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What Arts and Cultural Concepts Should Every American Know?

The Aspen Institute has a project in which the arts and culture community might want to participate. They are asking “What Every American Should Know.” They acknowledge right off that the project name might be controversial because it evokes E.D. Hirsh’s book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know which sparked a lot of debate.

I have a clear memory of picking up the book while house sitting for a professor and subsequently having a conversation with him about his objections to some of the topics on Hirsh’s list.

The Aspen Institute asks,

In our sweeping and turbulent nation, how can we cultivate a sense of shared culture and identity? The more fragmented we become, the more necessary it is for us to have a common vocabulary – a shared set of cultural and historical references – that we can all collect and understand.

I think the way the current election campaign is being conducted probably underscores the necessity of the type of thing they are doing.

The Aspen Institute list is an extension of an essay Eric Liu, executive director of the Aspen Institute American Citizenship and Identity Program wrote. In it, he defends the utility of Hirsh’s effort, in part because even protest movements need to employ the shared vocabulary of the culture they are opposing in order to be effective. He also acknowledges that a new list of 5000 topics needs to be constructed for today’s American citizens.

They have set up a website where you can contribute your top 10 topics. They have a selected lists from various distinguished persons such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, David Henry Hwang, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as examples. I hope they eventually make more lists public. I know 90% of the topics on the selected lists, but the other 5% are new to me so I am curious to know more about what I don’t know.

It probably says something about the validity of Top 10 lists on the Internet that I only started to consider this to be a serious effort when I saw they are scheduling in-person sessions at libraries to discuss the idea of “What Every American Needs To Know.” (scroll to the bottom to see if they are coming to a library near you.)

Obviously I think a lot of arts and culture topics should appear on some lists so the more people that contribute, the better. My only question is what will be done with the lists and will it contribute to effecting the change they seek.

Maybe it is enough just to have conversations in libraries. That may plant the seeds for change that are needed by getting people to talk and relate to one another. Whether it can counteract the bile one finds online remains to be seen.

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Only $25 For A Ticket?….We Must Be INSANE!!!!

In a recent post Seth Godin proposed two ways of approaching your business, “Either you dazzle with as much hype as you can get away with, or you invest in delighting people, regardless of how difficult it is.”

It was the example that he used to support the idea of hyping the hell out of something that left me incredulous.

Years ago, I asked fabled direct marketer Joe Sugarman about the money-back guarantee he offered on the stuff he sold through magazine ads. He said 10% of the people who bought asked for their money back… and if any product dipped below 10%, he’d make the claims more outrageous until it got back up. He told me that this was a sweet spot, somewhere between amazing people with promises and disappointing them with reality.

The idea that someone decided they aren’t being outrageous enough if a certain percentage of people aren’t asking for their money back sort of blew my mind. It goes against the whole concept of customer service. As Shakespeare writes in the beginning of Much Ado About Nothing, “…the fashion of the world is to avoid cost [trouble], and you encounter it.”

But this got me to wondering if a super-hype approach might work for the arts. Trevor O’Donnell is constantly saying that arts marketing doesn’t focus on the audience member and instead references concepts and accolades that are only relevant to insiders. Hyping an event like a cheesy used car commercial would break people of that habit.

I am sure there would be a lot of outcry that this approach was demeaning the work, but if it is successful at attracting a larger following, it might be worth considering.

Note–I am not suggesting anything be changed about the event. People often express concern about dumbing down an experience. I am only suggesting the advertising be dumbed down.

Yeah, I know even that would be a hard sell. I can imagine what my board might think if the advertising strayed from portraying a certain image of the organization.

Recent conversation has focused on the need for the arts community to move away from the conceit that all people need is one exposure and they will be hooked on the arts. I think that is the right mindset.

However, if people arrive with the expectation they are going to leave amazed and so ecstatic they will barely be able to walk straight for an hour afterward, they may convince themselves that they are having a better time than they would have without being primed by the hype.

Of course, there are going to be people who are disappointed, but that is part of the calculation. In fact, adopting this philosophy, you are paying close attention to make sure that ratio doesn’t fall below a certain point.

Probably the biggest difference between circa 1979 when Sugarman’s company was operating at its peak and now is that people can more easily share their dissatisfaction with each other.

Also, most arts events are communal experiences vs. the individual experience of purchasing something from direct marketing. If 10% of 1000 people are upset, everyone is going to know it immediately and it will sour the experience of the other 900.

There is nothing to say you need to make utterly ridiculous claims and aim for a 10% dissatisfaction rate. If you stage pictures and write copy giving the impression audiences are enjoying themselves five times more than they actually are, you probably still won’t be flirting with fraud – but you will be focusing more on audiences. (If your audiences already look like they are having an awesome time, just hype it by a factor of 3 😉 )

If you do resort to a used car type ad, talking about how you must be insane to sell tickets to such a great show for so low a price or for letting people into your museum to see art for FREE! ….well if you balance charm and humor it might help you make progress convincing people that you are a true, worthwhile asset in the community.

Yes, I suppose arts organizations might double down on talking about how great they are instead of how great a time the audience will have. I have to believe there is a limit they will reach where the only option to escalate the hype is to start focusing on audience interests.


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If You Can’t Poach ‘Em, Praise ‘Em

A few months back when Ceci Dadisman and Drew McManus first floated the idea of recognizing Creative Arts Administrators to the rest of us ArtHacker authors, my first thought was that the project shouldn’t just be about who is doing a great job, but rather who you would love to poach from another company.

I have mentioned this idea in something of an off-handed way in my posts from time to time. We frequently hear about people being lured or headhunted away in relation to for-profit companies. A recent discussion my board had about recruiting new members cited the fact that one woman was pursued and lured to a new job by another company in town as part of her qualifications and value to our board.

You rarely hear this sort of thing in the non-profit realm. I don’t know if people are concerned about being perceived as cutthroat. Perhaps more likely, they don’t feel they can offer pay, benefits or work environment competitive enough to entice people to leave their current job. Intangible factors like idealism about the work being done might also come into play.

All this being said, having a more competitive job market can be beneficial. First of all, it can raise employee morale if they are being courted or see colleagues being courted. It gives a sense that someone external to the organization is paying attention and recognizes their contribution. Not to mention contributing to the sense that a path to advancement exists within the industry.

This type of competition can also help justify the organization’s overhead ratio and funding requests if they can do more than cite the hypothetical need to offer good salaries to retain people. If you are losing talented people to poaching by other non-profits, that says something. (Granted, if you are losing people to poor salaries, that says something as well.)

I should note that I am not just daydreaming about how great it would be if non-profit arts organizations had to compete for the best talent. Drew McManus and I recently had a conversation where we both observed that search firms were increasingly being listed in job postings.

We were a little wary about whether this was a good thing since some of the firms don’t appear to have any experience conducting searches in the arts and culture field. This could be another indication of boards of directors looking to run the arts “more like business” and may result in organizations being lead by people with little practical background in the arts.

But it could also be an indication that arts organizations are seeing the need to have the recruitment and hiring process handled with greater care and alacrity than they possess.

So in time news that people are being actively headhunted away from an organization may come with greater regularity. Depending on what generalizations about Millennials you subscribe to, this may have the effect of attracting a greater number of very talent people to non-profit work as they pursue a desire to do meaningful work. But with that may come a lot more job switching than arts organizations are used to.

So granted, there is a fair degree of speculation in all this. Bottom line though. If you know someone in the arts you would really love to have working with you, but don’t feel like you could snatch them away —Nominate them on ArtsHacker.

And if you are working with an amazing person right now and having them snatched away would break your heart, nominate them on ArtsHacker and let them know their work is valued.

And if you are afraid calling attention to a person’s awesomeness is going to see them headhunted and it is better to keep the person hidden from sight, well you may already be creating an uncomfortable work environment that will cause them to leave anyhow.

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When Serving Bad Food To Patrons Can Solidify Their Loyalty

Over the years I have made many posts riffing on the idea that marketing it is the responsibility of the entire organization, not just a single department. For that reason, I was happy to see a recent case study report TRG Arts posted on that topic.

Working with Performing Arts Fort Worth (PAFW), they emphasized the need for everyone to be involved in the effort by simply including everyone in the conversation.  PAFW started having patron loyalty meetings where they discussed the issues at hand, including the cost of retaining long time supporters versus attracting new individuals.

That’s when it clicked, and the floodgate of ideas opened up! House management said they were going to make patron loyalty a regular topic at their usher meetings. Someone suggested they send patrons a voucher for a free drink in their birthday month. Someone else suggested they turn the process for testing new concession products into a tasting event for loyal patrons. There were many more ideas that came up, and there were a number of people who said they would take responsibility for implementing ideas. “I never was a part of that process” quickly became “I understand our shared goal and I want to help.”

I particularly liked the idea of involving loyal patrons in a tasting of new concession products. Even if the new options weren’t tasty, the idea that your input was valued could go a long way to cementing a patron’s relationship with the organization. I am curious to know if PAFW has implemented that idea.

There was one thing the TRG piece mentioned that caught my attention:

And yet, there were legitimate operational questions that needed to be answered. If a VIP Presenter would like their complimentary drink in a souvenir cup, whose budget gets charged for the cup? How far can I go (and should I go) to make a patron happy?

The sentence evoked a memory of an episode of the West Wing when newly appointed chief of staff CJ Cregg is running into a lot of opposition from the Secretary of Defense over some new initiative (I think it was accepting the nuclear bombs form the Republic of Georgia). She has a realization that his resistance is based in the fear that the funds to implement this will come out of his budget.

As idealistic as you may be, there is always a cost of some sort associated with every good idea. So if you insist that marketing is everyone’s responsibility, you are insisting that everyone bear some degree of additional cost to implement this directive. The cost may be in time, resources or money.

It will be important to communicate that marketing/patron retention/whatever you call it, is a priority for the organization and allowances (and perhaps allocations) will be made to enable the achievement of this goal. Otherwise internal resistance may thwart your efforts from the start.

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