WESTAF Celebrates 50 Years Developing Technology For Arts

The Western Arts Federation (WESTAF), the regional arts organization serving the western portion of the US turns 50 this year. They put out a series of videos on the history of the organization. I started watching them out of idle curiosity.

Some of the history is as you might expect with the different social and political influences which lead to their formation. The first headquarters being in Santa Fe, NM but the operational considerations of sending touring artists out resulting in the decision to move to Denver which was a bigger airport hub. Though Salt Lake City was apparently also under consideration based on a newspaper clipping appearing in a video.

What was really interesting was the story about how they decided to focus on technology for the arts. I knew each of the regional arts organizations has a different focus, but I hadn’t known that WESTAF’s focus on technology was based in a desire to diversify the organization’s income stream so that they weren’t entirely dependent on grants and donations. Episodes two and three talk about all the different products they have developed over the last fifty years.

I have been aware of many of their current products like Go Smart, their grant making and administration software, ZAPP which helps art festivals and fairs manage applications, CaFE (Call for Entry) which is built for applying to other types of visual arts projects (i.e. public art, exhibitions, artist-in-residence), and Public Art Archive, which is a place to document all the public art installations around the country.

However, there were a number of services they offered which didn’t quite succeed or were very useful but were phased out as needs of the industry changed. One of their first endeavors as the World Wide Web emerged on the scene was Circuit Riders, the goal of which was to connect arts organizations with consultants who could help them integrate emerging technologies into their operations. There was also a phone line, 900Arts which you could call for advice. In the first year Circuit Riders was in operation, they completed 144 contracts, but after three years it was closed down due to budget and staffing constraints.

In 1998, the Arts Computer program, was created to provide computers and sophisticated software to arts organizations at a low cost. Apparently the approach was to lease the computers and software to arts organizations. That only lasted a year. One interviewee suggested that the program was difficult to administer and the narration suggests that the exploding availability and use of personal computers decreased the need for the service.

WESTAF saw more success with their online job board, Artjob.org which started as a monthly newsletter in 1991, was distributed by email in 1993, and became a website that ran from 1998 to 2015. The video also talks about Artist Register launched in 2001, which pre-Google searches was a place for visual artists to market themselves. Based on the success of that service, WESTAF created WritersRegister and PerformingArts Register to serve artists in those areas.

Current and former staff interviewed for the video series credit former WESTAF Anthony Radich with the vision to offer these services, accompanied by a supportive board who allowed space for some of the initiatives to fail.

There are currently three videos in the series with a short intro video and the promise of more to come. They videos are each only about 10-15 minutes long and are fun to watch. Not every product WESTAF created was an exercise in trying to anticipate an unmet need in the arts industry. ZAPP apparently was a response to Kodak discontinuing the carousel slide projectors that so many arts festivals depended on to jury artist submissions. (I am sure artists are immensely grateful they don’t have to mail off piles of slides any more.)

Return To In Person Date Searches Presents An Opportunity

Bloomberg had an article on a trend that presents an opportunity for arts and cultural organizations. In some respects it could be considered rather mundane news – Gen Z Is abandoning dating apps in favor of in person singles events. Arts and cultural organizations have the opportunity to create specific experiences for this group either internally or in partnership with nearby businesses (bars, restaurants, etc.)

Though if there is a group in the community already organizing singles events it would probably be best to work with them to discover what sort of experience is most appealing to their participants.

It’s not formally conventional places, like bars or coffee shops, where Gen Zers are looking for potential matches. Think interest-based functions, such as the popular running group Venice Run Club, where new members have to state if they’re single as part of their introduction, or even a late-night chess club.

LA Chess Club, which runs every Thursday night from 8 p.m. to midnight, has become a recent hotspot for singles in Los Angeles in their early to mid-30s….But after the success of a speed dating event Kong hosted on Valentine’s Day in an attempt to get more girls to come, the club morphed into a space singles gravitated toward.

[…]

Pitch-A-Friend Philly, a monthly event series in Philadelphia inspired by Pitch-A-Friend Seattle, encourages participants to share a roughly 5-minute PowerPoint presentation about their single friends to help them find a potential partner.

According to some of those interviewed for the article, the appeal of singles events organized around board games, movie screenings, dinners, brunches and other activities, is the opportunity to interact with people with shared interests in an environment that differs from the bar/coffee house/nightclub nightclub scene where you might be bothered by overly insistent people when you might want to be left alone.

Those are among the considerations that arts and cultural organizations might need to factor into any attempt to design singles experiences.

Still Seeking A Quality Experience, But Want Increased Comfort

Here is something of a metaphoric lesson for arts and cultural organizations about changing the nature of the experience you offer to align with the needs and expectations of your customers. Bloomberg CityLab recently had a piece about how the work from home trend and loosening office dress codes are impacting  shoe shine services. Basically, fewer people are going to the office and an increasing number of those who are heading in to work are wearing sneakers.

As a result, many shoe shine businesses are shifting to sneaker cleaning services. People may be going to work in sneakers, but they still want to look neat and put together. It appears that people may be less confident in their ability to clean their sneakers themselves than shining their shoes.

“The industry isn’t the same anymore” said Charlie Colletti, owner of Cobbler Express, a third-generation shoeshine and repair shop in Lower Manhattan. “We’ll do some sneaker work, we clean sneakers, you know, try to keep up with the times.”

Sneaker-cleaning services helped Anthony’s Shoe Repair, near Grand Central Terminal, survive the pandemic. Like shining dress shoes, it’s a specialized service. “Many people do not know how to clean them,” owner Teodoro Morocho said. “You need the right equipment and material to be able to do it well.”

At the end of the article, Charlie Colletti quoted above says in the 1990s he was super busy, had a contract with Merrill Lynch, and about 16 employees. Again this has parallels with arts organizations who remember having packed houses of subscribers. Except in this case, instead of those core audiences getting older and younger audiences not replacing them, the cobblers and shoe shine companies are facing a change in work environment and style choices.

Whether it is arts and culture or shoes, people are seeking a heightened experience, but want to be more comfortable doing it.

Magic Bullet May Have Missed, But The Ricochets Hit Valuable Things

Last Monday, Ruth Hartt sent out an email newsletter noting that the Wallace Foundation’s five year, $52 million Building Audiences for Sustainability Initiative basically failed to identify any definitive way to achieve that goal. I have been following Wallace Foundation efforts for years so I was surprised I had missed this news. But sure enough, back in February they released In Search of the Magic Bullet which said just that.

There was a lot of interesting insight in ..Magic Bullet so I will probably take at least two days covering what they discuss. Today, I thought I would address Ruth Hartt’s suggestion that the effort failed because the focus was on the “assumption that demographic characteristics drive consumer behavior” rather than on the problems audiences seek to have solved/outcomes they seek.

There is a difference between saying you want to attract younger, more diverse demographics and learning that people in these demographics seek an experience at which they can relax and share with friends among people like themselves. Providing that experience may involve decisions about programming, timing, framing of the experience, staffing, messaging, etc that differ from what the organization is currently doing. Then there may be other problems to be solved like parking, traffic, and babysitters which the organization over which may not have control, but may be able to facilitate.

A few weeks back, I made a post about research indicating what helps people feel welcome at arts and cultural experiences. It wasn’t just seeing themselves reflected in the programming, stories, and people depicted, but also seeing themselves reflected in the audience and staff circulating through the lobbies, galleries, and walkways.

Despite indicating the initiative failed to identify definitive answers, the reflections by staff of organizations participating in the Wallace Foundation effort show they had started to understand where there had been disconnects with target audiences. And there were absolutely changes groups made that saw significant results, including:

“…hiring paid concierges, to diversify its front of-house staff in terms of age as well as racial and ethnic diversity. The organization viewed this as an important part of conveying a welcoming environment to diverse audience members. According to one interviewee it “has actually been remarkably potent as one simple change.”

One realization shared by multiple organizations in the Wallace initiative was that internally/insider focused promotional messaging had no traction with new audiences:

Repeatedly, and often through market research, organizations learned they were communicating in ways that reflected their values and using language that may have been meaningful to those in the arts—but that did not resonate with audiences they wished to reach. The consequences were communications that undermined, rather than facilitated, the goal of attracting new audiences.

[…]
For example, one performing arts presenter learned:

Images that we thought, from years of being in the arts, were the most appealing . . . really meant nothing to many of the audience members. . . .They were replications of our own beliefs. . . . We always put forth the notion of the art and the aesthetic. And for many of the audiences we were trying to reach, price was much more important. Now we just say upfront, “This is what it costs.” . . . That was one of the most important lessons that we learned….

One dance company hoped to attract new audiences through informational and educational programming. The problem? They realized their communications about these programs  “were really geared towards…people that were very familiar with both the art form and what [we] offer.” But one thing they learned from focus groups: “Nobody wants to be talked down to about what they know or don’t know about the art form.” They altered communications about the programs to “make sense to people who maybe hadn’t been around a ton of [dance].”

Similarly, some of the arts organizations realized that not knowing what the experience would be like was a barrier to participation and made changes to their website to better explain or created videos that illustrated what attendees could expect.

Asked one interviewee rhetorically:

Who would go to a new restaurant without checking online to see what the experience was going to be? And we realized that from the consumers’ perspective, they’re thinking about the theater in the same way. So they really wanted to know; okay if I go to see this play, what kind of experience will I have?

In some cases, those videos backfired and the organization shifted gear. In focus groups, one organization was told the videos made the experience look “bougie”, unwelcoming, and off-putting. They decided to record attendees talking about the experience in their own words.

“Rather than someone telling you why you should like coming, we sort of flipped it to; here are people in their own words saying why this is something exciting to them and fun for them.”

Some organizations realized they needed to change the framing of their experiences in order to appeal to the younger audiences they were targeting. Among the barriers identified in focus groups was limited leisure time and competition not only from other arts groups, but other social activities.

Gen X members’ desire to spend their limited free time on social experiences. That desire reportedly included a wish for a full experience, with a “transition” from daytime activities into the theater experience rather than just coming for a play and leaving.

Speaking to the target audience’s perceived desire for a full and social experience, the organization held the series in a smaller theater space adjacent to a café\bar (both of which were additions to the theater’s existing venue). For one interviewee, the main thing learned about their target audience was that “providing [Gen X] with the whole night out, the whole experience, the place to eat, drink, art, and converse, is what they like.”

I just want to say, as a member I am glad someone was actually targeting Gen X and labeled them as a younger audience.

The same theater realized it was futile to try to “mold audiences for different genres” and instead changed the framework of their programming to suit the audiences. In this case, instead of expecting audiences to arrive at a specific time and sit in the theater until a show was over, they provided experiences where it was acceptable to get up and move around occasionally.

So even though the Wallace Foundation initiative was judged to have failed to find their “magic bullet” it appears the foundation’s support did provide organizations with the capacity to try new approaches and lead to some introspection about the results.

There is much more I haven’t covered which I intend to touch upon in coming days.