But Do You REALLY Think It is Good For You?

I recently came to the realization that there may be an attitude out there about the arts which is nearly as detrimental as viewing them as elitist and intimidating.

The director of my division resigned so all the area coordinators recently met with administrator who would be essentially overseeing us until a replacement is hired.

The other two coordinators spoke at length about the challenges their areas faced. My turn came and I mentioned the difficulties geography and competition posed for us. One of the other coordinators told me that the solution was simple, if I could get people to come see one show they would come back for the others just like when many students came to take motorcycle safety, they decided to continue with digital media courses.

I was a little annoyed because I seem to constantly have to explain to people the Field of Dreams situation while once true, is not quite so valid any longer. I tried not to sound too exasperated while I pointed out there was a lot more competition for people’s time and income than there used to be.

I also pointed out that her example was a little flawed because motivations to take motorcycle safety and digital media differ. In her terms the only product I had to offer was different varities of motorcycle safety.

In retrospect, I wondered if I shouldn’t be at least grateful that she felt my performances were of a quality that people would naturally want to come back for more. Then I realized, she hasn’t really been to a performance in the last 10 years or so (and she lives on the far end of the theatre parking lot).

So then I am thinking she may just attribute all performances with a sort of mystique and power. This seemed okay because the arts are always trying to convince the public that the arts have value in their lives.

And that is when it hit me–that doesn’t do any good if people aren’t actually adding arts attendance to their lives!

It sort of reminded me of the Just Say No drug campaign of the 80s. Kids would shout “Just Say No” on command, but since that is as far as the campaign went, the kids didn’t internalize the concept and make it a part of their lives.

I am starting to think maybe I need to go back and look at all those surveys I have recently cited where there was a nice response among people saying they they felt the arts were an important part of their lives. I want to go back and compare the percentage of respondents to that question to the percentage of people who actually attended. (Taking a quick look back at my entry on an Urban Institute study, I get the impression they actually scrutinized that.)

To some extent, arts people only have themselves to blame because “the arts are good for you” is a major reason given when people don’t want music cut from the schools or don’t want funding cut for an organization. Certainly, these claims are usually accompanied by statistics showing things like how math scores improve for kids who take music.

On the other hand, sometimes arts people don’t back it up with evidence or are the worst purveyors of this attitude themselves. One of my predecessors in a job I have held told me the story of how she had the opportunity to have a great choreographer’s company perform at the theatre. Wondering if this person’s work might be beyond the local community, she asked around to gauge interest.

She was told how what a coup it would be to have the company, how wonderful to have the opportunity, etc. Dance people especially were quite enthused.

Performance came–dance community didn’t. When my predecessor asked the dance folks why they were so excited and yet didn’t attend, the answer was essentially that it was important for the public to see this choreographer’s works, but they personally weren’t interested.

So two lessons from this-

1) When you ask if people are interested, you gotta explicitly ask if they will show up.

2) If you find they are really more excited about other people seeing the show, you ought to revisit your cost/benefit ratio calculations.

High Quality Experience, But Not Fulfilling

I was reading about a recent Urban Institute study on attendance at cultural events in the Chicago Tribune today. Many of the results weren’t surprising–people go to live performances to socialize and go to museums to expand their knowledge.

What made me want to read the study more indepth was the report that “…attendees at music and dance performances, plays, and fairs were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the art.” Yet at the same time the article mentions that “…people who go to art museums, dance performances, concerts, plays, or arts and craft fairs find the experience less emotionally rewarding than they had presumed.”

I understand that quality of art and emotional reward can exist exclusively of each other, but the suggestion that people didn’t have high expectations of the quality and yet looked to have a larger emotional pay off didn’t quite make sense.

A short newspaper article can hardly explain all the intricacies explored in a 48 page report of course. Even though the article warns that the report’s author, Francie Ostrower, forms no opinions about why there is no emotional reward, I had my own theory.

My theory being-People view live performance as high art, full of meaning and power. The report of the performance exceeding expected quality is actually an expression of relief at understanding what is going on. However, there is an assumption that if one comprehends the work, one will be enriched with the meaning and power of high art. Walking out with out a profound understanding of the nature of the universe results in an emotional let down.

But that is just the theory with which I started.

In the process of reading the report-The Diversity of Cultural Participation, I picked up some other interesting tidbits.

Interestingly, many people did not go to cultural events that they say they find very enjoyable…Many people who said that they most enjoy dance had not gone to a dance performance during the previous 12 months. The same was true for plays and concerts. On the other hand, this was far less common among those who most enjoyed museums and galleries.12 These findings suggest it is easier for people to attend certain types of cultural events than others…(e.g. because museums do not require advance tickets)

-“Frequent attendees are likely to be civically engaged.” People who volunteer, go to church, belong to associations, vote.

-“Frequent attendees are more likely to donate” Not really surprising.

“Frequent attendees were more likely to have gone to multiple types of events and to have attended each type of cultural event. Thus, frequent attendance at cultural events is associated with more varied attendance, indicating that multiple art forms would benefit from increases in overall arts attendance.”

Don’t know if this result implies that it would be beneficial for organizations to pool their resources and perform at a central location thereby offering the public variety at a familiar location. Other results of the surveys show the people who attend plays are more likely to attend dance, live music, and museums/galleries.

Among the reasons people attended the arts were socialization (it will probably come as no surprise to learn that the survey found people most often attend in groups), wish to experience high quality art, gain knowledge, support a local organization, learn something about ones culture and to have an emotionally rewarding experience.

Interestingly, the more frequent a person attended, the more reasons they stated for attending.

“Frequent attendees also cited a greater number of strong motivations for attending cultural events during the past 12 months. On average, they cited 3.5 major reasons, compared with 2.6 major reasons given by moderate attendees, and 2.2 among infrequent attendees.26 This strongly suggests that frequent attendees’ active engagement in the arts is driven by the very multiplicity and variety of positive experiences they derive from the arts.”

It would seem then that whatever approach one takes in marketing and advertising performances is likely to appeal to one of the motivators for a frequent attendee. Of course, if a competitor offers a similar product in a way that appeals to more of these criteria, you may end up back on square one.

According to the report, attendance at different event types is strongly motivated by the aforementioned reasons in varying ratios so the elements that promotions highlight must change as well.

Minding your audience surveys is very important:

“Interestingly, even substantial percentages of those who expressed a negative judgment about some aspect of their experience said they would attend a similar event again.”

So you get a chance to make things better the next time around. However, there are some deal-breakers right from the beginning-

“The two negative experiences most likely to result in respondents saying they would not attend again were not liking the venue and not having an enjoyable social occasion.”

In regard to the whole emotional reward question, I think the way the Chicago Trib article was written somewhat overstated it as a problem. According to the report, people who expected to get a rewarding experience, got it. In fact, pretty much everyone got what they came for:

two-thirds of those who said that a major motivation for attending was to experience high-quality art strongly agreed that the artistic quality of the event was high. Likewise, most (56 percent or more) who were strongly motivated by a desire for an enjoyable social occasion strongly agreed that they had one; most who were strongly motivated by a desire for an emotionally rewarding experience
strongly agreed that they had one; and most who strongly wanted to learn something new strongly agreed that they did learn something. And almost all who did not strongly agree, agreed.

It made me wonder if this was another piece of evidence for the suspicion that the plethora of standing ovations today are a result of people convincing themselves they got what they paid for.

There were some variations by event type though that need consideration by arts administrators.

“Fifty-seven percent of those who attended a play said a major reason they went was that they thought it would be emotionally rewarding–but only 43 percent strongly agreed that it was.

Forty-six percent of those attending music performances said a major reason was that they thought it would be emotionally rewarding–but only 37 percent strongly agreed that it was.”

It was in terms of high quality that numbers went the other way, few people entered performance halls expecting high quality and a greater number exited feeling they had experienced it.

Since it is tough to know if the people who said they didn’t have an emotionally satisfying experience were some of the same people who had a quality experience, I can’t say if my hypothesis (which, granted was more of a semi-educated suspicion) holds any water. (Though the percentage of change in attitude on both topics is quite close.)

As poor a job as a newspaper article can do summarizing a 48 page report, my blog entry is hardly an improved transmission of all the valuable info (and I haven’t tried to be.) Give it a read! (Especially since the meat of it is only 27 pages long.)

Another Crazy Idea

Back in July I posted an entry about how internet sites were limiting access to their content through various means. At the end of the entry, I promised to think upon it and post a follow up later.

Well, here I am posting a follow up.

I had hoped to do a little more reading on consumer psychology before posting, but it doesn’t look as if that might happen any time soon. Since I posted last week about how new media entertainment was taking a page from live performance’s book, I figured that was enough reason to post about how we should steal a little bit from them.

At the end of my entry in July I had posted that the only way I could see arts organizations doing something similar was if the first part of the show was free and then re-entry after intermission cost the ticket price.

The more I thought about it, the less crazy it seemed. (Though granted, was still crazy.) Performing organizations frequently have free performances to try to lure people in, why not partially free performances? Also, there are a number of performing arts companies that have fundraising appeals that point out that the ticket price only pays for the show until intermission. This turns that around so you can claim the sponsors paid for you to get in the first act, now the rest of the show is up to you.

Will people go home at intermission feeling they have gotten their fill? Perhaps. Performances with a plot of some sort would probably fare better than a collection of repetory pieces. A novice theatre attendee is probably more likely to feel a need to go see the end of Death of a Salesman than a novice symphony attendee might feel compelled to hear a Mozart piece based on the Bach he heard in the first half of the evening.

On the other hand, reading the psychology of decision making scenarios Andrew Taylor presented back in May, I could see a newbie deciding that after getting a babysitter, driving and paying for parking, maybe it is worth paying for the second half.

Museums, I am still at the same place, sorry. Best I could suggest is a small exhibit in an antechamber with the ability to pay to enter the exhibit proper after getting a taste of it.

For performances, this sort of suggestion opens big cans of worms, even for those who might experiment with it only once a year to see how audiences like it.

First of all, there is front of house-instead of letting the box office and part of the usher staff go home after the show starts, their fun just begins at intermission.

Also, if you have reserved seating how do you handle that? Subscribers and those who know and trust the quality of your works will have purchased their tickets for the whole night’s performance in advance. But say that only fills up to the tenth row.

At intermission, the guy who got row Z is the first one out of the theatre because he is closest to the back, runs to the box office and buys tickets in row K so he can get closer. Guy in that seat in row K for the first act is annoyed. God forbid and people actually enjoy the show so much they start leaving during the first act to secure tickets closer to the stage.

A lot of theatres use bar code readers now so people can print of tickets at home. While you could use this and only charge people who scan in after intermission, you would then have to force people to scan in by 5 minutes to curtain so you could sell the vacant seats to people waiting at the box office before intermission was over (and of course, most empty seats will be singles and most people wanting seats will be in a party.)

Something like this would be best used either with General Admission audiences or for shows you know will be 80% sold so that you can set aside specific seats for this program and have no need to worry that you might end up with a gulf of 10 rows between your full night buyers and the half night taste testers.

The other issue is artistic-Do you end the first act with a bigger bang than necessary in hopes of luring people back for the second act even though the second act isn’t as exciting as the end of the first act lead them to believe? (I am looking at you Phantom of the Opera)

Then there are shows that are so short, an intermission makes no sense. Some shows are structured in a way that an audience loses its involvement in the momentum of the action if an intermission occurs.

Still, I have to think that there are some organizations out there for whom this sort of scheme might be just the thing they need to excite a community and provide an introduction to what the company does.

Seven Hour Thank you Letter

I have just started the first fundraising campaign the theatre has had in about three years. Prior to assuming the job, the temporary theatre director was also the executive director of another arts organization. Because of the conflict of interest with soliciting donations, he didn’t run any campaigns.

At the 1.5 week mark, we have had some modest returns though we have also seen donations from people who haven’t previously contributed which is always good.

Because the current thank you for your donations note has been used for many years, I have been working on a new thank you letter. Now it may seem like an easy thing, but I had a theme I used in my appeal letter and wanted to complement that theme with my thank you letter.

Essentially, I am trying to educate my audience about what sort of things their money is going for. It always seems to me like fundraising campaigns underscore the sexy aspects of what the money goes toward and downplays the less prestigous stuff. Either that or the appeal is so vague, you don’t know what the money is going for.

I take my inspiration, in part to a post on Artful Manager from two years ago where Andrew Taylor suggests arts organizations have a discussion about “worst practices.” My letter is a long way from mentioning mistakes we made, but that entry got me to thinking that references to less sexy, but essential needs, over time will more broadly inform my audience about elements beyond the curtain line that they can impact and feel good about.

My aim is to let people know what sort of things the money supports without making it sound so unsexy they don’t see any worth in giving again. While we aren’t buying reams of people, we are making purchases that are important to the safety of our operations and contribute to hospitality for our artists. If you aren’t in the business though, it is difficult to appreciate the significance of the materials and how grateful we are to have the funding.

Thus why it has taken me seven hours across three days to write the dang letter. I had a lot to say and then distilled the concepts down to a shorter letter, rewrote that, showed it to people, rewrote some more, rewrote, rewrote, etc, etc.

I did much the same thing with the appeal letter. But of course, I was asking for money at the time so my incentive was obvious, right? My thank you note is part of what I hope will be an ongoing relationship with my donors and ticket buyers so it is just as important as the appeal.

I want to take every opportunity I have to tell them the different aspects of my theatre’s story while attempting to avoid cliche phrases and common platitudes. I want to set my organization apart from the letters they are getting from the other non-profits by writing something different, something interesting…something brief…something sincerely gracious. And it all has to look effortless.

But it ain’t.