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.

Your Programming Is More Inclusive, But What About Giving Opportunities?

Hat tip to Artsjournal.com which featured an article that seems to indicate it is better to diversify the donor base rather than continue to ask the same pool of donors to give more.  The article discusses giving to public radio stations which have a slightly different appeal process than most non-profits and more closely tie donating to membership than many performing arts organizations.

The piece uses the example of WABE, located in Atlanta, GA which upon noting that the average donation amount made by all listeners was $14/month decided to ask their existing monthly donors to increase their giving to $15/month.  This ended up backfiring on the station.

But the $15 ask turned out to be “too high,” Barasoain said. Though the team was happy with the total revenue the drive brought in, the bigger gifts came at the expense of suppressing the number of donors by an estimated 12%–16%, he said.

During WABE’s previous two fall drives, on-air pitches requested gifts in any amount. The total number of pledges for the fall 2019 drive dropped 34% compared to fall 2017 and 20% versus fall 2018.

In the 2019 drive, “we were tapping the same group of donors to give more and more money to the station,” Hyman said. “And it’s just not sustainable long-term.”

The station immediately pivoted and lowered its pledge-drive asks.

In fall 2020, the team pitched gifts of $10 per month. The number of pledges increased 11%, and revenue decreased less than 2% from fall 2019.

The station has since expanded the ways in which they solicit support to include telemarketing and direct mail as a way to supplement their on-air fund drives.

The article discusses the efforts of WFAE in Charlotte, NC and KEXP in Seattle, WA which have removed minimum monthly giving levels for the sustaining member category to create a sense of participation. There is evidence that the monthly giving helps keep people feeling engaged on an ongoing basis and improves retention.

KEXP in Seattle prioritizes “participation first,” said Erin Lightfoot, director of annual and digital philanthropy. “We’ve always really highlighted … ways that everyone can participate in supporting the station no matter what their financial capacity is, and also being extremely grateful for that.” During on-air drives, pitch announcers vary the requested giving levels.

“We do try to vary it a lot in order to make sure that we’re really inviting everyone in no matter what their capacity or their comfort level is with gift-giving,” Lightfoot said.

Something to think about in terms of making giving feel more inclusive as a complement to programming feeling more inclusive.

How Much More Tolerance Left For Crushing Summer Internship As Career Starter

When I was an undergraduate, and even after I graduated college, I applied to work at the Williamstown Theater Festival, one of the most prestigious summer theaters in the country. Recent reporting makes me think I may have dodged a bullet when I wasn’t accepted.

You may have seen that back in July, the sound crew all walked off the job to protest long hours and unsafe working conditions at the festival. This week additional reporting by the L.A. Times revealed a greater extent to which these conditions existed, impacting the well-being of interns and apprentices.

Seffinger spent the summer rigging and focusing lights by hand for up to 16 hours a day. While crawling in the restricted space above a Williamstown stage to hang a power cable, he hit the back of his head on a horizontal metal support pole and suffered what doctors later diagnosed as a concussion.

He said he had been explicitly instructed during orientation to remove any hard hats when climbing in this area, or any stage space at height; according to Bagwell, Seffinger’s supervisor, the festival’s hard hats did not have chin straps and could potentially drop into the house and hurt someone. Seffinger used his own health insurance coverage for the hospital visit, otherwise, he would have had to pay out of pocket with no assistance from the festival. And he was ineligible for workers’ compensation, as interns were categorized as unpaid festival volunteers.

Those interviewed for the story cited fear of career impacting reprisals and concern about the strength of claims kept them from filing claims with OSHA and the state of Massachusetts. As well that:

Without money, major credits or other benefits to fall back on, young theater artists were not in a position to speak up against safety issues, overwork or lack of opportunity without risking retribution. Those who did make in-person complaints to supervisors and schedulers were either ignored or instructed to grin and bear it,…

One woman interviewed for the story said her parents took out a loan to cover the $4000 apprentice program fee which was supposed to provide her education and experience toward an acting career, but required so much work from her that there were no opportunities to learn or perform.

It was made clear that “festival needs” — a shorthand for the litany of tasks required by the star-studded marquee productions — came before any educational or creative opportunity. Many times, Ayala found herself ditching her acting classes to save her energy for her next shift or recover from her last one.

“It was hard when the projects that were supposed to be my opportunities felt like the bottom of an endless list of tasks,” said Zeftel. “No one has time to be a collaborative artist because they’re being utilized as cogs in the machine to make the festival’s biggest priorities happen.”

Apprentices’ chances to act were scattered across smaller, one-night-only projects that rehearsed and played at odd overnight hours, but they could do so only if they weren’t assigned to other, more menial tasks. Three sources told The Times that it was not uncommon for an apprentice to go an entire summer without acting in anything.

I definitely worked long hours for little pay at summer theaters, (as well as year round theaters, for that matter), and while the culture has long demanded that the individual subsume their lives to the needs of the production, I was never in a situation as bad as described in these articles.

I was certainly miserable at times. When the conversation about kids today needing to pay their dues, I don’t wish the same experience on others. Learning the ropes of any job will always be difficult and frustrating. Just as we need to let our physical body rest to recover from endurance and strength building exercise, so too do we need emotional and mental rest so we can develop and employ our additional capacity.

As business journals try to analyze the motivations behind the current Great Resignation, it would behoove the theater world to note that people have left jobs that were far less onerous than the internship/apprenticeship conditions that exist. If any sector needs to change their business model quickly to respond to the times, it is arts and culture.   These practices were never the most constructive element in the career pathway in the best of times, it would be surprising if they remain viable at all going forward.

I Wish I Was Going With You Approach To Customer Service

This morning I attended a brand reveal for a Marriott hotel slated to open half a block from my venue in/around January. This particular collection of hotels is highly customized to the community in which it resides so there was a lot of detail discussed in the 1.5 hours of the actual presentation.

One thing that occurred to me during the presentation was that you should only pay for brand design that you have the budget to execute. The amount of money they are going to spend executing the branding vision is going to be significant.

When the designers started talking about the brand values that would be embodied, a couple struck me as concepts to be embraced by arts and culture organizations.

One was – we are not docents, we are friends-in-the-know. The other was – we are not interested, we are invested.   These statements seemed to embody the nuanced difference between good customer service and great customer service.

If you had two people working at the front desk and they each provided the same information to guests, but there was something you couldn’t put your finger on that made one of them seem superior to the other, something akin to these two concepts are likely to be present.  The better service comes from someone who isn’t just doling out information, but makes you feel they wish they were going with you or want you to have the same great experience they had when they were there.

So now I am letting these ideas percolate in my brain as I look around at our operation and think about how that can manifest at different points in our visitor experience. (Though I suppose we shouldn’t give people the impression we wish we were accompanying them when they ask directions to the restrooms.) Of course, however we decide that should be embodied in our building should be present where ever we are representing the organization outside out facilities as well.

Let me just point out that these are not entirely new concepts. In terms of marketing, they are a variation on Trevor O’Donnell’s “Gal In Starbucks” test from six years ago that I have written on a number of times. This is something the arts and culture industry should have been working toward for a few years now at least.

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