Dip Your Toe, But Probably Not The Time To Take The Plunge

As I was driving into work today, I heard an NPR story about the 92nd St Y, an event/education space in NYC, and how they have gone virtual during Covid-19.  According to NPR, in a typical year 92 Street Y has about 300,000 people participate in their events. In the last 6 months they have had over 3.4 million people engage with their virtual programming.

My first inclination was to think that if they had successfully monetized their offerings, it was likely due to the fact they are located in NYC and are such a marquee name that Hugh Jackman takes classes there.

It turns out that even with those numbers, they haven’t been financially successful.

BLAIR: And they’re selling tickets. Some programming is free, but they’ve also generated over $3 million in revenue. Still, CEO Seth Pinsky says, despite the income and the massive audience increase, they’ve had to furlough staff and cut salaries.

PINSKY: The hardest part of all of this is that, in spite of all the successes that we’re having, the economics still don’t work. And we’ve been operating on fumes.

BLAIR: Pinsky says he hopes, going forward, the 92nd Street Y can crack the code on how to make this new virtual, now global model a sustainable one. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

It should be noted that while $3 million seems great revenue for a lot of us, it is all relative. According to 92nd Street Y’s  financial reports, (much love to them for making it so easy to find), they had $45 million in earned revenue in fiscal year 2019.

For as much as people are saying virtual content is the future, you don’t want to necessarily go all in on this right now. Though obviously, investing energy in in-person content ain’t generating $3 million right now.

Broadway producer Ken Davenport is of the mind that the more paid virtual content that is offered, the quicker that mode of engaging with content will be normalized. He uses the example of younger people paying to watch people stream themselves playing video games.

I am not sure that is the most apt comparison when it comes to streaming live content. I think using your computer to watch someone play a game you, yourself can play on a computer involves a different mode of thinking. There is no live substitute that exists for that experience. Even if you attended a video game tournament in person, and people pack arenas to do just that, you would still end up watching the action play out on a huge screen.

That said, Davenport seems to think there is a separate audience out there that may not necessarily overlap with existing audiences. I am put in mind of the fact that among the top impediments to attending a live event are not having anyone who will accompany them; transportation/distance difficulties; not having the time. There may, in fact, be a local demographic that will engage with a performance that is livestreamed for them.

Davenport writes:

Well first, if you’re a TheaterGoer and you see a TheaterMaker doing something with a price tag attached (and it’ll be much less than a live ticket – because they have to be), considering paying.  You’ll be helping a TheaterMaker.  And TheaterMakers?  Help your peers.  Attend their shows.  Support and you’ll be supported.

But if you want more specifics, then here are my three giant takeaways for TheaterMakers that you MUST do to get on the ground floor of the paid streaming revolution that is coming.

  1. Build a following. You need your own tribe, your own fans, your own community to have a successful career in streaming your art. (That tribe can be any size, but you need to know where they are and be able to communicate with them daily – and yes, social media is great, but nothing beats email.
  2. Stream something. Anything. Start experimenting. Plays. Concerts. One person shows. Try to make it a unique experience for the streaming market so it feels created for it.
  3. Repeat.  Keep doing different things until you find what works for YOU. And after a while you will find something that supports your live stage work. Wouldn’t that be nice?

At my venue we are going to experiment along these lines with a speaker series in October. We will have a live event that is streamed. We are putting the stream on sale a little later than the live event tickets under the philosophy that live streaming is an overflow space to some degree.

After the speaker finishes, there will be a curated Q&A. A half hour after the Q&A we will host online discussions of the topic in Zoom breakout rooms as a way to simulate an after event discussion. The half hour is to allow in-person attendees a little time to get home and log in. The goal is to try to bring the two methods of interaction together in one place. I will let you know how things turn out.

Live From Our Fire Escape

Today Drew McManus had a post on Adaptistration titled “In the Age Of COVID, Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention.” This was pretty timely because I had my own tale of adapting to the times to tell.

This weekend at my venue, we hosted our first live event since March -an outdoor cabaret performance on our fire escape. (Not so much an invention, I suppose since the first thing people did when the pandemic started was sing from their apartment windows and fire escapes.)

As you can see from the pictures below, we have a pretty substantial fire escape with multiple levels that can be used for performance. Since this was our first time out and we didn’t want to expose more of our equipment to the summer heat and possible rain than necessary, we limited our activities to one level.

The audience sat in our parking lot. As you can see, we prepped the parking lot by chalking out seating pods. The seating was general admission and we undersold what we imagined our capacity to be in order to provide both our audience and ourselves with the flexibility to see how things developed.

We determined the size and number of pods to create by analyzing the ticket purchasing patterns. We drew out two person, four person, six person and in one case 10 person, pods based on how people purchased their tickets. The pods were spaced to allow six feet between groups of unrelated people. Then we allowed enough room on the perimeter for people who felt the need for greater distancing to set up as they wanted.

Our aim was to observe how many people chose the pods versus the open areas in order to get a sense of what our actual capacity for the space might be while ensuring good sightlines. We capped the event at 175 people, but now figure we can get up to about 250 and still ensure appropriate spacing and flexibility in seating location.

Our local mask ordinance requires that if you are anywhere outside your home within six feet of a person with whom you do not live, you must wear a mask. The example given is if you are waiting at a crosswalk alone, you don’t have to wear a mask, but if someone arrives to wait with you, you need to be wearing one.

Since people were coming with picnic set-ups or could grab food from partner restaurants and didn’t have to wear a mask while eating, our policy was you could only sit with people in your household and could remove your mask while seated in your pod with them. Since moving to and from that space requires becoming closer to others, you needed to wear a mask as you moved about everywhere else. By and large everyone heeded the rule and those that didn’t we firmly prodded to comply.

One bit of fortunate timing was about three weeks ago the local government expanded permission to have open containers on downtown streets from First Friday only to every night between 4 pm-10 pm to allow bar patrons to use sidewalk tables restaurants and the downtown association had deployed. This allowed us to serve alcohol out of our own bar which helped improve the financial situation of the event.

Overall, it was regarded as a success and we are planning to run at least one more before it gets too cool this Fall. Stay tuned.

Culture Track Report Says The Same People Won’t Be Returning

You may have seen the news today that the results of the Culture Track Covid-19 report were publicly released today. While some of the data about audience willingness to return to arts and culture organizations is a little dated due to the survey being conducted at the end of April through May 19, the majority of the findings can be very valuable to arts and cultural organizations.

They had only expected about 50,000 people to participate but had over 124,000 respondents to the survey. Participants ranged from knitting groups and walking clubs to organizations you might typically associate with arts and culture activities. Back on June 17, Advisory Board for the Arts hosted a webinar where staff from Slover Linnet and LaPlaca Cohen gave an early preview of the results to organizations that had participated in the study. If you want a deeper view of the results, you can watch the webinar.

The infographic layout of the report that came out today does a good job presenting the data, but there is one thing I don’t think they made clear enough which may cause people to question the results. Especially since the methodology is explained in a separate document rather than included as an appendix to the Key Finding report.

Since so many of the respondents were people on the mailing lists of arts and culture organizations around the country, you would correctly assume that it might skew the data. The Culture Track folks worked with another organization to distribute the survey a representative sample of the US population. The results you see in the key findings report are weighted to be representative of the US population.

The webinar presents both the core subscriber/ticket buyer response percentages and weighted percentages.  While the core supporters are much more likely to say the arts are important and worthy of preservation than the general population, they also more likely to expect organizations to implement strict health and safety protocols upon re-opening.

A couple of the bigger takeaways for me:

• People said they were feeling lonely, bored and disconnected and one of the things they missed most was sharing experiences with family and friends. In the webinar, the presenters suggested if there were a way for arts organizations to digitally allow people to share experiences, it would potentially serve a large need.

• Something to keep in mind is that people may want a much more interactive experience in the future. 81% of respondents said they were doing something creative while quarantined. Cooking, singing, handcrafting (knitting, painting, pottery, woodwork, etc), photography and writing were among the top responses.

• Many people were engaging in digital cultural experiences in the 30 days prior to taking the survey. In the webinar, the speakers noted that the demographics of people participating digitally was more diverse in terms of education, gender, race/ethnicity than those attending in person. They suggested that digital content might be a way to attract more diverse groups to in person experiences over the long term. (Obviously online content needs to align with an in-person experience–including how welcome one feels.)  There are also some who appreciated digital content as a solution to concerns about affordability, transportation and schedule.

• Unfortunately few people reported paying for digital content. In the webinar, they said 2% of people reported they paid for digital content, but in the Key Findings report that came out today, it says 13% have paid for content. It made me wonder if they received additional or corrected data since June 17. Most of the other numbers I was using to cross reference the webinar and Key Findings report remained the same.

• In general, what people crave the most upon an anticipated return to in-person experiences is ability to enjoy oneself/de-stress in the company of family and friends.

Obviously, a lot of nuance and detail not included here so take a look at the report and/or webinar. Overall the the title of this post reflects the reality of the next normal. Those that physically engage in-person won’t be the same as before in both the literal sense demographically and metaphoric “no one can enter the same river twice” sense. The faces may be familiar, but they will have different expectations.



When The Docent Is Just As Storied As The Artifact

Back in November 2018, I wrote about how the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was hiring refugees from Middle Eastern countries to act as docents for galleries of that region. Last week, NPR ran a story on the program which has expanded to include docents from Africa and Mexico & Central American to guide people through those collections .

The program has proven popular with visitors and peer institutions,

Attendance at the Penn Museum has shot up since the Global Guides’ first tours in 2018. A third of its visitors today attend specifically to take a tour with a Global Guide, according to the institution’s internal research, and the program has attracted attention throughout the museum world. Nearly a dozen other museums have asked about developing similar programs, and there’s already one in place at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford in England.

Something that struck me as valuable to any arts & cultural organization, whether it is a museum or not, was the training these docent received:

The guides received traditional training in archaeology and ancient history. Plus, the museum hired professional storytellers to help the Global Guides lace in personal tales about their lives.

In the quest to make what we do feel more relevant to people in our communities, storytelling is an increasingly valuable skill. I have come to recognize in recent years that while we all have stories which have a powerful resonance for ourselves and others, not everyone is particularly skilled in telling stories. Making storytellers part of staff, volunteer and particularly board training can have some productive results.

Related to that, reading about the museum hiring professional storytellers reminded me of a post I did in 2011 about how the North Carolina Arts Council used folklorists to survey the residents of a county in which they wanted to set up an arts council.

This apparently yielded better results than having a surveying firm canvas the county because the folklorists were able to identify and access niche communities that might normally be missed–especially among those who don’t consider themselves to be artists. So on the flip side, people who are adept at collecting stories may be valuable to surveying efforts.

Folklorists, as it happens, are some of the best trained interviewers out there. They also have a particular advantage when it comes to arts research: folklorists are trained to seek out and recognize creativity in all forms, especially that which comes from people who don’t consider themselves “artists.”



P.S. Once again, I have missed my blog’s birthday. It was 16 years old yesterday. At least this time I remembered before Drew McManus wished it a Happy Birthday first. Not that this assuaged the blog’s resentment at having its birthday forgotten once again. You know how it is with teenagers