Stuff To Ponder: When Not To Tell Your Story

Createquity may be in reruns right now while they reorganize, but they have great timing. Today they featured a post from 2011 which was something of a complement to the post about pricing and story I made yesterday.

Where my post yesterday addressed using a resonant story to get people invested in paying a little more to participate in an arts event, Createquity featured a guest post by Margy Waller suggesting that when it comes to public funding for the arts, the lack of a publicized story might be the best bet.

Members of the public typically have positive feelings toward the arts, some quite strong. But how they think about the arts is shaped by a number of common default patterns that ultimately obscure a sense of shared responsibility in this area.

For example, it is natural and common for people who are not insiders to think of the arts in terms of entertainment. In fact, it’s how we want people to think when we are selling tickets or memberships. But, in this view, entertainment is a “luxury,” and the “market” will determine which arts offerings survive, based on people’s tastes as consumers of entertainment. Consequently, public support for the arts makes little sense, particularly when public funds are scarce.

Perceptions like these lead to conclusions that government funding, for instance, is frivolous or inappropriate. Even charitable giving can be undermined by these default perceptions.

The second paragraph aligns squarely with Seth Godin’s thoughts on pricing that “Some goods are difficult to understand before purchase and use, and most consumers undervalue them and treat them like commodities.” And later “In situations like this, our instinct is to assume that the thing is generic, a commodity, not worth extra.”

Waller suggests that given the perception that public support of the arts is frivolous, by making the fight to restore/increase funding public, arts organizations are choosing a battlefield where they are at a disadvantage.

Politicians can leverage public opinion that the arts are a luxury. When the conflict is covered by the media, it is in the context of a political fight rather than say, a matter of societal value, education and cultural identity.

Because the big fight in the default way of viewing the arts is very losable. And in our efforts, we’re forced to expand a precious resource: the time and energy of staff and key supporters who have to work so hard to convince public officials that they won’t suffer consequences in the next election.

Moreover, every time the fight is public, we’re likely to be reinforcing the dominant ways of thinking about the arts that are getting in our way now. When attacked, we rebut with facts, and the media covers the issue as a political fight with two equal sides – both seen through a lens that sets up the arts as a low priority on the public agenda. And as we know, this can have the effect of making people defensive and hardening existing positions. Of course, it should be no surprise that even officials who are friendly to arts funding are reluctant to be in the middle of that kind of coverage.

Waller suggests a strong, but quiet lobbying campaign, citing the success of just such an effort in Ohio. When you think about it, she has a valid point because quiet lobbying is exactly how plenty of entities who would prefer to avoid public resistance to their plans get things accomplished.

I am sure we can all envision some program that slipped by under our radar and we would prefer not to be associated with those sort of tactics. But the reality is, not every act of governance is preceded by a rancorous public debate. I am sure many arts supporters would be happy not to gird for battle every budget cycle if their goals could be accomplished quietly and efficiently.

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the 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.

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