Saturday, November 17, 2012

Is Your Organization Fun?

Last weekend was my annual pilgrimage to the National ArtsMarketing Project Conference hosted by Americans for the Arts. It has become my favorite conference of the year, not only because I get to catch up with friends from all over the country, but because it reminds me that sometimes the most profound marketing decisions are the most basic ones.

I attended a session entitled “The Curated Arts Experience” featuring Ceci Dadisman, Deeksha Gaur and Nella Vera. During this session, Nella started talking about something really fundamental – having fun. She gave several great examples of organizations that went out of their way to create fun and memorable experiences for their audiences. Immediately prior, we were treated to a lunch session featuring cdza, a trio of guys who create musical experiments.  With their experiments, they make classical music fun and accessible, and in doing so have millions of viewers worldwide. I have to wonder how many people have been introduced to classical music via their performances?

Cdza’s success is really pretty simple:

1)      They feature the work of brilliant artists – Michael Thurber is the “chief music guy,” a young man who from age 14 spent his life in a music conservatory and graduated from Juilliard.
2)      They don’t take themselves too seriously
3)      They create memorable and fun experiences 

Their motto: “first build your audience by offering them dessert before you introduce vegetables.” Simple. Clear. Brilliant.  

In previous blog posts, I’ve mentioned that when building audiences, you must program “gateway drugs” – a couple of options that are easily accessible and offer up a fun evening of entertainment in an attempt at proving that the non-profit arts can be a viable entertainment alternative to audiences that currently don’t view them as such. Great art doesn’t have to be devoid of entertainment value. It is possible to have art of the highest quality that is fun. 

Earlier this week, Adam Thurman of Mission Paradox reminded us that we need new audiences more than they need us. And here’s the painful truth – since art is essential to our lives, we like to believe that they are essential to everyone. That just isn’t the case. A good amount of the population does just fine without the arts. That isn’t to say that I believe the arts couldn’t enrich their lives, it is merely meant to point out that in the hierarchy of needs, we’re closer to the bottom. In today’s economy, merely meeting basic existence needs has become difficult, so convincing someone to spend their remaining disposable income on a discretionary item like the arts is harder than ever.  

We have to make our organizations inviting, accessible and fun. And understand that providing a fun experience doesn’t equate to sacrificing artistic credibility. We don’t have to sacrifice the core of who we are to attract new audiences, and those that make that argument, in my opinion, are short-sighted. 

New audiences need to be cultivated carefully. Create a path for them. Give them an easy entry point. Provide an amazing experience. Steward them so they return soon after their first experience. Build their confidence with multiple experiences, and then provide an opportunity to sample something a little more challenging. Introduce them to new experiences. At some point, if you don’t provide them with a challenge, they will grow bored. We are responsible for cultivating our audiences’ artistic growth. If we lack audiences for classical, challenging or new work, perhaps it is because we try to short circuit the system, and ask that new audiences sample what they would at first perceive as vegetables before getting to the dessert.  

In some circles in Washington, DC, the Kennedy Center has been criticized for programming work that isn’t as challenging as some would like. I however, appreciate the role the Kennedy Center plays in our ecosystem. Each year they introduce thousands of people to the performing arts for the first time. This in turn acts as a feeder system to other arts organizations.  

A balanced meal is important, but so too is the order of consumption. Start with dessert, and the chances increase that the full meal will be finished. Roll out complex foods to a novice palate, and you may not make it past the first course.