We Are Gonna Need A Slower Elevator

There has been an ongoing conversation among the arts community that there needs to be less effort invested in selling people on an arts experience and more listening to people to find out what they are looking for.

Seth Godin made a post earlier this month that encompassed that when he suggested substituting the elevator pitch with the elevator question.

The alternative is the elevator question, not the elevator pitch. To begin a conversation–not about you, but about the person you’re hoping to connect with. If you know who they are and what they want, it’s a lot more likely you can figure out if they’re a good fit for who you are and what you want. And you can take the opportunity to help them find what they need, especially if it’s not from you.

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Instead of looking at everyone as someone who could fund you or buy from you or hire you, it might help to imagine that almost no one can do those things, but there are plenty of people you might be able to help in some other way, even if it’s only to respect them enough to not make a pitch.

The truth is, unless you are in the presence of a very narrow demographic, chances are that few people you meet can fund or buy from you. Since we know that the narrow demographic most inclined to buy from us is not sufficient to support our work long term, you do need to talk to a lot of people whose general inclination toward the arts and your organization is less known. Therefore the elevator question is going to be better alternative.

Of course, the elevator part is a misnomer for this concept because there is likely no way the conversation will effectively be completed on an elevator trip between floors. It may be months or years.

Just because you aren’t practicing to deliver a frantically paced pitch between floors doesn’t mean you should neglect to provide a focused introduction of yourself and the work you and your organization does. There is so much more you can talk about if you aren’t trying to milk a sale out of precious seconds, but people will appreciate an organized, interesting self-introduction as much as they appreciate not feeling hustled to buy into something.

For Whom Are People Creating Art?

In September, the National Endowment for the Arts released the results of an Arts Participation survey, Why We Engage: Attending, Creating and Performing Art.

Much of the information about why people attend was very similar to other recent survey results I have written about in the last 3-6 months. To be honest, given that all the data was collected pre-Covid and so much of that may no longer be valid in the future, I didn’t want to devote a lot of time reviewing that information.

What caught my eye were some findings about how people view their own creative expression.

Like this bit about the intended audience for created art and how it was shared. I was surprised so few performing artists share their work on the internet compared to other artists.

Between 35 and 40 percent of art creators and performers said their art was intended only for personal consumption. (The percentage was highest for creative writers at nearly 40 percent.) Greater variance was observed among those who reported their intended audience as only people they personally knew: 52 percent of art creators identified this audience type, with only 32 percent of creative writers doing so. The highest percentage of respondents creating or performing for the general public were creative writers (29 percent), followed by arts performers (18 percent), and visual art creators (13 percent).

Nearly half of those who personally created art used the internet to share their work. In contrast, about 41 percent of those who engaged in creative writing used the internet to share their writing, and fewer than 14 percent of those who personally performed art shared their work in this manner.

The findings on price and income are interesting and complex. Income quartile was not predictive of whether people would say price factored in their decision to attend an event. In other words, income level didn’t necessarily align with whether they said price was a factor. However, of those identifying low cost as a motivation, it was almost the only reason they attended.

The percentage of each income group reporting that low cost motivated their attendance ranged from 30 to 39 percent, with those in the lowest-income quartile citing it the most often as a factor, and those in highest-income quartile citing it the least often. However, unlike in 2012, income quartile was not a significant predictor of whether an individual would identify low cost as a reason for attendance. Of those who identified low cost as a reason for attendance, between 68 and 71 percent of each income quartile group indicated the factor as the most important or only reason for their attendance.

Socialization was a big factor in generational terms. The younger the generation, the more frequently the respondent would say not having someone to accompany them was a barrier to participation. While Covid may change a lot about people’s willingness to venture out for in-person experiences, I suspect this is one finding of the survey that will hold true for those that are willing to attend in-person in the future.

Inspired By A Fiction Of Your Creation

In the closing plenary of the Arts Midwest/Western Arts Alliance conference, Arts Midwest CEO Torrie Allen spoke to Theaster Gates about a number of topics. What caught my attention was Gates’ fabrication of the Yamaguchi Institute.  You may have heard this story already. Gates claimed that his ceramics mentor was a Japanese immigrant, Shoji Yamaguchi, that moved to Mississippi in search of a fabled “black clay” with which to make his pottery. Yamguchi marries a black civil rights activist and begins teaching black people how to make pottery in the Japanese tradition..

The whole thing was a fiction created by Gates but bolstered by Gates hiring an actor to play Yamaguchi’s son during a showing of Yamaguchi/Gates work. Gates admitted the truth of things some years ago, but in his discussion with Allen a couple weeks ago, added some nuance.

Gates in fact had traveled to Japan and studied how the Japanese made their ceramics. He says people in Japan felt he was a hard worker, but was pretty bad at making pottery. Finally one of the masters notes Gates is trying so hard to make a Japanese tea bowl and failing, perhaps he should try making a Mississippi tea bowl. Gates said that made him recognize that “maybe there is something worth mining in my own history.”

Yamaguchi was Gates attempt to create a context that connects his cultural roots with that of the Japanese craft. He says that he created a Yamaguchi as “a way of…creating an imaginary and psychic value for the history of where my people are from.”  Gates said in the process of making up Yamguchi and the discipline he embodied, he decided to adhere to the Yamaguchi way and his pottery improved. “I actually became a better potter because Yamaguchi showed me the way.”

Gates says this type of myth making helps to create hope when it feels like so many forces are moving against you. He also said inventing Yamaguchi filled a vacuum of leadership in his life.

Gates also talks about how the Yamaguchi Institute hosted dinners where people from the community could have conversations and exchange ideas to create relationships across economic and racial lines. It sounds like there was a good chance it was a predecessor of the On The Table movement that originated in Chicago and spread across the nation to other communities.

This is a really fascinating story because essentially Gates created a fiction through which to focus his own self-discipline and provide himself with hope and guidance.

What I Opposed In Good Times I Praise You For In Bad

Recently I have been talking about how Covid times have brought a greater tolerance on the part of boards/audiences for experimentation with programming choices. I guess I have been talking about it with colleagues and co-workers because when I went to find my post I made so I could link to it, I couldn’t find it.

In any case, Drew McManus posted another episode of his Shop Talk podcast today where he talks with Jeff Vom Saal, Executive Director of Spokane Symphony & Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox and Zak Vassar, President & CEO of the Toledo Alliance for the Performing Arts.

At around the 16 min mark, Drew talks about the difference between creativity and innovation and notes there really hasn’t been a lot of the latter in the orchestra world and in fact many great administrators have been punished by boards and donors for pushing boundaries and taking risks. He says now arts organizations are paying the price for failing to become nimble enough to respond to the current challenges.

Vassar responds by talking about a trustee that recently pulled him aside and said:

“You’re trying to do something that in a good economy I would have voted down everyday of the week. But now is the time to experiment and to be nimble and to learn what we didn’t know and learn how to do it better. Because by the time the economy and the world comes back online, you’re gonna be at least one hare’s run faster on the track than the slowest tortoise…”

Let’s just ponder that for a second. I am not saying organizational staff don’t buy into this sort of thinking as well, but just imagine having a board member tell you that they would have fought you tooth and nail in better economic times, but now that you are really wondering about how you are going to meet payroll, have no audience willing to show up, slimmer fundraising prospect and almost no staff to pursue donations and grants, this is the best time to invest non-existent time, energy and resources into innovating?

I understand that when you feel you have nothing left to lose and find your perceived competitors on a level playing field (or teetering at the edge of the field) it seems like seeking new pathways is the best course of action.

Why were the decisions we are making now problematic when the economy was better and there was more ability to mitigate the impact of failure?

Perhaps the first thing in need of change the organizational dynamics that won’t tolerate change until complete failure is imminent.

We have seen the results of this type of thinking for decades – people rally around an organization at the moment its existence is imperiled. Those cases are isolated and individual. Now everyone is imperiled and we realize there is a need for a broad, communal rally–probably necessitating listening more to the other people at the rally.

Or more aptly in the terms of this metaphor, inviting a lot more people to the rally than in the past and listening to them.

If you have a board member that is either explicitly or implicitly communicating they would have opposed you before, but now they are willing to support you, you need to have a very honest talk that makes it clear there can be no return to those old modes of thinking when the economic picture improves. While the economy may improve, the operating environment and expectations people have will not return to what they were before.

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