Didn’t Happen As Envisioned, But It Came Out Much Better

I have often viewed my professional career as having moments where I build on general ideas and concepts from earlier positions, but adapted to suit the local community. I am always wary of being the guy who constantly says “well, when I was at X, we did…” And in this particular case, it was actually our marketing director who had an idea and took leadership of a project that closely resembled work I had done before.

In my previous position, readers may remember I had started a semi-annual visual arts fair sited in the lobby of the performing arts center I ran.  Not knowing that, our marketing director proposed something along the lines of a fringe festival model with visual arts merchants and activities sited in the lobby of our historic theatre and performances/exhibitions sited in locations around the space, including the box seats, dressing rooms, balcony stairs, green room and main stage area.

The first attempt at mounting this event happened this weekend and it turned out to be successful in ways we hadn’t envisioned.  We imagined people would bring their kids to see the art works on sales and participate in the hands on activities. While the kids were busy, the parents would stick their heads in on the TED Talk-esque sessions happening in the main room. There would be other times that people would wander the space seeing the installations and then the performance elements would start late afternoon and go into the evening.

It turned out that very few people applied to do the TED Talk type program, but instead we had so many show up who had never been to the venue before or hadn’t been in 30 years, that we ended up running a constant cycle of tours of the facility. We had held open houses in the past with the specific intent of letting people see the mysterious backstage areas and didnt have much interest, but it turn out this festival idea drew people in and left us in a position to give the tours. Now we are thinking of scrapping a lengthy TED Talk program in the future, both for lack of apparent interest but also because it would interfere with our ability to give tours.

The installations by visual artists exhibited a great use of our space and now that more people have seen how the spaces were used, we expect to receive more applications with a broader use of the particular architecture of the building in the future. Likewise, many performing artists “understood the assignment,” as it were and came up with a creative use of the space.

One of the performances pieces ended up becoming an impromptu exhibit.  On Saturday, an artist and her collaborator staged a comedic dating game were participants had to rotate between activities set up in the box seats of the theater. Some of the assignments were things like drawing a portrait of the relative that always ruins Thanksgiving. Another was to write down the worst pick up lines or insults a prospective suitor has used. Since the collection of responses was so amusing, we left everything up on Sunday as the “Graveyard of Bad Dates.” Throughout the day people stopped to read what had been written, make their own contributions, or participate in the activities. There was an 1000 piece puzzle that got closer to completion by end of day Sunday. The most amusing experience was watching people who were unfamiliar with record players discovering that the music would start wherever you dropped the needle.

One of the most gratifying outcomes, (though we shouldn’t have been surprised since we intentionally designed for it), was the diversity of artists represented. We had set up a blind jury system where we recruited visual and performing artists to both advise us on the design and execution of our overall project and to serve as a jury on the works submitted. We excised identifiable information from the applications before sending it to them to score. This was definitely a much more time and labor intensive process than an internal review would have been, but we were pleased with the results. More than half the participating creators, both performers and visual, were black and one was neurodivergent.

While we might have ended up in the same place using internal staff to choose artists, we are more confident in the outcome since we took steps to reduce the opportunity for bias. Additionally, since we were doing so many tours engaging in conversations with visitors we were able to learn that many of those who had never been in the space before/within the last 20 years, came from diverse racial, geographic and economic backgrounds.

The advice of the external jury was instrumental in shaping our application process and policies. For instance, we discarded the idea of table fees and used an honor system based percentage of sales so that artists that didn’t sell anything weren’t out the additional expense of a table fee.

Like my previous experience running an arts fair in the lobby of a performing arts center, newer artists got to see how more experienced artists operated in order to capture sales by carrying items with different price points and displaying their work to the greatest benefit. There were artists who only sold 2-3 pieces who said that was the most they had ever sold at this type of event. Others who came in from out of the area was pleased to be able to network and share tips with more locally based artists.

There was one artist who gave a painting lesson to a girl on Saturday. On Sunday the girl showed up for a second lesson and then the mother showed up and said their home needed three pieces by her daughter so she needed to take another lesson.

One of the artists was so excited and invested in the concept of the fringe festival style event, he ended up being our primary tour guide for the weekend. He is interested in learning more stories about the building, who performed there and what ghosts haunt it.

As I often write, it is generally difficult to import an idea from one community to another and have the same success. I suspect we may even have a different experience if we do the same event next year. There is a lot of groundwork we (90% credit going to the marketing director and her energy, I was more perspiration than inspiration on this project) that occurred over the last two years I haven’t mentioned that contributed to the perception of this event as successful. Even if we only retain 5% of the goodwill we generated, the event probably made the most progress in our pursuit of shifting perceptions about who our organization is for of any in the past year.

Concerning Trend With Regional Booking Conferences

I was really disappointed last Friday when I read that Arts Midwest would be pausing their conference.  I have a hard time believing it will gear up again in the future. If you aren’t aware, Arts Midwest ran one of the regional conferences that presenting venues attend to book acts. Back in 2019, SouthArts announced they were ceasing operations of Performing Arts Exchange, the conference that served the southeast.  With Arts Midwest effectively ceasing to operate their conference, that just leaves the Western Arts Alliance as a regional conference for the western region.

The national conference, Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) continues to operate, as do smaller conferences like Arts Northwest, Arts Market which meets every other year, and state base conferences like Ohio Arts Presenters Network. However, the scope and reach of those conferences is limited.  For example, in addition to meeting every other year, Arts Market doesn’t have the professional development opportunities that the regional and nationals offer.

Like many others, I particularly liked the Arts Midwest conference because it was well run and had a smaller, more collegial feel than the NYC based APAP. Even though I moved to the southeast, I continued to attend the Midwest conference. APAP is definitely a great conference and there is more opportunity see performers in their “natural environment” of music clubs, dance studios, and theatres vs. hotel ballrooms, but it is expensive to attend with the added costs of NYC hotel rooms and food.

I enjoy the regional conference because they introduce me to new cities and let me see what is great about them. For people who live in the region, it is easier to drive or take a short flight to a regional than to travel to another part of the country.

Arts Midwest President& CEO Torrie Allen writes that the decision to pause is financial:

We have deep respect and gratitude for this conference family, and we must acknowledge that we are facing a changing industry. Production costs have increased while event revenue has not. We have begun to encounter unsustainable financial losses on this event. While these losses pre-date the pivots we have made in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have grown exponentially these past two years. As a steward of private and public dollars, we have a financial responsibility to our communities, partners, and donors to pause and take the time needed to reimagine our presence in this space.

I don’t envy him this decision. He basically assumed the President & CEO role just as Covid began. Attendees to the 2019 conference got to meet him. I was personally excited to see what the future held for Arts Midwest because he seemed to have the energy and dynamism to take the organization into the future. With the conference program being cancelled, I will only be able to watch what happens from afar.

Ultimately, I am a little worried about what this might mean for touring artists and venues in the future. Learning about artists via their website, videos and Zoom is only going to be so effective. Sitting down and talking with agents in person moved the needle for me in ways that digital promotions did not. Walking up and down the aisles in the exhibition halls opened me to exploring ideas and acts I hadn’t been considering. Some of them I booked, others I didn’t but I now viewed those options as possibilities where I hadn’t before.

I wonder if efforts to advance diversity and equity in the performing arts might stall as a result of venue operators only being exposed to and seeking out artists and agents with whom they are already familiar. The other influential aspect of in person booking conferences is sitting down to see something new, being not quite sure if you like it, but having others in the room clapping and stomping their feet in reaction to what they are seeing.

Some of the other conferences might expand to fill the void, but given the economic uncertainty of the times, it is likely to take time for them to scale up and expand their reach to larger geographical areas.

As much as I write about arts administration and practices, if you have read the blog for any number of years, you know that I always come back from conferences with some new insight to discuss. I had my epiphany about building public will for arts and culture at an Arts Midwest conference and always attend anything to do with legal questions. I think the professional development opportunities and chance to network with all sorts of people is valuable for attendees. I worry that the disappearance of the regional conferences and their ability to put speakers and experts of note in front of large convenings will negatively impact the practice of arts administration across large parts of the country.

Who Gave You Your First Break?

Tweets responding to UK based Arts Emergency’s new campaign were filling my Twitter feed today. I have written about them a couple times before. They are essentially focused on cultivating the next generation of creative workers through training opportunities, scholarships and mentoring.

The organization’s name and raison d’etre is premised on the idea that cuts in funding nationally have created an emergency for the future of the creative economy in the UK.  Their newest push is #BreakTheGlass, as in “In Case of Emergency, Break The Glass.”

What I really admire about their execution of this awareness campaign is that they aren’t focusing on the negative consequences that cause their organization so much concern, instead they have asked people to tag & tweet about the person(s) who “gave you some key advice or encouragement early in your career.”

Today my feed was packed with people calling out those who helped them get jobs in theater, in broadcasting, print media, etc. I usually view Twitter with a chronological order setting and there were so many people talking about those who gave them their first big break, I was scrolling, scrolling, and scrolling only to find I was still viewing tweets that were only 5 hours old.

I don’t want to horn in on Arts Emergency’s initiative, but maybe folks here in the US need to pick up the tune and call out those for whose help we are grateful. October is Arts & Humanities Month which would make it a suitable time. Or if we don’t want to steal attention from Arts Emergency, next month around Thanksgiving would be appropriate as well.

Ultimately, over the long term I think advocacy for arts and culture needs to have positive messaging like this that doesn’t focus on economic impact, test scores and behavioral outcomes as benefits. Talking about mentors and being grateful for opportunities and investment of trust and faith is a good way to emphasize the benefits of arts and culture in cultivating relationships and reinforcing the social fabric without explicitly making those claims.

Composer Was A Rock Star Of Their Day? Rock Stars Aren’t Even The Rock Stars Of Today

I often read about classical music composers being the rock star of their day, but don’t often get a lot of detail about what that meant. I just happened upon an article in Lapham’s Quarterly about Franz Liszt which pretty much shows that fans haven’t changed much since the 19th century when people collected his discarded cigar butts, silk gloves and broken piano strings.

Before a concert Liszt mingled with the audience, charming them with his witty remarks. He had a semicircle of chairs placed around the piano on stage so that illustrious guests could sit near him and converse with him between pieces…He brought his silk gloves on stage and threw them down to be fought over by audience members. Women were said to carry his discarded cigar butts in their cleavages. When he broke piano strings, as he often did in his performances, people collected the broken strings and had them made into bracelets. There was even a phase where Liszt invited listeners to write a question for him (on any topic) on a slip of paper and put it into a hat, from which questions would be drawn out for the great man to answer from the stage.

The article says Liszt was the first to organize a program where he was the headlining soloist versus a night which included performances by different people. And some contemporaries regarded his early work as “sheer racket” so there are numerous parallels with rock music and stardom.

Though, as I am sure many before me have pointed out, while there are claims about composers being the rock stars of their day, audiences today aren’t permitted to have the same relationship with the composer as the audiences of their day.

One of the most obvious counters to claims that 200 year old music should be viewed as relevant today because it was the pop music of 200 years ago is that music styles falls out of favor over time. I mean heck, saying someone was the rock star of their day itself is arguably a dated reference since rock isn’t really a mainstream music genre anymore.

So if an appeal is made to potential audiences to view a composers music as the equivalent of current pop music because the composer was the celebrity of their day, people should at least be given the opportunity to freely react and interact as they would to a pop idol.

I have mentioned this basic idea before in a post about a Utah Symphony Orchestra’s (USO) advertising campaign where they had musicians made up as members of the band KISS and had a tagline about their musicians being rock stars. I was concerned people would be disappointed by the difference in energy between a KISS concert and a USO concert, not because orchestra music isn’t as hard driving as rock, the same audience members can equally experience a frisson listening to both, but because they wouldn’t be able to express their appreciation as frehley. (homophonic pun intended obviously)


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