Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

I came across a couple of links about Florida via in the last week or so. In different ways they seemed to illustrate how the arts are constantly in a struggle to validate their existence by showing good numbers.

The first was talking about the Florida Arts Community rallying to get state funding restored. It was rather reminiscent of last year in NJ because the governor was the biggest impediment to arts funding in that state as well. One of the points the advocates raised of course was the economic benefit of the arts in the state.

I was somewhat impressed to see the writer explore the danger in using economic benefit as a rationalization of support by quoting a Newsweek article from a year ago by Artsjournal’s Douglas McLennan regarding the problem with employing this tactic:

“By my estimation, a pure case for public funding of art for art’s sake hasn’t been made in more than a decade,” Douglass McLennan, editor of, wrote in an essay last year for McLennan questioned “reducing arguments for arts to economic impacts,” and added, “Art may be a great economic investment, but if it’s not an investment someone chooses to make, you’re out of luck. Sorry, just business.”

In this vein, the article quotes one of the arts advocacy members as suggesting a day without art where every thing that was formed by some artistic consideration including sculpture, painting, music, film, television, architecture, to the cut of the lawmakers’ suits was covered, removed and generally forbidden them for a day to show them the value of art in their lives.

A few days after reading this, I came across an article in the New York Times owned Sarasota Herald Tribune written by the President of the Sarasota (FL) Arts Council which cited the PARC study and an Americans for the Arts study. One of the things he wrote about was how the studies illustrated the economic value of the arts. However, he also went on to state “that people of all income levels attend the arts. This dispels the popular notion that culture in Sarasota County is for the elite few.”

Since I had just read the PARC study and hadn’t come away with that impression, I was a little puzzled. I went back to the study and still felt the same as a result of the following findings:

“Enjoyment is unrelated to household income level, except in Sarasota where higher household incomes are associated with greater levels of arts enjoyment.”

“In Boston and Sarasota, attendance at performing arts events is positively associated with household income. This trend generally holds in Washington and Minneapolis-St. Paul as well, although the association is not as strong.”

“This contrasts sharply with Sarasota, for example, where respondents from the wealthiest households are over three times more likely to be frequent attenders than respondents from the lowest income households.”

“Household income, age, and presence of children at home are largely unrelated to the degree to which respondents find live performing arts to be enjoyable. Sarasota is an exception, where wealthier respondents report increasingly high levels of agreement regarding enjoyment of the
performing arts.”

“In Sarasota, more highly educated people are somewhat more likely to say that the arts are a source of pride in their community.”

“In short, households with lower levels of income are more likely to cite cost of tickets as a barrier to greater attendance. This relationship is strongest in Sarasota.”

As I had mentioned in an earlier entry, there are certainly other factors that act as barriers to attendance in all cities. However, the study singles Sarasota out a number of times as being atypical among the other cities surveyed in regard to having arts attendance and enjoyment so closely linked with education and income.

I thought that perhaps the Sarasota Arts Council came to their conclusion from the Americans for the Arts survey. However, that report was focussed only on economic impact and they only collected information from people when they were attending the event. There was no information collected from those who decided not to attend.

It was upon re-reading the Herald-Tribune article that I realized the president was actually basing his non-elitist claim on a third study that was commissioned locally. The results of that survey were not available on line that I could find. The fact that it was conducted locally makes me wonder if there was an agenda behind the data collection.

The greater tragedy though is that arts organizations seem to be focussing too great a portion of their energies these days trying to prove the worthiness of their existence. It is almost akin to Valentine’s Day in grammar school where kids are concerned about making a respectable showing when cards are distributed. Except in this case, people are massaging the results by metaphorically claiming that while they didn’t get a lot of cards, 25% of those they did get were high quality Hallmark cards rather than cheapie ones proving they are held in high esteem.

Ticket Discrimination

A short entry today because I had a job interview.

I came across an article recently about a study done on multi-tiered ticket pricing for theatres. The concept is similiar to how airlines price their tickets so that some people are paying a premium while the person next to them paid next to nothing.

A study was performed by Phillip Leslie, a professor at Standford University’s Graduate School of Business. He looked at the 1996 Broadway run of Seven Guitars to determine if the production’s 17 category pricing structure was beneficial to consumers or not. He found that it wasn’t particularly beneficial or harmful to consumers on the whole, though the producers did realize a 5% larger profit than they might have.

The article goes on to discuss the benefits of some decisions the producers made and how they could have made some more money given consumer purchasing habits. There were a couple sentences that caught my attention in the piece:

“Price discrimination is a practice used by companies that generally don’t know a lot about what consumers are willing to pay. “It’s something firms do when they lack good information about customers,” says Leslie.”

When a performing arts organization sets their prices, they are essentially setting a maximum price they feel their regular audience will be comfortable paying. They do surveying and communicate with this group directly and indirectly so they know at least a little about them. However, they don’t know much about those who don’t attend and they are the people multi-tiered pricing would be structure to.

In an entry last week I referred to the PARC survey that discovered the people who find price to be the biggest impediment are those who actually attend performances with some frequency. It might be beneficial if arts organizations could find a simple tiered pricing structure (airlines need a lot of computing power for their categories) that didn’t ultimately hurt their bottom line.

Those who are frequent attendees will be more familiar with the process of getting discounts and thus receive a “reward” for their devotion. Those who are not as familiar will end up paying a more premium price. Some people may end up paying as much as the market will bear rather than the top amount the theatre assumed the audience will pay.

This may be the structure which replaces the waning popularity of a subscription series. In order to make a tiered pricing structure work, especially one based on market demand, organizations would have to stop publicizing their prices. The only way to learn about discounts would be to be in an organization’s database to receive brochures, email, etc. where the discount prices were published. The core audience for an organization would then consist of people who are loosely interested in the production series rather than the devoted subscribers.

A multi-tiered system would put more responsibility on the shoulders of the consumers. Instead of knowing that they can always get half-price tickets the day of the show and knowing what half-price will be, the price might be half the current top price.

If tickets start out being offered at $25 and the show isn’t selling well, the theatre might email their core that tickets are now $20 two weeks out, if it still doesn’t sell well, 3 days out they might drop it to $12.50.

However, if the show start selling well, the theatre might raise the price to $35 and two weeks out email their core that discount tickets are $30, but then three days before might be selling the discount tickets at $40. Or perhaps they email their core a week out that it looks to sell out so get tickets now. (A claim they have to be very careful about making lest it appear to be hype to drive sales when the seats end up only 2/3 sold.)

Since people are making decisions about entertainment at the last moment these days, the only way it seems an organization can respond is by providing audiences with the information they need to make decisions. If the changing price structure drives people to your website so they can check which way the pricing is going, it provides the organization with an another opportunity to communicate additional information to them.

Changing pricing is a delicate matter and is as much public relations as maximizing revenues. The person who attends 2 productions out of 12 and barely gives a thought to the organization’s well being might become mightly offended that you are charging so much for a last minute ticket after the loyalty he has shown in the past.

In an early entry, I noted Ben Cameron’s observation that we may be entering a time when there is a shift in the social contract. This change in pricing structure might become a reflection of this shift.

Yeah, Something Like That

I am afraid I found another subject to preempt the articles I bumped yesterday. Last night I was watching Looking for Richard on the Sundance Channel and realized it was a good illustration of how arts organizations can make their offerings more accessible to the general public. (It is playing about 5 more times this month.)

The movie stars Al Pacino making a documentary about filming Shakespeare’s Richard III. I was really excited to come across the movie because I realized it was a good example of everything I have been writing in regard to letting people see/know about the the production process.

I had never seen Shakespeare’s play, nor did I know much about it other than Richard’s physical deformity and the “kingdom for a horse” line. Since Pacino’s purpose was to make the play and the process more accessible and transparent to general audiences, test then was how well it communicated this information to me.

I was rather impressed by his efforts. The movie was sort of a stream of consciousness mix of explainations, casting and rehearsal scenes and portions of the actual play. The pacing and shifts were probably well suited to the short attention span of audiences.

They did a good job explaining the play. There were people discussing the historical perspectives and voice overs commenting on hard to understand changes in the plot. There was commentary by Sir John Gielgud and other notable British actors about why Americans actors are intimidated by Shakespeare.

The movie provided opportunities to see rehearsals where the actors discussed and sometimes argued about the play and the choices each was making about their character. It also offered insight into the variables considered when deciding what actor would be best for what part.

They also got into the language, how to act Shakespeare, iambic pentameter and what it sounded like. They talked about how audiences have difficulty with the language and essentially said people are not required to understand every single word as long as they got the gist and understood the power of the words.

For the most part, it was well done. Even if you didn’t know Pacino has a history with the play, his manner clearly indicated he was asking questions for the benefit of the audience’s comprehension. Theatre’s don’t have the resources to offer such a slick presentation prior to opening night (though could certainly film and edit a similar piece to offer as a resource). However, the film does illuminate the general elements that would be valuable for an audience member to know. This means more than just covering these topics in a study guide, but also in blog entries and perhaps thinking aloud in rehearsals that are open to the public. Obviously, some of the material would best be covered in a discussion prior to or after a show or rehearsal. It would probably sound stilted for an actor to be musing aloud about the challenges of the text in a postmodern world.

Speaking of educational resources, I found this website maintained by the Richard III Society which contains a viewers guide and lesson plan for the movie.

Administration by Degrees

I was going to write on another subject today and had some reference material all lined up. Something has been grating on me for awhile now and I decided I would address it today. For a number of months now Drew McManus has been critical of how well arts administration programs are preparing people for careers in that field. It started back in November with his original posting, followed by a rebuttal by Andrew Taylor, to which Drew replied. He has made additional comments on this theme since then. Today he quotes Klaus Heymann as saying

“There are too many arts administrators that know about the arts but are terrible managers and there are too many that are good managers that don’t know enough about the arts. Arts Administration programs need to provide much more practical experience for their students in order to better prepare them for the realities of the classical music business.”

As a graduate with a degree in arts management, this sort of thing raises my hackles a bit. I can understand that some people are just bad managers despite their degrees and that classroom education really can’t prepare you for the practical realities of running an organization. However, I am of the mind that arts groups will be better off with someone at the helm who is aware of the business environment in which their organization is operating. Historically, I feel there have been too many institutions being lead by well meaning individuals who didn’t really didn’t understand good governance and business practices. Certainly there have been many individuals who have been fantastic managers without formal training, but they have been few and far between and getting rarer as the times make more specific demands of people and allow less margin for error.

However, after some investigation of arts administration programs, I have to say Drew might be right.

Florida State University where I earned my MFA is a good example of this. I got my MFA from the Theatre School. The requirements were 42 credits in classroom and practicum work and then a year long internship at a theatre for 18 credits (60 total).

The FSU Visual Arts School has an MA Arts Administration degree program as well. It is a 39 credit program but doesn’t even have a required practicum listed. Part of my degree program required me to take some surveying courses offered by this department and in speaking with the students there, I didn’t feel there was enough focus on practical applications.

The FSU School of Music has recently started offering an MA in Music Administration program. It is a 39 credit course load and does require a 9 credit internship.

Here we have 3 arts administration programs at the same university holding students to vastly different standards for a Master’s degree.

Andrew Taylor’s Bolz Center also has a two year arts administration degree. It doesn’t specify number of credits and the cirriculum is being changed, but it appears near 40. They offer an optional internship.

The University of Alabama has a 60 credit, 2 calendar year (no summer breaks) MFA program where you spend 9 months on campus and then 15 months straight getting practical experience at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

Wayne State University has a similar 60 credit MFA program where the students essentially run the theatre company for three years alongside taking classes.

University of Oregon has a 39 credit hour program which does require a 3 credit internship. Drexel’s is 45 credit hours and also requires a 3 credit internship.

Southern Utah University (home of the Utah Shakespearean Festival) was the only place which offered a MFA in Arts Administration of 60 hours (as opposed to in a specific area like Theatre Administration)

I agree with Andrew Taylor that it is a matter of the quality of instruction rather than how much instruction you get. Certainly getting an MFA is no guarantee of ability. I think the current batch of MFA grads from FSU are getting better classroom training than I did. (Though none will ever get the practical experience in crisis management I got.) I wonder if people who intend to apply their degree to running an organization (as opposed to self-illumination or teaching) should be going after the additional 21 credits for a MFA.

I am curious to know why theatre programs seem to think their students need the extra year and the other disciplines don’t. Certainly, there is the chance that theatre people have conspired to wring a year or so of talented work for the meager expense of an assistantship salary. But I have always thought theatre managers had it together more than managers of other disciplines.

Sure, it may be egotism talking or my attempt to rationalize the value of my exhausting work for paltry wages, but I think there is something to it. There is a lot of classroom work and practical experience necessary to gain the skills to be effective as an arts manager in the current climate. Doing 20 hours a week as part of a practicum or assistantship fit in around your class schedule is certainly going to give you insight, but it isn’t likely to require enough problem solving and critical thinking to really prepare you for a job in that area.

An side note on a related program I came across. The Crane School of Music at SUNY-Potsdam has an Institute for Music Business. (It is an excellent music school. Probably because the winters are so cold, there is nothing to do but practice. I’ve been there.) The institute isn’t so much a degree program (though they plan to start one) as an attempt to: “enhance communication and facilitate a mutually beneficial partnership between The Crane School of Music and the music products industry, bridging the gap between music education and music business.” One of their initiatives is to prepare their graduates for careers.

It isn’t clear if this means giving all their graduates the skills to properly promote themselves and cope in the real world or just educating those who are interested in the business end (or perhaps both.) From what I have read recently, it might be extremely valuable for students to learn the former so they will be aware of the realities and expectations that face them upon graduation.

Anyone have any thoughts or observations about any of this?