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Let Them Bake Bread!

At a loss about how to forge closer bonds between the community and your organization? Let them bake bread!

Not only do you have the example of Bread and Puppet Theater, to inspire you but there is a growing trend of communal ovens across the country.

I recently read an article about how such an oven was helping to revive a dilapidated park in Toronto.

This caused me to recall a seeing Braddock, PA Mayor John Braddock discuss a similar community oven his city set up. The oven was one of the cornerstones in the city’s plan to revitalize itself.

When I conducted a search to see where things stood now, I came across a story of a Torontonian studying nearby in Pittsburgh who was working on the Braddock oven as part of a fellowship.

If you read the article, you will see that like any project, a community oven isn’t quite as simple as it seems. The Braddock oven is being rebuilt/replaced because it isn’t as efficient as it could be. People have to be trained to use it correctly. The wood has to be seasoned and of the right type.

At the same time, the Canadian grad student, Shauna Kearns, has helped to forge community partnerships to get the rebuild accomplished.

With sustainability becoming an area of increased focus, (that was the basis of Shauna Kearns’ fellowship), participating/partnering in a community oven can be bolster organizational identity in the community.

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Info You Can Use: You Can Hack Being An Arts Administrator

Drew McManus is fulfilling one of my ambitions.

When I was first starting out this blog, I envisioned creating some sort of repository of information about arts and arts administration that people could consult.

It should be noted that I was unemployed when I started this blog nearly 11 years ago so I had a lot of time on my hands to be ambitious. That plan never panned out. Getting a job and getting really busy sort of diverted my focus from that.

However, despite being quite busy with his job as a consultant, Drew McManus has deluded concluded that trolling through 990 filings and evaluating the effectiveness of orchestra websites aren’t monopolizing enough of his time.

Drew has decided to create an Arts Administration version of Lifehacker. He is looking for people to be contributors to this effort. If you are interested, sign up on his website.

To my mind, everyone has something to contribute. If you are a student in college, you can contribute tips on engaging your friends and colleagues.

If you live outside the U.S. there are plenty of challenges we face in common and plenty of insights from your particular experiences that can be of value.

In that vein, I wanted to call attention to a course being offered free online by Stanford “How To Start A Start up” It is being hosted by Sam Altman of the venture firm Y Combinator. The course speakers are a who’s who of Silicon Valley.

It isn’t directly arts related, but there will obviously be some commonalities with arts business. Among the topics are building company culture, how to operate, how to manage and how to raise money. Everyone keeps talking about the need for a shift in thinking in the arts and this may spur some different approaches.

After learning about this class, I did a survey of all the Massive Open Online Courses being offered by different entities around the country -MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Coursera etc. No one offers anything related to arts administration that I could see. The only online arts administration program I am aware of is the Certified Performing Arts Executive program at University of New Orleans.

[N.B. Dang it! Nina Simon made a liar of me pointing out this course on arts innovation. It didn't show up on my search because it started the day before.]

Given the lack of any centralized source of information, tips and tricks related to arts administration, a resource like the one Drew is proposing is sorely needed.

Please consider signing up to make a contribution. With your help, a lot of people will be able to hack being arts administrators

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We Make Cancellations Look Easy

It is fortunate that I am not often able to relate how I personally handled a crisis. However, we recently ran into a situation where we had a signed commitment for a show and the attraction backed out.

We were fortunate in that the event falls near the end of our season so we have plenty of time to communicate the change. In addition, we were able to replace it with another performance around the same date.

This sounds all very simple which is great for public relations because it appears that everything is being handled with grace and aplomb.

The reality is, you don’t realize the limitations of your ticketing software until you try to do a refund of one event on a subscription package. I am glad I had created a choose your own flex subscription package this year. Otherwise, our only option would have been to cancel all the seats for the subscriber and replace them with full price tickets–not something that maintains good relations with the audience.

Obviously, had it not existed already, we could have gone in an retroactively created a structure similar to what we had in place for the flex subscription.

The other issue is that now these people who got refunds are not recognized as subscribers by the ticketing system so their seats won’t automatically carry over to next season. We have had to keep track of those subscribers so that we can lock in their seats again next year.

I don’t list all this in order to vent my frustration at the ticketing system we use, but rather to illustrate some of the hurdles involved with problems like these. (I haven’t even mentioned the difficulties of trying to process cash refunds through a university system.)

The audience should never know about these problems. There was a moment where people in the box office were saying “Well, we will have to tell the subscribers that next year they will have to….” I emphasized the steps we would do instead so that the concept that asking for a refund might result in the loss of seats one held for 10 years was never introduced to the subscriber.

In order to inform our ticket buyers about the change, we sent out releases and went on the radio to make people aware of the substitution and ask them to watch their mail boxes for letters outlining their options. After the letters went out, we followed up a week later with an email mentioning the same options.

One positive element to this situation was that we could use the tickets we already issued for the replacement show. The ticket scanners will register them correctly. Since many people consult their tickets for the show dates, we included pre-printed stickers in the letters that could be placed over their tickets to remind them about the correct date.

Since most tickets to this event have been purchased by full season subscribers, we offered the option of either buying tickets to one of two non-season shows at a steep discount or receiving a refund.

Now my hope was that by putting the refund option last, we wouldn’t get a lot of people who wanted refunds. Out of the hundreds of tickets we have sold already, we have only had to refund around 10 which represents about 5-6 people, but that still is more than I would have liked personally.

My other goal in offering discount tickets was to generate good will and awareness. I figured there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy with the replacement show and wouldn’t want a refund. However, by apologizing for the inconvenience and offering a discount on other shows, we will hopefully rise in their estimation.

In addition, there have been some who were not aware that these shows weren’t part of their season subscription despite our efforts to differentiate them so the letter helped reinforce this.

We haven’t had too many people take advantage of the discounted tickets at this point. While I always want to be selling tickets, our immediate goal was to at least maintain goodwill.

One last thing we did was set a time limit on when you could request a refund or purchase discounted tickets. Since the show is more than 6 months away, we didn’t want to have a deluge of people calling for refunds a week before because they decided not to attend at the last minute. The date we set was 6 weeks after the letter was mailed out and I expect we will be flexible through a few weeks after.

Whether this stance ends up creating problems for us remains to be seen when the show arrives.

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Not Ready For Some Football

If you are wringing your hands over the difficulty you are having attracting students to your performances and events, you are not alone– university football programs are having difficulty, too.

An article on Inside Higher Education’s website reports some pretty significant drops in attendance by students at football games.

Student attendance at major college football games is declining across the country. By how much varies greatly at each institution, but a recent Wall Street Journal analysis of turnstile data at 50 public colleges with top football programs found that average student attendance is down more than 7 percent since 2009.

In 2013, the University of Georgia’s designated student section was nearly 40 percent empty. The University of California at Berkeley has sold about 1,000 fewer student season tickets this season than last year — a season that already saw a decline from the previous one. Since 2009, student attendance at the University of Florida has dropped 22 percent. Three-fourths of the University of Kansas’ student tickets went unused last season.

The article blames cold weather, lack of cellphone/wifi signals and alcohol in stadiums, along with the option to watch the game on a wide variety of media as reasons why attendance is dropping.

And by the way, none of these problems are new. A little over a year ago, Jon Silpayamanant wrote about the exact same attendance issues facing professional sports. Inside Higher Ed mentions that universities are using many of the same solutions the professional teams were adopting including more robust wi-fi, better access to food and beer, and more promotions and giveaways.

One of the concerns expressed about the lack of student attendance is the poor image it provides on television.

“Fundamentally, students are part of the show and that’s something that folks don’t always recognize,” Southall said. “If you watch a college sports telecast, where do the cameras go for in-crowd shots? The cameras are in the student section. If that section is not there, it’s like having a movie without enough extras to walk in the background of the shots. I always joke to my students, ‘You understand you’re paying to be extras. You’re just there for the show, so everyone else can keep consuming it.’ “

The long term concern is that disinterested students will become disinterested alumni who won’t support the athletic program and the university down the road.

As always when we talk about sports and the arts, there are a number of parallels here. One of the big one being the concern that the lack of interest/exposure as “kids” will translate into lack of investment as adults.

This article made me wonder about the real viability of Tweet Seats programs. If students aren’t motivated to attend a football game by the opportunity to be on television or, at the very least, being able to make “I am here participating” posts on social media sites, then are Tweet Seats programs really valuable as a way to attract and retain young audiences?

Given that many Tweet Seats program segregate social media users to their own section, the participants may feel even less engaged than students in a stadium surrounded by tens of thousands of others. (Though I suppose they could feel like they are part of an exclusive group if the environment is right.)

In the great battle of sports versus arts, among the advantages sports had were the ability to be a loud part of a large group at an event where the outcome was unknown. I found it somewhat worrisome that even with these advantages, sports were losing its audiences. What chance do the arts have then?

If you have been reading the results of audience research studies over the last decade or so, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the answer university athletic departments have arrived at is focusing on the audience’s experience, not on the “performance”.

“…according to a recent survey conducted by Ohio University‚Äôs Center for Sports Administration and stadium designer AECOM. The top three priorities for that spending — enhancing food and beverage options, premium seating, and connectivity — all focus on the experience of fans, rather than the players.”

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