiences. Don't forget, though, the event has to be high quality to succeed...

Explore "Transient" events
Closely related to flash mobs is a growing segment of arts activities that can only be described as "transient" events. These are cultural events that occur in nontraditional spaces like parking lots, empty storefronts, public parks, and train stations, but instead of an opera company performing opera, or a dance company doing a dance, these are more often a collaboration of artists who are presenting original work that is designed specifically for the site. Whatever the collaboration needs, they figure out the cheapest most expedient way to do it. Collaborators are paid by passing a hat for a suggested donation and marketing/promotion is done entirely on Facebook or Twitter. With virtually no overhead, all of the tangible expenses handled as in-kind donations, and no formal "organization" to pay for, costs are unbelievably low and audiences are left feeling like they have been part of a planned, original "happening." While it technically a fairly "low risk" endeavor, an established arts organization might find this to be a "low reward" activity. This kind of performance, however, is proving to be a very popular pastime for the highly connected under-30 somethings on the west coast. At least that's what I've heard...

Is this the wave of the future?

Do Less with Less
Yes, this one is obvious. So why do we have such a difficult time doing less than we did last year or the year before? Because we are mission-driven, we are passionate, we believe in the all-consuming power of the arts to make our lives, schools, and communities better, and because our funders continually expect us to do more than we ever did before.

So here is a thought: disguise how you are doing less with less. Instead of doing six subscription events in a season, do five (high quality, remember), and, instead of a sixth, convene a gathering of local or regional artists for a day-long discussion of how to address the challenges facing the community. Invite the media--make an event out of it. Charge $10 to attend, and feed them all a box lunch. Your networking/planning discussions may show you new opportunities that you never would have thought of...

Or do five events of your own, and then invite your area schools to come in and present a showcase of their most talented students in a reduced-priced program whose purpose is to, say, raise funds for scholarships for their attendance at an arts school, or to make the local library more physically accessible or some other important community charitable purpose. Once you start thinking of your season as "five-plus-one," instead of "same-old-six," ideas and opportunities will start to flow.

Increase your Marketing/Promotion Budget
Most people have the biggest problem with this one. Again, because as 501(c)3s, most arts organizations are hard-wired to spend that last dollar on program, we insist on cutting marketing and promotion first. As Michael Kaiser pointed out last July, it's better to do one less event, but do everything else well--which includes marketing and promotion. As a percentage of our overall budget, I believe that we should begin to get our boards of directors and our funders comfortable with a marketing/promotion budget of at least 10%. Right now, if memory serves, our field usually spends about 3% on average. This is not enough. If people don't know the good work you are presenting, how are you going to expect them to buy a ticket? Organizations that gain audience share during times of austerity, usually keep those gains when the times get better.

Collaborate Collaborate Collaborate
Before you exhaust your organization's resources trying to cope with a tight budget and increased competition; before you burn out your administrative and artistic staff by freezing salaries, asking for more hours, or placing them on furlough; before you allow your facility to slowly deteriorate to the point of embarrassment for lack of attention to regular maintenance, please please please collaborate! Think of your competition not as competition, but your most sympathetic partner. The chances are, if you are struggling, so are they, and they will welcome any overture from you.

Interestingly, I've had conversations with organizations who have a misplaced idea of who their competition is. One individual wanted to start a dance company because, as she put it, "there are no dance companies doing what I want to do in my part of the state." What she wanted to do was reach out to high-school aged boys and girls--particularly girls--and engage them in dance. To her, the competition was other dance efforts. To me, her competition was the local recreation department's after-school sports programs. I haven't heard back from her yet...

On another occasion, I had a conversation with a member of a local theater company whose board refused to allow him to share a production with another, similarly-sized theater company less than 50 miles away. "They're our biggest competition" this person was told. Maybe. It turns out that NO ONE on the board of this theater company had ever even attended a production at the other theater, nor did they know a single audience-member who had either! So with no audience overlap, how could they POSSIBLY be competitors? If ever a collaboration was designed to function well, this was it! So far, no dice...

* * * * *

Times of austerity are times to not just think, but actually ACT outside of the box. Why? You have a ready-made excuse for failure. "We had no choice...we had to try something!" Don't be misled, however. None of the ideas I have suggested are easy. All will certainly take you so outside your comfort zone, but isn't that better than, say, forced retirement...?

Stay strong and do good work.

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