Your Mouth Says Innovative, Your Pictures Say Status Quo

Yesterday I alluded to one of my pet marketing peeves, the claim that a work of art reveals “what it means to be human.” The phrase has mercifully fallen out of frequent usage these days (or at least I am not being sent those press releases and brochures any more).

However, Lucy Bernholz at Philanthropy 2173 reminds us about the importance of such buzz phrases to the non-profit arts community. She cites the (tongue in cheek) grant proposal by Michael Alexander of Grand Performances. Here is a taste:

“The Innovative Art Jargon Creation Project – An Activity for the New Millennium”

Project Synopsis
Grand Performances respectfully requests a grant of $37,500 to manage a program to develop new Art Jargon which will be necessary for effective grant writing in the next century.

Each passing decade since the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts has seen a geometric growth in the number of “buzz words” used by arts grant writers in their applications. To date, there has been no formal development program to insure consistency of quality of these new phrases, nor a system for dissemination to insure that grant writers throughout the country had access to the new phrases at the same time, often giving grants writers in one geographic region or one discipline an unfair advantage over those writers not familiar with the new phrases. Certain regions and certain disciplines have been consistently underserved due to their grant writers’ inability to gain access to the new phrases in a timely manner.

…During the national economic recession of the early 1990’s grant writers hit “a brick wall” as funding decreased for the arts and the available supply of new “buzz words” diminished…A privately funded study involving independent arts grant writers, arts consultants and representatives from government funding agencies from throughout the country provided evidence that one of the major causes of the diminished funding was a scarcity of exciting and useful “buzz words” that could be used in arts grant applications.

I got some pretty good chuckles off this.

However, over on ARTSblog, Megan Pagado reflects on her experiences attending the National Arts Marketing Project Conference noting that the choices arts marketers make often perpetuate the status quo even as they express a desire to change it.

“Slowly, though, the conversation shifted from marketer-created messages to marketer-perpetuated messages. A picture of an all-white, male orchestra elicited the most memorable response: “They’re all dudes!”

Therein laid the dilemma for many of us in the room: What is our process of reviewing materials from artists? What if an artist doesn’t have a better, less stereotypical photo for a marketing team to use? And, as Amy Fox (@museumtweets) tweeted: Do artists always understand the stereotypes they perpetuate when they create?

Some marketers walked away with an action item: creating a diverse committee to review artist materials, for example.

But I think many, including myself, walked away with more questions than answers: How can I be inclusive while avoiding tokenism? When does utilizing inclusive language achieve its desired goal of making all feel welcome, and when does it simply brush issues under the rug and avoid conversations that need to be had?

I will admit I had never really thought about whether an image an artist supplied was perpetuating a stereotype. Most frequently my concern is whether the image communicates that the performance will be interesting. I just had this conversation today about an image in which a pianist appears to have dozed off at the keys.

Taken together, these two blog posts remind us to be cognizant of the impression conveyed by the words and images we employ to promote our organization and activities. Are we saying we are innovative because we are or because innovative is the trending term? Do the images we use back up that claim?

I think it can easily slip our notice that while we may be explicitly saying, “we want to include you,” the images we use may implicitly be saying “No we don’t.” Certainly the environment and attendance experience in a performance hall can communicate this as well. But I think people recognize that dress code and knowing when to clap are already sources of anxiety and have taken steps to address this. It is probably time to start paying attention to the pictures too.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


7 thoughts on “Your Mouth Says Innovative, Your Pictures Say Status Quo”

  1. I think this emphasizes the importance of a consistent message, verbally and non-verbally, and making a commitment to innovation. If you talk the talk, you need to walk the walk…in everything you do.

    Social networking has become such a visual experience with its recognizable and colorful icons, buttons, videos, and images, so it only seems natural that audiences would expect or be more inclined to participate with more engaging visuals on arts organization websites and even in performances. In response to Drew McManus’ post, “Let’s Get Rid of Blah Arts Manager Photos Once and For All,” I reflect on factors involved in and implications of having an image strategy in the arts:

    Do you think inviting and engaging images play a crucial role in attracting new and maintaining current audiences?


    – Catherine

    • “Do you think inviting and engaging images play a crucial role in attracting new and maintaining current audiences?”

      In terms of new audiences, I think the images definitely do play a crucial role because it is the most immediate impression someone unfamiliar with your organization gets.

      For that reason I think it is important for the image to be engaging, but also an accurate representation of your organization and performance. I remember when I was a kid I would buy comic books based on the scenario depicted on the cover only to be disappointed that it didn’t accurately depict what happened inside.

      For current audiences, their relationship with you is more complex and less superficial. They can be just as engaged by well chosen images but their retention is based on their past experiences with your organization so everything from the ticket purchasing, quality of performance and freshness of baked goods at the coffee bar are going to have a bearing on your relationship with them.

      • Interesting, thank you! This makes me think of Chad Bauman’s analogy relating to attracting new audiences: “A balanced meal is important, but so too is the order of consumption. Start with dessert, and the chances increase that the full meal will be finished. Roll out complex foods to a novice palate, and you may not make it past the first course.”

        As you suggest, it is important to provide an experience that meets their expectations, avoiding patron disappointment. Current audiences must be maintained, but the relationship is much more complex. I understand that each patron base is different for every organization, but in general, would you recommend designing different materials (using different images) based on one’s relationship with the organization?

        • “I understand that each patron base is different for every organization, but in general, would you recommend designing different materials (using different images) based on one’s relationship with the organization?”

          Well, would say you might want to always ask yourself if a different image for different audiences might be appropriate so you don’t accidentally overlook an opportunity.

          For example, if you are doing a production of MacBeth, the posters and print ads that go out to everyone might include a picture of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth in an interesting pose.

          However, your direct mail/email newsletter to subscribers and long time ticket buyers might use a picture of MacDuff instead if the actor cast in that role has a long standing reputation among frequent attendees in comparison with the MacBeths.

          On the other hand, there are some images which are simply iconic like the Les Mis and Wicked posters and any variation is only going to confuse people.

          • Thanks for your insight! Is it safe to assume that these decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis, tailored to the performance and various audience segments?

          • Yes, it is ill advised to assume the same approach should be used for every event and audience segment. Which is not to say that you won’t use the same or similar approach, it just shouldn’t be the default decision.

            Are you taking/have you taken arts admin courses there at AU? If not, see if you can take a class with Andrew Taylor or talk with him about these issues. He is a great asset and AU is fortunate to have gotten him on faculty.

          • That makes sense, thank you. Targeted communications would understandably be more effective. This fits with what I have learned in classes and internship experiences so far.

            Yes! I am a second-year graduate student in arts management at American University. I’m coming into my final semester and have enrolled in Andrew Taylor’s seminar for the spring. I’m really looking forward to it and feel so lucky to have him as a professor!

            I also hope to talk with him more specifically about symphony orchestra management. I am currently researching the Millennial generation and working to identify and describe effective strategies for engaging Millennial audiences and donors in symphony orchestra concerts and events. I would love to hear your thoughts on this and look forward to speaking with Andrew Taylor as well!

            Thanks for your time and consideration, Joe! I appreciate all your prompt and thoughtful responses. : )

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