Saturday, January 28, 2012

Art or Audience; Chicken or Egg?

Doug McLennan, Editor of ArtsJournal, invited me to participate in an online debate on leadership in the arts. To kick things off, a panel of bloggers were asked to respond to the following prompt:

"Increasingly, audiences have more visibility for their opinions about the culture they consume. Cultural institutions know more and more about their audiences and their wants. Some suggest this new transparency argues for a different relationship between artists and audience. So the question: In this age of self expression and information overload, do our artists and arts organizations need to lead more or learn to follow their communities more?"

There has been vigorous debate on this issue, and to check out all the arguments, please visit the "Lead or Follow" online discussion here.

As for me, below is my response to the aforementioned prompt:

This week we examine the nature of leadership in the context of developing the most fruitful relationships with our audiences. Good relationships often strike a healthy balance between competing interests, and frequently this balance is forged over the course of many years. Arts organizations have relationships with their patrons, donors and communities, and those relationships are constantly evolving. As such, I find the framework of this debate limiting, as I would argue that great arts organizations lead and follow, and that we shouldn’t be asking if we should do more of one than the other, but instead ask if we are doing the leading or the following at the appropriate times.

There are moments when arts organizations must lead, and that leadership becomes a catalyst of great change. In 1948, the National Theater in Washington, DC closed its doors rather than integrate, and a twenty-four year old Zelda Fichandler decided it was time for the city to have a producing theater of its own. She was an early proponent of the idea that communities should reclaim ownership of their theaters, and now sixty-one years later, there are more than 1,900 non-profit regional theaters in cities across the nation. It took a leader.

There are also times when we follow. As of 2008, minorities accounted for 48% of all births in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050, the Asian and Hispanic population will double, African-Americans will increase and the white population will decline by 9%. In addition, the percentage of the population that is elderly will almost double. Look at your board of directors, staff, donors and audiences—do they reflect your community? Is the physical structure of your building suitable for a growing number of elderly patrons? As a field, we are behind the curve, and we have much to learn from following as our communities are changing faster than we are.

In terms of audience development, it is important for arts organizations to play both roles well. Our principal challenge as arts marketers is presenting art as a viable option for leisure activity. We have many barriers—ticket prices, transportation and parking, lack of arts education in our schools, inaccessible and aging infrastructure, etc. Not to mention, the abundance of free and easily accessible alternatives from our competition. A 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts published by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that American arts audiences are getting older, and their numbers are declining at significant rates. In 2011, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman delivered his now famous “supply and demand” speech from Arena Stage, indicating that demand for the arts is currently outpaced by supply, and suggesting that we consider pruning our numbers. We have a problem in this country. And if we have to produce more populist work in order to overcome potential barriers for first time patrons, I am fine with that. In fact, I am more than fine—it is what we should be doing.

Populist work is often, for lack of a better term, a gateway drug. Lure them in with a musical, roll out a comedy, put in a Broadway touring production. Do what it takes. Once they have an exceptional first time artistic experience, art becomes an option and then we work to get them addicted. From the perspective of an arts marketer, once a new patron walks through our doors via a “gateway” play, my job is to get them back. Once they have had a few experiences, my responsibilities shift. I now focus my attention on broadening their experiences and pushing their boundaries. And they will be ready. But forcing them to run before they crawl will end up in a disappointing experience for all.

Each patron has an individual relationship to an arts organization. We have a responsibility to offer up a balanced diet that feeds each artistic soul. For those with a developed palate, we lead, push, challenge and sometimes offend. And for those new to us, it is perfectly appropriate to offer up a piece of cake in order to get them to sample the exotic quiche.

Currently at Arena Stage, we have a tremendous production of John Logan’s Red directed by Robert Falls. In the script, painter Mark Rothko’s assistant Ken delivers a powerful speech, in which he says:

“You know, not everything has to be so goddamn important all the time! Not every painting has to rip your guts out and expose your soul! Not everyone wants art that actually hurts. Sometimes you just want a fucking still life or landscape or soup can or comic book.”

Remarkable arts organizations are more than just temples of art. We are relationship builders. Today we lead, tomorrow we may follow, but we take our cues from our communities, for whom we were built to serve.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Partners or Competitors? My Favorite Frenemies

A little more than a week ago, the Washington Post in an extraordinary effort by a daily newspaper, published a series of articles on the state of theater in Washington, DC. As part of that series, Nelson Pressley, a frequent contributor for the Post, wrote an interesting piece on the financial status of the community. In it, he notes that in terms of capacity, the Washington theater community has grown tremendously over the past decade, while government funding has decreased significantly and according to theaterWashington, the annual theater attendance has remained the same since 1988. Mr. Pressley also cites that each theater that has expanded reports significantly increased audiences, and several have recently set all-time sales records.

In the Twittersphere, this article raised the same question that NEA Chairman Landesman asked in his now famous "supply and demand" speech given at Arena Stage in January 2011. Is there enough demand to support the increase in supply? This isn't a new question. It is something I questioned in this blog in 2008, and it is something that arts administrators discuss at every conference I have ever attended.

Setting aside for the moment the data from theaterWashington, on a positive note, I've seen some extraordinary things in the DC theater community in the past few years. I'd heard that the city can only support one or two major hits at any given time, however in the late fall of 2010, several theaters reported exceptionally strong attendance numbers for multiple shows running at the same time, including Oklahoma! and every tongue confess at Arena Stage, Candide at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sunset Boulevard at Signature Theatre, and A Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre. Well, there went that long held belief. When Arena Stage was considering a 13 week summer remount of Oklahoma!, I was told that the city could not support a long sit down production of a major musical in the summer as August was completely dead in these parts, and we couldn't succeed with Congress out of session and everyone heading to the beach. Surprise, surprise when not only Arena Stage experienced sold out houses at the height of the summer doldrums, but Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company did as well with their remount of Clybourne Park. As a community, I don't think there is anything we like better than being told we can't do something, and then proving that we can.

But to Nelson's point, we have a significant challenge ahead of us. In discussing his article on Twitter, playwright Stephen Spotswood asked me "how much do DC theater companies feel like they are in competition with each other?" Soon thereafter, Peter Marks, theater critic of the Washington Post, asked me to answer the question on the record. And this is my attempt...

Are DC theater companies in competition with each other?
Yes. In my opinion, to think otherwise would be naive. People have limited disposable income, especially during tough economic times. However, we are very lucky. Washington, DC is weathering the economic downturn better than any other city in the nation. Although we have had our challenges, we have a leg up on everywhere else, and perhaps this is why we have been able to expand during turbulent times. But in terms of how people are going to spend their leisure time, theaters are in competition with each other as much as they're in competition with movies, sports, other performing arts, museums, television, YouTube, video games, etc. To say that we aren't is simply untrue.

That being said, if I am in competition for discretionary spending dollars, I want it to be with another theater. Why? I can't get patrons to come to my theater if they don't see theater as an option in the first place. My primary responsibility as a theater marketer is to get people interested in the theater. To increase the stability of our community, we have to grow the base of theater patrons in our city. We don't have any other option, and to do that, we have to view ourselves as partners first and competitors second. If we focus on cannibalizing each other's audiences, it will be a losing battle. One theater may win one year, but inevitably it will lose the next. The only way everyone wins, including the city, is if we cultivate a growing audience for all of our theaters.

In responding to Stephen's question, I would also say that I tend to think that competition in the marketplace is good. When competition is stiff, it pushes everyone to do their best. To produce work of the highest quality. To provide the best customer service. To nurture the best local talent, and to present preeminent artists from around the globe. Please forgive the personal anecdote, but I know I have a more rewarding workout when there is a strong runner on the treadmill next to me. If there is no one by my side pushing the pace, I won't exert as much energy. I want to keep up. I want to compete. And because of our competitive spirit, DC audiences will get to experience the best efforts of all.

As I look into the new year, I resolve to elevate my gaze whenever possible from being exclusively on the theater where I work to the community as a whole. I hope that competition will improve us individually, and that working together will improve us as a whole.