Good for the Goose, Better for the Gander

I was looking back at the Performing Arts Research Coalition (PARC) study on the value of arts in the community. I had written about a portion of it back in March.

One of the findings of the study was that people felt the arts had more value to their community than it did for them as individuals. In the cities surveyed, between 79% and 85% of attendees strongly agreed with this idea as did about 33% of non-attendees. This idea that my neighbor needs the help more than I do was recently discussed in a brief Scientific American article which found that people often rate their moral, social and religious behavior better than their neighbors and also feel that they are less biased and fairer in their judgments than the next person.

An additional discovery the PARC study made was that 2/3 of those surveyed strongly agreed (it shoots to 9/10 if you include “agree” responses) that arts education was better for children regardless of the respondent’s age, education, lack of attendance, children at home or income status. However, only 1/2 strongly felt arts had any value to adult lifelong learning. Those who attended most felt most strongly about the value. The difference might be caused by the same personal bias. Since most respondents were adults, they might feel it is better for the kids than for themselves.

The study is very interesting in its exploration of a number of other factors such as: quality of life (more educated, stronger agreement. Though in D.C. more income also had a correlation); pride in the community (higher income in Sarasota strongly agree, older folks in Boston strongly agree, but less than half of respondents in Austin strongly agree); preserves cultural heritage (majority, regardless of attendance, income, education, etc strongly agree); contributes to local economy (lowest percentage of strongly agree. Except in Sarasota, majority did not strongly agree.)

These results show that it may not be wise to make blanket assumptions about how segments of the local population view the arts. In some cases, you can’t even make assumptions about perceptions based on survey results from another city.

It is also interesting to note that the public doesn’t perceive an economic contribution of the arts. I have read a number of articles that felt the practice of discussing the arts in terms of their economic contributions would devalue the arts by positioning them as a tool for economic growth rather than a source of education, self-improvement, inspiration, etc. In most cases, the articles were referring to the way arts organizations present this information to funders, especially government bodies that allocate monies toward funding.

While I found myself agreeing with this idea, it occurs to me today that perhaps the problem is that we have been saying it too much to too few people. I quoted Ben Cameron last week where he listed economic contributions as a value of the arts that the public needed to have presented to it. Seeing the survey data, I wonder if the arts need to spread the word to the public and stop focusing the message strictly to funders. The stats have probably been chanted at legislators for so long they won’t endure as a justification of funding for too much longer. However, the community may not have been exposed to the discussion of economic value enough. The arts community may have put a lot of time and energy into communicating with too narrow a portion of of its constituency.

Volunteers to the Rescue!

I have been closely watching a series of articles Drew McManus is writing on the topic “How to Save Classical Music.” He is using the docent program at the Denver Zoo as a case study of how to use volunteer labor to aid in the revitalization of orchestras. He begins by defining the problem, then talks about the Denver Zoo program and has most recently written on how to apply these lessons to orchestras. Volunteer programs are of special interest to me so I have already put a fair bit of thought into his entries. I suspect that additional consideration will so occupy me that this entry meant for Friday won’t be posted until Saturday.

Drew starts out with the premise that while most arts organizations inevitably have education as part of their mission, the focus of education departments is typically on school programs rather than on audience education. He suggests training and empowering docents will provide support in the areas of marketing, public relations, education and outreach. Docents are traditionally individuals who do tours and lectures at museums and cathedrals. Mr. McManus’ suggestion is to minimize the teaching posture and position docents more as knowlegeable companions.

He goes on to discuss the similarities between the Denver Zoo and orchestras which make the comparison valid. He also mentions the problems facing orchestras echoing the sentiments of the McPhee Knight Foundation speech I cited last week. The solution, he says, lies in adopting the Denver Zoo’s aims:

They facilitate people in their community with the tools they need to become an integral part of the zoos mission instead of looking at them as merely check writing automatons. The zoo gives up a measure of its own control over the institution, but in turn they create a passionate group of stakeholders that perpetuate ongoing community interest and involvement with the zoo. They enable members of the community to become involved partners as opposed to static participants. In turn, the zoo entrusts these individuals with the important responsibility of communicating with the public the value of their mission and to create an interest in the actual ‘product’.

Personally, I have always been interested in getting volunteers more involved in the organizations for which I have worked. However, I have been concerned about the administration’s commitment and investment in the volunteers. This is why I would be cautious about starting such a program in an arts organization.

The problem I have faced is that administration often looks upon volunteer help as a forgone conclusion. There is a Field of Dreams assumption similar to the one made about audiences–if you are offering the opportunity to volunteer, then certainly people are going to want to do it so they can be associated with the wonderful things the organization does.

One place I worked had often discussed, but never held, a volunteer appreciation event in the 15-20 years of the program. I felt victorious at having been the first to successfully organize one. When it came time to plan for the next one, I was told money wasn’t the issue but in light of the fact that after 20 years without an event, only 40 out of 350 invitees came, maybe it was better to have it every 2-3 years.

I was extremely annoyed. We had started doing performances at a 1000 seat venue that was much more accessible to major roadways than our other performance spaces, but with which our audience base was not familiar. The first show we hardly had 200 people attend. However, we didn’t abandon doing shows there but worked on increasing awareness of the venue. In my mind, we could have done the same thing by noting the party date 6 months out on every piece of correspondence sent to participating volunteers.

As a result of perceiving an exploitative motivation with little thought of appreciation, I have never proposed additional programs in which volunteers could be involved. I do, however, collect ideas such as Drew’s against the day I am in a position to direct policy.

In the second day’s entry, McManus discusses how the program of the Denver Zoo is structured. I was impressed by the amount of training the docents underwent and how much they were invested in the zoo. One of the biggest complaints the volunteers had was that the program became too formalized and that full time employees assumed functions they once performed. It is to the volunteers’ credit that they feel such ownership for the program. The zoo is so happy with the program they intend to double its size to 600 docents in the near future.

In his third entry, Mr. McManus discusses the problems with orchestras and how the docent program can help. One of the biggest problems, he says, is that orchestras devote an increasingly larger portion of their ticket revenue to market to the same, ever decreasing, segment of the public. When they do try to attract more diverse audiences, “it often comes off looking like a tragically unhip old guy trying his best to look young and cool.”

Educational information that is provided is usually in the form of reams of printed material utilizing arcane terminology and might be supplemented by a brief pre-performance lecture. What it lacks, he says, is personal face to face contact with someone who is passionate and knowledgeable, but like you, doesn’t have all the answers. He also suggested essentially gutting the PR department of everyone except an editor and let docents write press releases.

My reservations about the exploitation of volunteers aside, I found his suggestions very exciting. Certainly the training of docents would have to be well planned and executed. I know that some people volunteer for the social prestige association with an organization or art form brings. People who want to impress others with what they know may only compound the intimidation a novice feels. Excluding a volunteer from being a docent can lead to a whole other set of PR problems.

The benefits for this program could be enormous. You could offer any level of interaction from having docents mingling in the lobby answering questions to offering a low intimidation program people register for in advance. In the latter program you might have a docent contact a person on Wednesday saying “Hey, why don’t I meet you for coffee before the show Friday night, my treat. Then I will make sure you get to your seat, we can talk at intermission and after the show. But if you have to get home to your kids, you can always email me with questions.”

If your worst problem is that the new attendee ties up your docent by wanting to meet for coffee before every concert, is that really a problem? You can always introduce new attendees to each other and encourage them to meet for coffee as a group. (Then hit up the coffee shop for a program book ad at the very least since you are sending so many people his way.) You can also direct people to internet tools like meetup.com (which includes classical.meetup.com and theater.meetup.com) and evite.com that make it easy for those who share interests to organize discussions with people they have never met.

The idea about volunteers writing press releases was very intriguing. I am not as confident about the writing skills of volunteers as Drew is, but I have never tried it. This actually may be the answer to the boring press release thread Greg Sandow brought up. If you have docents submit press releases that highlight why they are excited by the piece or person performing, you excise the boring “professionally” written junk. As Drew suggested, all it takes is an editor (who can resist the temptation to insert boring stuff) to polish it up and perhaps reorder some points so the release starts out with the attention grabbing details.

Drew also suggests that docents could be valuable in attracting new audiences from the diverse communities they live in by disseminating information and generally acting as an advocate for the insititution. My thought was that unless people from these communities were already experimenting with attendance and just needed to be empowered by such a program in order to gain the confidence to volunteer as a docent, there wasn’t much chance of achieving diversity.

I mentioned this to Drew and he agreed drawing docents from the current audience would only serve to continue drawing the current audience. He said instead “the trick is to get the program started with a core group that is not entirely representative of the current audience. A few ideas I’ve had is for orchestras to utilize individuals such as private music teachers who have adult students, retired school teachers.” This sounded like the most prudent course to me.

A variation of the Denver Zoo docent program could certainly be worth the effort to implement. I didn’t check out the Denver Zoo marketing budget, but the fact they estimated it only cost them about $25,000 to run a 300 person docent program is probably a miniscule portion of the budget. However, according to Drew’s survey they heavily depend on the program to enhance the visitor’s attending experience, educate visitors about the zoo’s mission, provide staffing for in-school and summer education programs and provide paid staffers with time to attend to zoo operations. The docents are essentially the public face of the zoo.

I took a quick look at Baltimore Symphony’s 2002 990 return. They reported 1.5 million for marketing. Even if Drew is wrong and a docent program only reduces expenses by 10% instead of 25%, $150,000 is still a fairly significant savings. Imagine what sort of docent training program you might have if you added half of that savings to a current volunteer budget?

To make all this work requires the docents to be invested in and well informed about the organization they represent. This level of investment and information can only be achieved if the docents have control of their program. It is straight from Management 101 that when you assign people responsibilities, you need empower them with the authority to act. The program also needs to receive the full support and cooperation of the organization administration. Essentially this ties in with the concept of open source management I wrote on back in February.

Drew doesn’t think this is likely in symphonies due to an insular nature that resists releasing authority and transparency of information. His fear is that “Without their continuous support and involvement, the program will come across as nothing more than another propaganda tool that orchestra’s are already well known for.”

Drawing from my background in theatre and popular music, I would say it depended on the age of the organization and how entrenched current management was in their ways. If it was relatively young in its institutional development, I would say there was a fair chance such a program might be adopted. Otherwise, I would have to agree with Drew that there would be too much inertia in the corporate culture to make progress. It seems that the biggest contributions of innovation and change in areas of business like the tech sector come from people who admit they didn’t know any better. I imagine it change in the arts world would originate in the same place.

Of course, this is not to say that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. Looking to the tech sector again you have IBM who have shown they can do just that. We should always strive to do better at every age.

Other Viewpoints

I was reading an article on Artsjournal.com that mentioned quite a few Broadway shows originated elsewhere (in fact Prymate is opening this week directly from Florida State University which is rather uncommon.) I was wondering if anyone had collated the names of the shows which originated away from Broadway before moving there. I didn’t find any (if anyone knows of an article, I would be grateful for the info) but I did come across a couple interesting sites.

The Door Swings Both Ways

I often talk about how the arts need to watch current business trends and assess how they can be applied to the arts world. I came across a Fast Company article from 1999 that spoke of a class at Duke that examined what the arts have to teach the business world.

“Leadership and the Arts” is taught by Bruce Payne. He brings his class to NYC from NC for four months. The class spends the time going to see theatre, dance, opera, orchestra concerts and art museums and discusses the lessons that can be derived from the experiences.

“In the new world of corporate America, everybody is worried about how to achieve excellence in smaller and flatter organizations,” says Payne. “That means finding styles of leadership that work well with smart, self-respecting professionals. Since everybody knows that hierarchy never worked well — and these days, it works less well than ever — what styles of leadership really make the most sense? The people who succeed in the arts these days are people who have solved that problem. They know how to coach, they know how to encourage, they know how to praise, they know how to love. And they know how to express a vision that excites rather than intimidates.”

The romantic view of leadership sees it as a kind of ectoplasmic magnetism, in which followers in variously sized groups — from teams to cults to companies to countries — are drawn mystically and irrevocably toward a central source of inspiration. A more practical view of leadership suggests that real leaders have identified and mastered a secret tool: emotional observation. If you can watch people — and, by watching them, figure out what makes them do what they do — you might be able to get them to do something else, something better. That leadership principle, Payne believes, makes the theater a perfect laboratory for anyone who wants to brush up on what makes people tick.

There were a couple parts of the story that made me wonder if I should open a consultancy business. There are topics it identifies as important that most arts people know far too much about.

“According to Payne, arts organizations, especially small repertory companies and dance troupes, serve as useful models for a world that reveres the startup. “The performing arts have always had to do more with less,” says Payne. “All arts are essentially entrepreneurial.”

Business books and seminars have picked clean any number of occupational metaphors to teach management and leadership skills — sports, the military, wilderness survival, religion. Yet, perhaps more than people in any of these other fields, people in the arts have learned to deal effectively with impossible deadlines, tight budgets, temperamental employees, and the perpetual challenge of selling a product with a short shelf life to a fickle, demanding consumer base.

For inspiration on creative ways to lead a company — or to chart a meaningful career — there’s no business like show business”

All Around the World

I also came across a website with the results of a world wide survey comparing the social norms of a number of countries on topics like Social Welfare, Sports, Religion, Politics to picayune details like whether a period or comma is used as a decimal point. Another website breaks the responses down by subject area.

It is all very interesting reading and the questions seemed to have been set up so that answers were reflecting the same criteria. For example, being late for a meeting was measured in increments of when you mutter excuses, when you apologize profusely, and when the lateness was intolerable. Many cultures it was 5 min, 10 min and 30 minutes, respectively. In some cases though it was 30 minutes and 1 hour, respectively.

I did wonder about the validity of the survey or at least about the age of those answering the questions when it came to the arts section because everyone almost uniformly answered “You think of opera and ballet as rather elite entertainments. It’s likely you don’t see that many plays, either,” or a near equivalent. It made me wonder if the reputed esteem that Europeans bestow upon the arts was a myth they liked to reinforce so they could feel superior to the U.S. or if it is just likely that the type of people who spend enough time on the web to answer lengthy cultural surveys aren’t inclined to go see shows.

Nonetheless, it is all very intriguing.

More Customer Service Thoughts

I came across some articles with relevance to ideas I expressed in earlier posts. Before I get into them though, I wanted to add a quick aside and direct people to an additional article I came across on the increasing influence power of blogs.
The first article I came across in an old issue of Fast Company is actually a review of Taking Care of eBusiness, by Thomas Siebel that makes a number of good points that are applicable to arts organizations. The first is in regard to knowing the different channels through which your patrons want to communicate with you.

“Customers with an order or a complaint don’t just call a toll-free number or wait for their district sales representative to arrive. They may turn to email, a Web site, or a host of other channels to do business. If companies can’t make each of those channels work well or can’t integrate information throughout each piece of their sales, marketing, and service systems, well, it’s never been easier for customers to say good-bye and take their business elsewhere.”

The article goes on to say:

“The lesson is clear: Smart businesses coordinate their sales and service efforts across multiple channels, moving information around so that customers’ preferences and history are accessible no matter whether the next interaction is online, in a store, or via a call center. That’s not an easy task, but Siebel argues that the payoff is immense.”

If you have read any of my earlier posts or speech on Arts Management in an Age of Technology, it probably comes as no surprise that I should zero in on this article. The importance of making it easy for people to make a decision to visit your organization and deliver the information they want in the manner they want it is pretty much my mantra these days.

The article continues in the same theme–noting customer preferences and taking the initiative to act upon them and anticipate a patron’s desires. (“Ah yes Mr. Smith, I got your voice mail message. Even though it was garbled as you drove through a tunnel, I saw you usually like seats in row G around 15 &16 so I placed you there before the show sold out.”)

It also talks about having all relevant data available to your front line people. Many a performing arts organization probably knows the value of this since inevitably your newest ticket office attendant will take a call from the biggest donor and tell them there is absolutely no way they can get into the show. Having a field from the donor database that feeds into the box office database noting that the person in question falls into the Super Angel category can avoid such embarrassment.

A few other articles I read reminded me of a Harvard Business Review article on the perfect one question customer survey. The perfect question was how likely you would be to refer the business to someone else. I found a couple more articles that discussed it in theory and practice.

The more theoretical talked about establishing referral programs. It put me in mind of a blog on orchestra marketing in which the author, Drew McManus suggested a adaptation of the Amazon referral program using discount vouchers. Mr. McManus’ suggestion is just one option of the many ways to execute this concept to help increase attendance.

The article that showed someone putting the referral idea into practice illustrated how Stoneyfield Farms got their yogurt promoted by word of mouth. What they did was allow people to adopt the cows who provided the milk for the yogurt after they bought a certain amount of Stoneyfield’s products. This not only increased sales but also gave them the publicity and demand they needed to get placement in supermarkets.

I have seen acting conservatories do a similar thing where people donate money to provide a scholarship for a specific student or just simply choose to adopt a student or two without any monetary commitment. The only bad side of this program is that even though there are students studying design and management, everyone wants to adopt the actors because of their visibility and the other students feel slighted.

Still, this is a possible program for arts organizations allowing people to adopt actors, dancers and musicians across a season. Perhaps money is involved, perhaps not. Certainly a whole club or families might pool money to adopt a performer or director and would get to have dinner with them once during a season or a run depending on the adopted’s availability. (A starving artist is sure to have plenty of availability for free meals!) The larger the group adopting, the better of course because more people have a sense of pride and involvement with an organization and therefore are in a position to boast about their adoptees to others and have an incentive to continue to buy tickets.

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