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Who Really Values Diversity In The Arts?

Last month Springboard for the Arts tweeted that the attendance at the Guthrie Theatre’s attendance last year exceeded the Minnesota Vikings’ home game attendance, 425,932 to 421,668.

Springboard Executive Director Laura Zabel blogged about these numbers suggesting the 400k Guthrie audience members should manifest their love for the theater in the same way Vikings’ fans do–jerseys and facepaint.

One of my first thoughts, based on some of Zabel’s observations, was about whether tax dollars were better spent building a stadium which is only used 8 times a year by 400,000 people or a theatre which is used hundreds of nights a year by the same number.

But I quickly remembered the big to do about the lack of diversity in Guthrie’s current season. I wondered if the attendance numbers reflected any push back against that.

Based on a calendar year comparison, it hasn’t. At the end of 2011 their attendance was 421,982. That, however, was down from 2010 when their attendance was 435,877.

I don’t have any numbers comparing their seasons which run September – August. There could have been a precipitous drop off September – December 2012 that isn’t readily apparent. My suspicion, however, is that audiences by and large don’t care about diversity, or the lack thereof, as much as people in the arts sector do.

Diversity is an internal concern driven by economic and philosophic motivations rather than by external audience demands. Audiences do want works that speak to them so arts organizations pursue diversity in order to bolster attendance by expanding the appeal of their works.

Non-profit arts organizations are also widely motivated by their educational mission to expose their audiences to new ideas which is often manifested by who is chosen to perform and whose ideas are chosen to be presented.

While arts organizations have to be responsive to the tastes and interests of their audiences, the audiences take a pretty passive role when it comes to programming. They aren’t widely clamoring for their local arts organizations to bring in new faces and new ideas.

If they were, it would actually be easier to program a season because you would have an idea of what people wanted instead of having an empty theatre teach you what they didn’t.

The Guthrie’s artistic director, Joe Dowling noted that many of the shows in their current season were brought to him by the directors. That is how the programming decisions of most arts organizations are driven, artists and agents, rather than audiences approach decision makers with ideas.

In fact, one of the things artistic directors probably cringe most at is being approached by an audience member who says “I know this group…” I would have sworn it would never come to pass, but this season we are actually doing a show based on a usher coming up and essentially saying, “I am in this band…” It does happen, but often audience suggestions don’t reflect an understanding of the organization’s artistic and business models.

Just the same, that feedback can provide insight into the type of experience the audience member is looking for. Presenting Lady Gaga may be totally wrong for the Guthrie Theater, but a show where the audience can vicariously identify with the protagonist’s rise to celebrity might work great.

As you are all well aware, arts organizations are in the unenviable position of having to figure it all out. It is difficult to pursue any one agenda as wholeheartedly as you might wish. Program too conservatively and audiences will say the arts are arrogant and out of touch for telling them they ought to value antiquated works by Mozart and Shakespeare. Program too progressively and audiences will say the arts are arrogant for telling them they ought to value works challenging notions of gender, race and politics.

I don’t mean to champion a middle of the road approach. I could easily argue, as many people did regarding the Guthrie’s season, that I have far more diversity on my stage and in my audiences just by cultivating locally available artistic resources. I also know that may be harder to achieve in the next job I hold. A balance between leading and following has to be struck and recalibrated all the time.

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They Are Just Not That Into Us

I recently read an article that criticized the current thinking about an arts organization’s relationship with its audiences.

Except, that it wasn’t directed at arts organizations at all, but rather at general marketing concepts.

Yet it seemed to reflect upon the current conservations in the arts so closely, I was 2/3 of the way through before I realized it wasn’t really focused on arts organizations at all.

The article, 3 Ways You’re Wrong About What Your Customers Want, appeared on the website of Australian business magazine, BRW.

The first two myths they address is:


Actually, they don’t. Only 23 per cent of the consumers in our study said they have a relationship with a brand. In the typical consumer’s view of the world, relationships are reserved for friends, family and colleagues…

How should you market differently?

First, understand which of your consumers are in the 23 per cent and which are in the 77 per cent. Who wants a relationship and who doesn’t? Then, apply different expectations to those two groups and market differently to them…


No, they don’t. Shared values build relationships. A shared value is a belief that both the brand and consumer have about a brand’s higher purpose or broad philosophy…

Of the consumers in our study who said they have a brand relationship, 64 per cent cited shared values as the primary reason. That’s far and away the largest driver…

How should you market differently?

Many brands have a demonstrable higher purpose baked into their missions, whether it’s Patagonia’s commitment to the environment or Harley Davidson’s goal “to fulfill dreams through the experience of motorcycling.” These feel authentic to consumers, and so provide a credible basis for shared values and relationship-building. To build relationships, start by clearly communicating your brand’s philosophy or higher purpose.

The third myth is – THE MORE INTERACTION THE BETTER. and their suggestion is to stop bombarding your customers with emails.

Because so much of the conversation in the arts these days is oriented on engagement and relationship building, you can probably see why I initially thought it was about the arts. Actually, after reading the article and understanding its target audience, I started to wonder if maybe the ideas of engagement and relationship building might have migrated over from the for-profit business world and was embraced in an effort to “run things more like a business.”

I am not suggesting that arts organizations shouldn’t work on relationships with their community, only that in this context it might be wise to evaluate if every practice and assumption is appropriate for arts and cultural organizations.

I think most arts and cultural institutions realize not everyone is going to want to have a relationship with them. It is helpful to have an idea of what the percentages might actually be so we can better direct resources toward cultivating closer relationships with those who seek them.

One advantage arts and cultural organizations might have over businesses at large is that they are more likely to embody values with which people can identify and share. So there is a greater possibility for an arts organization to build a relationship with a customer.

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Be Here, With Me

Like many of you, my dear readers, I am of a split mind about the inclusion of social media in live performances. Overall, I think this is a good place to be. I have often written here that one should not jump on the hottest trend, but obviously one should not entirely dismiss it. A healthy mix of skepticism and self-education on the matter is valuable.

There was recently a post on the Drucker Exchange that pushed me toward the “against” column. I have talked about the benefits of tweet seats and such in other entries so I am not going to try to balance the “con” argument here.

In reference to employees using headphones and having social media chat window open at work, the Drucker Exchange piece cites former entertainment executive Anne Kreamer,

“The majority of these young workers said that they felt far more connected moment to moment with people outside their workplaces than with any co-workers,” she writes. The problem, according to Kreamer, is that they miss out on crucial exchanges, become less loyal to the company and one another, and innovate less. As studies on innovation show, physical proximity matters.

… For one thing, it’s the reason many people go to work at all. “Work is for most people the one bond outside of their own family—and often more important than the family,” Drucker observed in People and Performance. “The work place becomes their community, their social club, their escape from loneliness.”


More important, such contact influences productivity, and creating satisfying informal work arrangements among co-workers is especially important for good output. Research conducted by General Motors during the 1940s, for example found that “‘good fellowship’ or ‘good relations with fellow workers’ showed as the leading causes of job satisfaction,” Drucker recalled.

The Drucker Exchange piece echos a rhetorical corollary many arts people ask of those who feel the need to engage in social media exchanges during a live performance experience, “What is the reason you come to the performance at all?”

For many it may be that a friend or significant other encouraged them–but then they aren’t really dancing with the one that brought them, either. (Though granted, that person may also be connecting with outsiders as well.) Or maybe they are getting extra credit for a class or looking to advance their career.

The mention that employees who isolate themselves in this manner at work are less loyal to the company makes me think audience members who do the same probably aren’t developing a lot of loyalty to the arts organization. True, the act of actually writing about what they are seeing may actually forge a connection that passively watching the show wouldn’t, but there is no guarantee the person is relating their feelings about the show.

While arts organizations probably can’t have the same expectations about audiences they could during the days of high subscription rates, audience churn is a big problem. It costs a lot more to attract a new attendee than to maintain a relationship with frequent attendees. It seems ill-advised to encourage activities that don’t cultivate a connection and may even erode it.

Simply forbidding people to use mobile devices isn’t going to magically result in the scales falling from people’s eyes and have them realize how disconnected they were. The arts organization has to provide a reason to get engaged in the immediate experience as an alternative to connecting to friends who are elsewhere.

As much as we may want to believe it, the experience of the performance may be insufficient to get a person invested. For some people, texting, tweeting, etc may simply be filling the void of uncertainty about the experience with a safe activity.

The solution may not be any more complicated than encouraging front of house staff to actively ask people what brings them to the performance and find out what their expectations are. Or perhaps changing the layout of the lobby to facilitate people gathering and chatting in certain areas. Essentially replace the friends who are elsewhere with friendly faces right where they are.

This song went through my mind as I wrote this entry-

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Info You Can Use: There Are No Dumb Questions, Just People Who Attract Them

Audience Engagement being something of a buzz word du jour, (yeah, I have used it a bunch of time here and am aware I am complicit), one of the easiest ways to make your audience and community feel involved with an event is to allow them to ask questions.

In the last two years, we have had some really good audience discussion sessions with our touring artists. Some of the questions and observations that have been made have blown my socks off. However, the greater part of my career experience has left me a little cynical about the experience. Most of the time the conversation and questions have bordered on the inane (and quite often jumped over the border.)

I often attributed it to people’s lack of familiarity and comfort with the material and attendance experience. Maybe they weren’t as savvy as I assumed.

However, according to a recent piece on HowlRound, the audience is plenty smart, the wrong people may have been involved in the discussion sessions. Brant Russell who leads the post-show discussions at Steppenwolf Theatre offers 11 (or so) rules for post-show discussions, writing:

“If you’re an actor in the production being discussed, and you want to come out for the discussion, please be aware that your presence affects the tone of the room far more than you know. You inadvertently change the kind of discussion that is possible. The audience wants to talk to you, and they want you to talk to them, and as a result they will ask questions that they don’t really care about (How did you memorize all those lines?). What’s more, the audience will hold back some of what they would otherwise express because they don’t want to hurt your feelings….The best case scenario when an actor was onstage for a discussion was that the conversation turns into a moderated interview, and we would end up discussing what it was like to work with XYZ director, rather than the big questions the play asks…I try to partner with the actor to lead the discussion, rather than direct questions toward him or her. That way, everyone is participating in the same project…”

He has a similar rule about leading the discussion if you directed or produced the work because criticism will color the way you conduct the conversation.

My assumption has always been that people will want to have someone who has been involved with the artistic elements of the performance present at the discussion. While that certainly is the case, Russell’s observation that their presence will limit the scope of the conversation makes perfect sense. The audience is perfectly able to conduct a discussion in the absence of artistic personnel.

Most of his rules are to basically get out of the way of the conversation – Rule 3 – You are not an expert, Rule 4: You’re not a teacher, Rule 5: Keep it short, Rule 7: Get out of the way. Basically, you moderate an exploration of the production and keep it from being hijacked or waning, but otherwise let the discussion continue.

The one rule that intrigued me most was number 9 –

“If you really hate the production you’re discussing, just wait. I’ve found that if I lead enough conversations on a play, something will emerge that I will fall in love with. I have never liked a production less as a result of continued discussion.”

I like the idea that the audience can help those involved with the creation of the production to appreciate it more. We often think of an arts event as something we offer to audiences for their entertainment and education. Typically our end of the transaction involves receiving money and applause.

The idea that audiences can teach us something about our own work makes the exchange seem somehow more complete. Perhaps the next iteration of the intrinsic value of the arts survey should ask the arts organizations what things they learned from their audiences.

It is probably a good piece for leading discussions pretty much anywhere, including conference panel discussions and the like. If you are like me and feel you haven’t been thinking enough about how you could do the post-show discussion thing better, the article is definitely a good place to start.

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