Stop Killing Kittens

Last week Drew McManus encouraged arts marketers to break pre-Covid bad habits by renewed his plea to stop using cliched terms like “beloved.”  If you read his post closely you will notice he has been making the plea since 2014 when he created the hashtag #BanBeloved  (Which has probably be co-opted by those that oppose Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name.)

Drew asserts that every time an arts marketer uses the term “beloved,” a kitten dies.

So, you know if you won’t do it for the sake of your general community, think of the kittens.

Drew has identified a number of other objectionable adjectives, but others have reared their ugly heads and gotten over used in the interim. If you search your heart, you know what they are.

Earlier in April, Trevor O’Donnell made a similar plea about considering the language being used in marketing materials, encouraging people to focus on the audience and the shared experience.

Calling it a side-splitting, roll-in-the-aisles romp may be cute and catchy, and it may ring comfortingly familiar to older arts leaders, but it isn’t true and it’s not effective communication.

New audiences don’t respond to frivolous hyperbole. They want clear, honest, useful information that explains why your products matter to them. If what they’re looking for is a fun, stimulating way to create lasting memories with family, friends or loved ones, your job is to sell social experiences that offer lasting memories; i.e. if that memory is about sharing a funny play, you should probably say something like, “You’ll remember laughing together for a lifetime.”

O’Donnell attributes the use of hyperbole and focus on the organization vs. the audience to older arts administrators who are set in their ways. As I had noted a couple weeks back, there are a heck of a lot of advertisements for jobs at arts and culture organizations out there right now, particularly at the President/CEO/Vice-President level. It will be interesting if we see a significant shift in programming, promotional and operational practices over the next five years as a result of all this.

Is E-sports The Next Big College Degree?

So here is something to keep on your radar and  consider the long term implications – Activision Blizzard, one of the biggest names in video gaming, donated $25 million to the University of Michigan to help them launch an esports team.  If you are not familiar with esports it is basically teams of people competing against each other on some of the marquee video game titles.   The competitors may be sitting down, but reflexes, timing, strategy, leadership and teamwork are significant determinants in success.

It is already fairly widespread and lucrative as hell which means it will inevitably continue to expand. Especially if Covid or other pandemics continues to be prevalent because the teams communicate over headsets and can therefore be easily isolated from each other.

So it is no surprise that universities are beginning to get on board. Not only is it an area of interest for students, some of them are already competing professionally.

Kotick’s enthusiasm to establish esports at Michigan is part of a bigger movement that has legitimized gaming as a path to a college degree and career.

There are nearly 200 colleges and universities nationwide with varsity esports programs and more than $16 million in scholarships is awarded to esports athletes each year.

The growth of collegiate esports allows institutions and their students to tap into a market that is expected to surpass $1.5 billion by 2023, per Esports Ecosystem Report.

Not only do video games present competition for live performance, (Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said video gaming was a bigger source of worry for them than Disney & HBO streaming services), but also a potentially expanding source of employment for creatives.

The small university in southern Ohio at which I worked three years ago had long been recognized as a top 10 video game design program. It taught both programmers and artists and included classes in composing and designing sound/music for video games. There wasn’t an acting for video games class, but it did have a motion capture studio and independent companies in town were working on related technologies.

It is a lot more difficult to design and program for video games than most people imagine. Increasing demands for realism mean serious calculus for the physics and intense execution of detail in the art. As computing capacity and processing improves, it is only going to get worse–or better if you are a highly skilled creative being sought after by gaming companies.

After realizing their professors were right and enjoying playing video games does not translate into being able to create them, many students would change the focus of their majors. But they were still pretty adept and enthusiastic video gamers. And so 3-4 years ago, that small university in rural Ohio started an esports roster alongside their athletics teams.

Now there were other universities that started esports teams a few years ago as well, but the fact that a small university could have an organized a roster of ~50 competing on 6-7 game titles for years while the University of Michigan was operating at a recreational level provides some indication about the shifting dynamics of who is and can participate in esports.

Time To Review – To Whom Are You Accountable?

During the Covid pandemic there has been a fair bit of introspection and soul searching about arts and culture, the role they should have in people’s lives, and the medium through which the experience should be delivered.

Now that there is some optimism about a transition to a relatively better operational environment for businesses and other organizations,  (Yes, i am indeed taking pains not to use terms like “return to normal”), it is definitely time to think about how those theories will be manifested.

Vu Le linked to an important essay by Hildy Gottlieb addressing the question of to whom non-profits should be accountable. Her primary thesis is that it is illogical to view the organization as accountable to funders & donors. She dissects the illogic of the implications of a funder accountable position. Among her best examples is the following:

If organizations are primarily accountable to donors, and a donor dies, is the organization still accountable to that person? What if it’s been 30 years since they died, and the world has changed dramatically — are you still accountable to that person’s wishes? Or are you accountable to their heirs? What if the heirs don’t care about your mission — perhaps their mother was an animal lover, and they could never understand that part of her. Maybe they even hate your organization. Are you accountable to the second and third generations of a donor who loved you, even if her heirs do not?

Gottlieb says the organizational mission determines to whom you are accountable. If your mission is serving a certain group, but they take a backseat to funders, then you are not fulfilling your mission. She addresses the concept of there being no mission to execute without the money with the following anecdote:

I once found myself in conversation with board members from a federally funded health center, who all listed patient health as their highest priority. However, one board member kept insisting, “We can only prioritize patient care to the extent we have the money to do so.”

So I took a sheet of paper and wrote “Values Statement’ at the top. Then I wrote, “Our primary focus will always be the health of our patients, as long as we have the money to do so.” I asked if that is what they would like to post in their lobby.

Suddenly their sense of accountability shifted.

She also notes that in the United States the organization has tax-exempt status in return for providing a public service. The reason for being and accountability is the public service and not the money. The “good stewardship” of funds that results in underpaid staff who turn over at a high rate doesn’t help the organization to advance it’s mission.

“Focusing their primary accountability on the money, we see board members spend a huge percentage of their time discussing financial matters, and often zero time discussing what success would look like in their community”

Gottlieb also debunks the sense that fundraising is a result of relationship building, the oft voice sentiment “people give to people, not organizations.” She says no one is fooled that the relationship is more than a transactional one:

Here is what “fundraising is about relationships” really tells a donor:

If you give us money, we will be your friend.
If we think you will give us money, we will court you as our friend.
The more money you give us, the more friendly we will be.
If you fail to give us money, we will eventually stop calling you.

If we truly valued donors as people, we would stop categorizing them as LYBUNTs and SYBUNTs.

So much of what she writes can easily be applied to the way arts and cultural organizations approach donors/members/volunteers. While I often say it is worthwhile to read an article, I strongly emphasize the importance of reading this one and thinking about how the opportunity for a fresh start will change the way your organization operates moving forward.

I was considering putting such an emphatic statement at the beginning of this post, but considered that anyone who read this far would be more prepared to make the effort toward this goal.

I strongly suspect being more steadfast in prioritizing mission over money will make accomplishing progress in areas of equity and inclusion suddenly much easier than it was before.

Cross-Discipline Pollination For Post-Covid Arts

Following the link tweeted by Ava Wong Davies got me to a lengthy blog post by Tim X. Atack about things that need to change in theatre post-Covid.  I will initially engaged by his insistence that the arts needs to stop citing the economic value of the arts when arguing why they need to be supported. As long time readers know, I am very much in agreement with this sentiment.

…there’s a growing feeling that over a year later, the driving focus is to get back to business as it was before the pandemic – maybe, even, to take steps backwards.

That feeling’s compounded by hearing, over and over, industry leaders using the language of our oppressors as justification for business as usual. I’m so so tired of the assertion that The Arts need to be protected because ‘they give five pounds back for every pound put in,’ like some Gordon Gecko hokey cokey. It might be true, but the people we’re making this upward argument to simply Do. Not. Fucking. Care. There are easier ways to make profit, without the messy business of creating art that makes you think about things and feel stuff.

And worse, when the bottom line becomes the principle reason work is made, defaults rule. The idea of art being life-changing or surprising or transformative actually becomes a threat when the main thing you want to do is keep an existing base happy. Theatre stops being alive and becomes transactional. Experiences become about promises made in return for money, rather than invitations to be part of something new, or bigger. Even political plays stop being political and become ‘about the politics’ instead, worthy but inert, leading nowhere.

Atack also broaches a subject I have been less enthusiastic about as a post-Covid reality, the digitization of the live performance experience. He argues from the perspective of the need for cross-disciplinary competency which makes the necessity feel less objectionable to me. (Though even an introvert like myself thinks the spark of having a live interaction with another over a shared experience is irreplaceable.)

At the start of lockdown I heard one artistic director say their theatre was ‘not about to become a film production studio’. But in truth, those kind of skills and cross-disciplinary thinking were shown to be desperately needed the very second theatres started uploading what felt like 1 million appallingly made films…


… All told, we might not want our theatres to entirely become film studios. But if we don’t regularly allow film-makers, and artists of other disciplines, into our theatre culture on progressive and free-thinking terms, to cross-pollinate and diversify the form, if we don’t modernise our concept of a theatre career, when the next virus comes we might as well just shut up shop and walk away.

As I said, his entry is a good length has has many other thoughts about the dynamics of the arts industry post-Covid so it may be worth taking a read to see if anything he says stimulates some thoughts for you as well.

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