I Figured This Was Highly Unlikely. What A Difference A Month Makes

Early last month I bookmarked an article by Jeremy Reynolds in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette intending to come back to address it in a blog post in some manner. In the article, Reynolds was arguing for shorter classical music concerts.  At the time, I figured it would never happen broadly due to the inertia of tradition.

Now with public events shutdown and artists and organizations streaming their performances, I strongly suspect a lot more people are going to be open to exploring the basic concepts Reynolds espouses.

If concerts were shorter, the quality of musicianship could increase significantly. I often chastise classical groups for bloated, unnecessarily long recitals. An hour of tight, balanced, in-tune playing is vastly preferable to a two- or three-hour slog of mediocrity.

While some organizations say a program should fill an evening, offering quantity over quality is a poor strategy even if funders tend to favor inventive and diverse programming.

He also accuses ever lengthening intermissions of impeding the momentum of the experience. Since his article opens with him advising friends to go home at intermission, I imagine he would be all for a short, intermissionless performance which would solve two problems at once.

He addresses the idea that you have to give people their money’s worth:

I realize that the cost of ticket prices (which I recently argued are too expensive given how little revenue tickets generate) causes some groups to feel they need to hit a minimum threshold of time, but this is arbitrary. Maybe it’s not about the length of the program, but what an organization does with it that matters most.

[…]

The New World Symphony, a forward-thinking training ensemble in Miami, rolled out a series of concerts years ago that ran for 30 minutes and 60-75 minutes.

“The trick is not to think you have to fill an evening,” orchestra President Howard Herring said. “The question isn’t just: What music do I want to bring forth? but What is the uncompromised artistic experience that only we can provide?”

Now that groups and individuals are streaming their performances, they are almost certainly getting a lot of exercise evaluating and providing a highly focused uncompromised artistic experience. If things ever move back to the former semblance of normal, I think it would be a safe bet that those who continued to employ the “muscles” they developed while focusing on delivering an uncompromised experience will be on a firmer path to success.

Gotta Keep Reading, Even Though You Hate To

With all the anxiety being generated by news surrounding COVID-19, you probably don’t want to continue reading about the decisions groups are making about whether to continue events or not, and if they are continuing, what steps they are taking.

However, reading about what steps other people are taking can make you more aware of your options for moving forward and communicating with audiences.

I have probably read a good 20-25 articles since Monday in addition to an equal number of messages on our state consortium discussion group.  Still after all that, I saw an American Theatre article on the topic today that raised a point I hadn’t considered or seen anywhere else.

It was just a single mention about theaters no longer offering same-cup refills at concessions, but that wasn’t something that had entered our discussions at my venue. We are sanitizing left and right, but we had forgotten that by encouraging people to bring their theatre branded tumblers with them to help avoid creating plastic and paper waste, we raise the risk of cross contamination if they come back to the bar more than once in a night.

So as unpleasant as it may be to constantly read articles about responses to the virus, it is worth reading and paying attention in order to ensure you have a more comprehensive plan in place.

…..Damned if it isn’t going to be galling to ask people not to recycle.

 

The Socio-Economic-Ethnically Diverse Audience You Seek Is At The Library

There was an article on the Arts Professional site urging care in the Arts Council of England’s initiative to increase investment in libraries over the next decade. The author of the piece, Hassan Vawda, expresses concerns that attempts to revitalize libraries using arts may unintentionally damage all the beneficial elements of the library environment.

Statistics from DCMS’s Taking Part survey shows libraries are the only space used proportionally more by Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) audiences than those who identify as White. In contrast, arts organisations and museums are used disproportionately by White audiences – despite more than a decade of language, policy and schemes aiming to support diversity.

[…]

People often have far more input into the way libraries are used as public spaces than they do with arts and cultural spaces – for all their outreach. At its best, the library is an intergenerational resource that adapts and moulds around the communities it finds itself in.

[…]

Outside the professional arts sector, libraries have engendered a trust that has eluded many traditional arts venues – and this must not be lost. The arts can definitely support the development of libraries, and amplify the case for reinvestment. But libraries must not succumb to the fate of the many art and culture-led spaces that have inadvertently become dominated by the middle classes.

As far as I know, there isn’t a similar effort in the U.S. to make libraries into trendy arts hubs. In fact, as Drew McManus pointed out today, the The Institute of Museum and Library Services is up for dissolution right along with the NEA, NEH and PBS.

However,  pretty much all the observations Vawda makes about libraries in England are true for libraries in the U.S. Even if Black, Asian and ethnic minorities don’t use libraries in greater proportion than those who identify as White in the US, I feel pretty secure in saying libraries are visited by a much more ethnically and socio-economically diverse group than most arts entities.

Reading this article it struck me that there is  potential to “get it right,” as it were. As Vawda mentions, arts organizations have a long history of outreach efforts that have had middling results.

The opportunity exists then in  putting a lot of effort into studying very closely the environment libraries provide, both in general and as specifically appropriate to their neighborhoods/communities and implementing radical changes to transform existing arts organizations.

Or, perhaps more pragmatically, arts organizations can bring their resources to libraries and be guided by them about how those resources are deployed.

I say this is the more pragmatic option because in all likelihood, in choosing it, an arts organization is acknowledging the great difficulty established arts organization would have implementing the sort of internal radical change required to cultivate the level of trust engendered by libraries. Even this would be a difficult decision for many since there is no guarantee that a close partnership with the library will ever increase the level of direct participation with the arts organization.

If the organization has the internal will to implement former option of providing an experience with the same sense of openness and user agency provided by a library, partnering with the library would already be part of the plan or the organization would already be hitting satisfying benchmarks and see no pressing need to partner.

Though with as imaginative as people are and as different the dynamics of every community, it is distinctly within the realm of possibility that some few arts organization wouldn’t have to radically change their business model and philosophy.

Pretty much either option requires a recognition that if the people you are dedicated to serving won’t come to you, you need to move toward them and meet them where they are.

Reading Rebranding As “You Aren’t Wanted”

Last month you may have read a number of news stories about the Methodist church in Minnesota with declining attendance that decided to kick out all their old members so they could attract younger members. Except that wasn’t exactly what the church was doing. They just wanted to close the one church for about 18 months in order to do some renovations and rebrand it and were asking members to attend a sister church in the meantime.

The goal definitely was to attract a younger congregation and the new pastor would be about 30 years younger than the current pastor. It sounds like the renovations had the goal of creating spaces in which younger people felt comfortable worshiping.

Shifting all this to the context of arts organizations, there is an eternal conversation about attracting new, younger audiences. However, research shows, arts organizations are actually pretty good at attracting new audiences, but not too good at retaining them so they return with some consistency.

This story about closing and rebranding made me wonder if there is any value in doing so if it makes your organization look more welcoming to a broader range of the community. We know that one of the biggest barriers to participation for people who aren’t already doing so is not seeing themselves and their stories being depicted.

If you were going to pursue closing and rebranding in a similar manner, it would have to encompass more than just freshening up the physical plant with a renovation.  The type of programs the organization offered would need to be revised. Likely the way in which they were delivered might need to be changed. Staff would either need to be retrained and/or new staff hired to deliver on the promises the organization was making.

Is there a good chance that all of this might scare your existing audience away in the same way it is turning off the current congregation of the church? Yep, good chance of that.

In the past I cited a couple of Nina Simon’s talks about providing relevance to the people whom you hope to serve. While she talks about creating metaphorical new doors for people to enter, if you are doing a renovation, you might create physical ones. She notes that it may be difficult for long time supporters to understand that not everything that is being done now is for them, even if nothing has been subtracted to provide experiences for others.

As I wrote:

A new initiative may displace one of regular events. Instead of 10 things designed for you, you only get nine. For a lot of people even 1/10 of a change can result in them feeling the organization is no longer relevant to them. This may especially be true in the case of subscription holders. That one bad grape in ten ruins the value of the whole package.

In this situation it can be a little tricky to say, that’s okay you don’t need to come to that show, we have other discount configurations that may suit your needs. Not only might your delivery of that message be flawed and sound offensive, but even with perfect delivery, the patron may only hear “that’s okay you don’t need to come.”

Even if the new initiatives are additions and don’t displace any of the current offerings, patrons, donors, board members can still feel the organization is no longer the one they value, despite having lost nothing.

Reading the different stories about the church in Minnesota, I got the sense that the current congregants were hearing “that’s okay, you don’t need to come,” in the planned renewal of their church. While that may turn you off of considering making changes for fear of losing what you already have, consider that what you are already doing may be telling a lot more people who have never walked in your door or come once or twice, “that’s okay, you don’t need to come.”

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