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Sometimes They Just Want To Go Home

I was perusing the tweets of those at the National Arts Marketing Project Conference (NAMPC) while thinking about a comment made by the director of the local arts museum wondering why people were leaving a fundraiser so early.

This was the exact opposite situation from one apparently expressed by Alan Brown at the NAMP Conference who wondered why arts organizations were so quick to chase people out after the event was over.

The live and silent auction were over and no one was going to be asked to donate more money. There was plenty of food and alcohol to consume, a cigar and brandy station had been set up in the newly renovated alley for those who wanted to parttake. There was plenty of art to look at, including an amazing new installation and the artist was on hand to chat with.

They had only expected about 75 people to attend and more than 130 showed up so there were plenty of people with whom to mix and mingle. (And one of the other attendees remarked to me that there were a lot of new faces at the event so it wasn’t as if the conversation topics dried up.)

And it was only 8:30 pm on the Saturday night of a three day weekend.

By 8:45 except for the staff and volunteers, the place had pretty much cleared out.

So when I saw Sara Leonard tweet quoting a speaker at the conference saying, “Create the value your audience craves,” I wondered what might have been lacking that might have kept everyone hanging around a little longer.

The auctioneer had to ask for quiet a couple times during the auction because people were too boisterous so they were clearly having a good time.

Perhaps what the audience valued was an organization that ran an efficient fundraiser that showed them a good time and got them out before 9:00.

Maybe as Alan Brown suggests, everyone was used to being chased out and left of their own accord. Or maybe, as one off the museum staff suggested, the community likes to get to bed early.

I feel that I must make a bemused observation that clearly one needs to appeal to a younger audience not only to sustain support for the arts long term, but to find some people willing to stick around and keep the party going for you in the short term. (which I mean both literally and figuratively.)

Whether it be fund raisers or performances, it isn’t enough just to have a fun after-event party in order to attract younger audiences, the content of the main event has to be of some interest because there are plenty of bars and dance clubs where they can go instead and circumvent the boring part.

But the truth is, sometimes it isn’t anything you did. Audiences just want to go home and that is an enjoyable evening.

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Info You Can Use: Various Things Arts Orgs Are Doing To Connect

This past weekend the students held their annual fund raiser for the Fall Mainstage production in our Lab Theatre. The event is entirely student generated and produced. Basically my only involvement over the summer is to unlock the door for them. Our technical director ensures nothing will burst into flames and everything is generally safe, but the work is largely done by the students.

I am very proud of the student who has essentially acted as the producer for the last 4 years because he keeps upping his game every year. Last Spring a new instructor introduced him to a different approach to developing a show and to the credit of all the students, they dedicated themselves to following the approach even though it meant a longer, more involved rehearsal process.

A fair segment of the audience tends to be students and for many of them, this is their first experience in a theatre of any kind. In some respects, it is a great introduction for them because it provides a less orthodox attendance experience and reveals the potential inherent in live performance. (Speaking of which, check out this baby by Great Canadian Theatre Company) On the other hand, it can make a more orthodox attendance experience seem all the more boring and disappointing by comparison.

Typically the entrance, stairway and hall to the lab theatre are heavily decorated. A woman in front of me on the ticket line who takes dance classes across the hall from theatre wondered aloud where the dance studios went. The performers also do a pre-show where they move about interacting with other performers and the audience members according to the backstory of their particular character.

My aim is to try to infuse a little more interesting and interactive experience to our mainstage space. There the expectations and context of the space creates a wholly different environment. We have added some new experiences and are continuing to think of others.

So in that vein, I wanted to point out some interesting programs I have been reading about lately that aim to change the experiences people have at arts and cultural events.

A Wall Street Journal this week had a story about silent disco parties that are being held at zoos in England and the US. It is something of an after hours party at the zoo where people are given headphone receivers. Attendees can dance to the same music without actually disturbing the animals with loud noise (though since many dress up as animals, it may make some of the predators hungry for a midnight snack as they flail silently about).

Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History seems to be so dedicated to providing participatory experiences in her museum, she even has opportunities in her restrooms. Reading her blog, Museum 2.0 provides a trove of great ideas and reflections on how they worked.

Back in May, ArtsFwd featured a number of audio postcards from arts organizations around Cleveland. I confess I only recently got around to listening to them after having bookmarked it all those months ago but I am glad I did. There are some great stories being told by the arts leaders in Cleveland. One related to this topic that caught my attention was told about the Great Lakes Theater.

The artistic and executive directors talks about how they designed the Hanna Theater to facilitate social interaction between the audience and performers. The bar is in the seating area and they have different seating areas- traditional seating along with loose club chairs and lounge and bar seating.

The theatre is open 90 minutes before the show and stays open until up to 90 minutes after to provide a place for people to gather and interact rather than simply showing up a half hour in advance, watching and leaving.

A few years ago, I wrote about Alan Brown talking about Gen Y’s vision of an ideal performance venue:

He said he asked them to describe what they would envision as a perfect jazz club. They said it would be a coffee house during the day but a bar at night with a separate room where those who wanted to be full immersed in the music could go. However, there would also be an anteroom where people could talk with friends and still listen to the music and still another anteroom where people could interact with friends more and listen less.

Though this sort of arrangement is highly unlikely, Great Lakes Theater seems to get pretty close. I am curious to know if anyone has attended at the Hanna Theater and what the experience is like. There aren’t a lot of review on Yelp that I have seen. My biggest fear is that someone would knock over their glass at the bar during a highly dramatic scene or there would be some other disturbing occurrence.

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Comes The Curator

While at the Arts Presenters conference, I learned that Wesleyan University has a certificate program in Curatorial Practice in Performance. My first thought was to wonder if there was really that much of a demand for such a program. Then I recalled that many arts organizations have long been consolidating their executive and artistic director positions into one person and that there were likely quite a few people who sought the training originating from this situation alone. People hired for their ability to run the arts organization like a business might find themselves a little anxious about making the correct artistic decisions.

According to the program website, the purpose is:

“…designed so that students can learn to modify and adapt curatorial practices from one discipline to another. ICPP welcomes emerging curators as well as other arts professionals who are interested in time-based art practices in visual art, traditional arts and the performing arts. The emphasis of the program is on the how of curating and focused on developing tools to contextualize performance.”

I was in a session where either Program Director Kristy Edmunds or Managing Director Pamela Tatge, (whomever was sitting behind me) noted that the visual arts have long had curatorial training, but it was lacking in performance disciplines.

In a separate session moderated by Alan Brown on what drives and inhibits our success, Brown noted that presenting arts organizations are becoming increasingly interested in having a curatorial relationship with artists rather than just taking what is offered. Given that most contracts coming across my desk stipulate that the artist has sole control over the artistic content of the show, I wondered if there is going to be a lot of pressure to on that very common contract clause in the future.

Conceivably, if arts organizations take their responsibility to more effectively serve and engage their community to heart, they will have a better sense of what their community will respond to than the artist. I am not talking about pressing artists to tone down edgy elements in the performance to conform to local tastes. Rather I envision a presenter may ask that a particular piece be performed knowing how it will resonate with the history of the location or address an on going concern of the region.

Brown noted that a few performing arts organizations are soliciting requests for proposals (RFQ) from performing artists so that projects more closely conform with what they want to achieve. RFQs from visual artists aren’t uncommon, and Brown says there aren’t a lot of performing arts organizations soliciting, but the fact there are may represent a shift in the approach to residencies. Pam Tatge who was on the panel for this session commented that artist residencies were becoming an intersection of the artist’s goals and presenter’s goals.

It seemed to me that this is something of a compromise between commissioning a piece and hosting an artist for a performance. There is a desire to provide the community a deeper experience than might be derived from attending a performance but not enough resources to direct the creation of a new work. So presenters are seeking artists who can provide additional experiences with specific relevance to the local community. These additional experiences seem to tend toward interaction and working with members of the community and de-emphasize the lecture/demonstration model.

It just occurred to me that another one of the underlying themes of the conference seemed to be the blurring of distinct roles. In addition to a session specifically about cross-discipline performance curation, there were two different sessions on the dissolving boundaries between agent, manager and producer with people taking on the functions of all three in various situations.

Those were just the sessions specifically dedicated to this idea. Just as the topic of cross-discipline curation came up in a separate session I attended, I am sure the topic permeated other conversations.

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Remembering It’s Not About You

I finally got around to reading the report WolfBrown generated following a study of what motivates donors in the San Francisco Bay area, “It’s Not About You … It’s About Them: A Research Report on What Motivates Bay Area Donors to Give to the Arts and Artists.” As you might imagine, it encourages people to focus on the interests and needs of the potential donors rather than the needs of the organization.

Much of it is very interesting. The study revealed five different motivation groups in which donors fell- Values-Driven Intrinsics, Community Altruists, Progressive Artist Champions, High-Touch Social Givers, Supportive Audience; and discussed what characteristics each group possessed as well as the percentage of the audiences these segments comprised. The report included a number of case studies on Bay area arts groups and identified the way the groups’ approaches successfully met their donors’ needs and interests.

Rather than doing a lengthy summary, I just wanted to cite the things that popped out for me. The first was regarding elements that influenced relationships:

Live conversation: Talking directly with potential donors can increase their interest in an artist and his or her project. Direct conversations can also energize the person seeking the contribution….

Online giving: Two-thirds of FFAMC donors have made donations online, and more than 60% of those who have not given online would consider doing so. …

Giving time as well as money: FFAMC donors are almost twice as likely to be volunteers with organizations to which they give than are donors to large institutions….

Contact pre-gift is more important than post-gift: Two-thirds of all donors surveyed indicated that they prefer to have attended an organization’s performances before they make a contribution. 42% of FFAMC donors indicated they prefer to get engaged with an organization personally before they make a gift; only 21% of FFAMC donors suggested they need a lot of postgift attention.

Write your thank you notes: Most FFAMC donors and donors to other cultural organizations desire timely acknowledgment of their gifts, information about the impact of their contribution and regular notice of upcoming programs or invitations to special previews or openings. There are outliers at both ends of this spectrum – people who want a lot of information and some who prefer very limited post-gift contact. Asking a donor which kind of contact they
prefer is an important part of getting to know them.

I was actually surprised about the pre-gift contact being more important than post gift. I can understand that developing a relationship with an organization is a strong motivator for that initial gift, but it is interesting to know people don’t value post gift contact as much. Which is not to say they don’t want acknowledgment. I wonder if this might be regional or even generational based since so many of the donors in this study were younger than the usual arts attendee/donor. But perhaps our assumptions about what all donors want has been flawed from the start.

The other thing that caught my eye was the way The Shotgun Players survey their audiences. When we have conducted surveys, we try to keep it short but also try to capture as much pertinent demographic information as possible. The response rate is mixed, but generally very light. From the way I read this report, The Shotgun Players asks two questions on a raffle questionnaire, a serious one about motivation or demographics and a silly one related to the show, “During our Rosie the Riveter show, it was “If you were a power tool, what kind of tool would you be?” They get a 85%-90% response rate. It was a sort of “duh” moment for me when I recognized getting the answer to one important question a show from a meaningful number of people is more helpful than getting a handful of people to answer 6-8 questions.

Later in the report were some comments that belied the idea that artists don’t want to get involved in the business end of things. (And even if the idea is true, the sentiments expressed by an artist may provide a challenge to think differently where administrators may sound like nags.) Philip Huang said of his grant seeking experience:

“I liked the matching requirement very much. I would have never done this project on my own, without the match. I never would have changed artistic direction, or changed medium on my own without the endorsement of the FFAMC grant. I believe that artists should chase things slightly outside of their personal comfort zone. For me, fundraising from individuals was definitely that. Having an externally imposed timeline and an externally imposed mandate was good. I think the match was also a motivator for my donors. Once I got clarity about what I needed and I asked for it, people responded to my sense of propose and vision.”

Finally, what I thought was really excellent were instructions in the appendix prepared by Alan Brown on how to conduct the interview portion of the study. I have read a lot of studies over the years and I have never seen something like this included. There was just a very accessible and comfortable element to the instructions. Had I been conducting the interviews, the instructions would have calmed any anxiety I felt. And from various parts of the instruction, it appears Brown was training people who were not professional researchers and may have in fact been members of the commissioning organization.

“Sitting down with ticket buyers and donors and asking them about their experiences sounds simple enough. In reality, few cultural institutions or funders conduct qualitative research on a methodical basis, and many have slipped out of touch with their constituents.”
During most interviews, a great deal of data is communicated non-verbally, through body language, hesitation, gestures, and intonation. No matter how good the researcher, it’s just not the same as experiencing the interview in person. This is why the exercise is participatory – you’ll be doing the interviewing….With the researcher out of the way, the “filter” between you and your interviewees is gone.”

Some of the instructions are just good reminders for talking to donors and supporters in informal settings.

Good interviewing also requires a good set of questions. Asking the wrong questions (or avoiding the hard questions) is a waste of time. You may feel good by the end of the interview, but nothing is gained. Asking the right questions the right way, however, can unleash passionate, emotional, or even angry responses – which can be extremely informative.

Which brings us to the hardest part of interviewing – listening. A good interviewer is a good listener. Listening requires a great deal of concentration. A good listener understands what the respondent is saying, and also thinks about what the respondent is not saying, or trying to say…. A good listener hears when the respondent is having difficulty answering a question, and re-phrases the question or illustrates a response drawing from her own experience. “Maybe I can help you with this question by telling you how I would answer it for myself…” Perhaps the most difficult aspect of interviewing is simultaneously concentrating on what the interviewee is saying and also having a sense of where the interview is going – whether to probe deeper or move on to the next question.

Some questions are direct, while other questions involve asking people to tell personal stories. For example, “Can you remember when you felt especially proud of a gift you made?” Storytelling can be extremely useful in getting people to explain important events in their lives and to open up about difficult issues….”

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