Isn’t It Better To Be Damned If You Do Try

Chad Bauman, Executive Director at Milwaukee Rep made a post on LinkedIn today where he acknowledged that making a change in a business model can threaten the existence of an organization, but that changing times and expectations often leave you no choice.  While he is talking about the current challenges performing arts organizations face, he cites a series of decisions Milwaukee Rep faced in its early years that nearly saw the end of the theater.

Milwaukee Rep had a similar crisis nearly a decade after its founding. In its earliest years, it built a large audience based on the star system bringing big stars to Milwaukee to perform. In 1961, the star system was abruptly ended and a resident acting company was founded. In less than a year, the theater lost 60,000 patrons, or two-thirds of its audience. It took seven years for the theater to rebuild its audience and it nearly went bankrupt on multiple occasions. The decision was a correct one as the theater would eventually grow to more than 150,000 patrons, but it almost collapsed along the way.

The star system was common practice in theater in the late 19th century that waned rather than something Milwaukee Rep specifically was doing and decided to end. While the star system is most frequently associated with film studios, they adopted it from theater which apparently borrowed the concept from P.T. Barnum.

I have seen stories similar to this in which arts organizations made decisions 10-15 years ago to make changes in their business models or change their programming mix to include segments of their community which were underrepresented in their audience and casting. They too came to the brink of closing.

There is obviously a bit of survivorship bias to some of these cases. Those that didn’t succeed in the shift weren’t around to talk about it later. With all the closures, downgrading, layoffs, etc that arts organizations are undergoing, we are hearing of many more stories of arts organizations who are having difficulty continuing their existence than we did 10-15 years ago. Some of them were in the middle of trying to effect change, others were trying to stick with what worked in the past so there is no clear indication about which approach may be better in these times.

Some that haven’t closed completely may reorganize and continue on as Milwaukee Rep did. I am sure no one wants to be faced with the prospect of it taking seven years and several brushes with bankruptcy to make a successful transition.   From one perspective though, it might be better to fail while trying to do better for your community rather than attempting to preserve the status quo for as long as possible.

Apparently Work Still Required At Newfields Museum

Well apparently my optimism about the direction of the Indianapolis Museum at Newfields was a little premature. In late September I wrote about how the museum had just hired. Belinda Tate, a new director who it was hoped would help the museum move past the controversy surround a job posting in 2021 which said they were ““…seeking a director who would work not only to attract a more diverse audience but to maintain its “traditional, core, white art audience.’”

Tate was joining CEO/President Colette Pierce Burnette, who had replaced previous CEO who resigned due to the controversy. Unfortunately, as of about 10 days ago,  Burnette resigned after about 15 months in her position and was joined by three board members.

While neither Burnette or the museum discussed the specifics of her departure, Adrienne Sims, the latest board member to resign wrote in her resignation that:

“As a seasoned HR executive, I believe in the importance of strong HR practices, collaborative decision-making and adherence to proper governance procedures for the well-being of the organization. Recent leadership decisions were not made in an inclusive and consultative manner, which has been disheartening,” she said.

“I hope that in the future, decisions of this nature will be approached with integrity and demonstrate a commitment to diversity, inclusion and respect for all.”


Julie Goodman, president and CEO of Indy Arts Council, weighed in on Burnette’s departure in a Facebook post following the museum’s announcement demanding transparency and calling out what she said was “callous and cold communication fueling a cycle of trauma and harm.”

So it appears that there was at least some awareness that elements of the museum’s internal culture still required attention in order for the organization to move forward.

A number of Indianapolis based Black organizations issued a statement calling for clarity about Burnette’s departure and “..the Indiana Black Expo and Indianapolis Urban League announced they have brought their partnerships with Newfields “to a complete halt” due to the sudden departure of the museum’s CEO.”

Who Knew You Could Organize So Much Activity Around A Show About Writing Letters

I usually don’t advocate for specific shows on the blog here, but I recently presented a group whose format really lends itself to a variety of audience engagement opportunities you may dream up. The group is called Letters Aloud. They basically read letters written to and by famous and less famous individuals, often organized around a theme, with the letters and images of the subject projected on a screen and accompanied by accordion theme music.

Last weekend we hosted, Thanks, But No Thanks–Best Rejection Letters Ever. My concept was that Thanksgiving time was a good opportunity to reflect on preserving past rejection and being grateful for the lucky breaks or assistance from family and friends that helped us along the way.

The show includes letters from Sidney Poitier to President Franklin Roosevelt asking to borrow $100 so he can return to Jamaica; John Cleese telling a fan that he doesn’t have a fan club because Michael Palin’s fan club killed them off, and then Palin and Eric Idle writing follow up letters channeling elements from the Monty Python Holy Grail movie; Muhammad Ali’s letter opposing being drafted to serve in Vietnam; a student rejected from Duke University, rejecting the rejection and insisting she was showing up for Fall semester.

While many of the letters had the audience roaring with delight, others had them applauding in support of the strength of character people exhibited.

The format allows for engagement opportunities from many points of view. We had people posting on social media bemoaning the fact kids can’t read cursive and letter writing is becoming a lost art. The group actually has a school outreach program with a lot of resources and curriculum materials called, Be The Change, that schools can use in advance of a visit (or a virtual Zoom session) that explores letter writing and features letters written by young people.  It isn’t really an attempt to revive writing letters on paper as much as it is advocacy of writing as a powerful form of expression.

Taking some inspiration from Nina Simon’s invitation to people to bring artifacts from bad relationships for a pop-up exhibit in a bar, we asked people to bring stories or objects representing rejection to the show. I not only got our volunteers involved in helping make a promotional video for the lobby exhibit, they also shared stories from their own experiences with rejection and wore labels with some of those phrases for promotional photos that we also used to seed our lobby display.

Then on the night of the show, volunteers wore those labels again to create an ambiance for the show. We had forms audience members could fill out with their own stories. Letters Aloud has a form on their website that allows people to submit their stories, but no one had in advance of the show so they read some of the contributions to our display from the stage after intermission.

Additionally, the production has an opportunity for people from the community to read letters during the show. We recruited three people, the mayor, city poet laureate, and a member of the city cultural services board as readers. The production provided 10 letters for them to choose from a couple weeks in advance of the show so they could become familiar with the short pieces and then had a brief orientation before the show so the readers knew what to expect.

So overall there were a lot of avenues to create a sense of connection to the show for the audience and community. If there was a letter or story with a resonance to a particular community, I imagine they would be open to integrating it in to the show to create a greater sense of relevance.   Similarly, it is also relatively easy for the presenting venue to create some imaginative promotional materials.

Certainly, there are other shows and projects out there with a degree of inherent flexibility of topic and structure that lends themselves to similar promotional and engagement opportunities. I encourage people to keep their eyes open and their imaginations churning.

Not A Can Of Whoop-Ass, Opening A Jar Of Artistic Experience To Forge Comradeship linked to a Washington Post story about a Boston based project call “The Jar” whose “goal is forging comradeship via conversations about artistic experiences among groups that otherwise find few opportunities to commingle.” The project seems to start from the premise that it is going to be difficult to diversify audiences and experiences if people continue to participate with those who share the same general demographic profile as themselves.

The approach of The Jar is to intentionally shape the composition of the audience and setting. They start by getting people of diverse backgrounds agreeing to be conveners for some sort of event. Each of these conveners agrees to invite five others to the event at $10 a person with the goal of having a maximum of 96 people in attendance.

Here is where their recipe for assembling an audience comes into play:

One invitee in each “jar” of six people is an intimate of the convener; two are “usuals” — friends or colleagues. But two others must be “unusuals,” people the convener barely or only incidentally knows. Or as Ben-Aharon put it, “people who you wouldn’t normally experience culture with — two people who may not look like you, love like you, pray like you.”


“Let’s say you go to church, and you’re a White gay man, and you go to this church with your husband, and your normal circle is White gay men — why wouldn’t that be? That’s just the way society dictates we live.

“But suddenly you’re invited to The Jar and you have to think of who are the two ‘unusuals,’ and you invite a Black lesbian couple from that church. And suddenly you create a friendship with them. Suddenly you create a bond — and this actually happened, by the way.”

I don’t know if the quality of the artists is always as high as the pairing of Yo-Yo Ma and New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly, but if it is, I would guess that might be a factor in overcoming reticence in accepting an invitation to an event from people you barely know. The pairings of artists are also intentionally unexpected. Ma played cello in response to questions from the facilitator while Donnelly sketches of Ma and the audience were projected on a screen.

The project is funded by a $750,000 multi-year grant from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation if you are wondering how they can afford artists of this caliber hosting events that are intentionally designed to generally a maximum of $960. They apparently don’t have any problem gathering audiences in these days of increasing social disconnection. However, given the design of the events where intimate experiences are the point, they are having difficulty with scaling it to transfer to other cities and garnering the funding required to accomplish that.

As you may suspect, conversation is an important element of the experience rather than just passively observing.

Rob Orchard, formerly founding managing director of American Repertory Theatre…attends Jar happenings. “It’s unusual, using the arts as the catalyst for understanding differences. You hear people who experience the same piece as you, and you get to appreciate how their response to it is totally different from yours.”

While there is definitely an element of self-selection inherent to the project – inviting people with whom you have an incidental or tangential relationship means that you and they travel in the same general orbits and the willingness to accept the invitation means they are generally open to having the experience. However, the design of the program still requires one to stretch slightly past their comfort zone to make or accept the invitation, which is an obvious important first step toward opening oneself to new experiences, new conversations and new relationships.