Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Who Run the World? Arts

I live in DC, a very politically-minded town with a relatively high brow art scene (ballet, symphony, opera). Frequently I'll be at a party, bar, event, etc., and I'll get the question:

"What do you do?" 

"I work in the arts," is my typical response. I like to be a little vague at first to see how interested/interesting the other person is. The responses usually follow one of four templates:

  • "Oh, I used to play the trumpet." 
  • "Oh cool, tell me more." 
  • "...." (blank stare) 
  • "My senator is really supportive of the arts.  I used his seats last week at the ballet."

With these varied responses, the one consistency is a notion of outsiderness (me being the outsider in a sea of hill staffers and consultants). Sometimes this works to my advantage and the "tell me more" people are genuinely interested. Other times it leads in a different direction because people think they have no relation to the arts.

After all, most people don't regularly go to the ballet, symphony or opera. And this is precisely where I challenge everyone to define what "the arts" actually are.

The Hill Staffer says to me, "I don't know much about the arts, but that's cool."  I reply, "do you have iTunes?" Of course he does and I ask him who his favorite artist is, and...(see where I'm going here?).

Way too often people think they don't have a connection to the arts beyond 5th grade band or an aunt who is a dance teacher. That's just not true. The arts is mammoth-sized industry that touches every single person in America at least 20 times a day (my very unscientific guess). Here are just a few:

  • Radio blaring from the car in the next lane
  • The street performers outside the subway
  • The color choices for a new housing development (even bland arts are arts)
  • The movie score that can bring you to tears long after the movie ends
  • The karoke tracks at the dive bar every Monday night
  • The iconic Apple ads on the side of a bus that make you feel cooler just looking at them
  • The design itself of the iPod in your pocket
  • The singing in your shower (even out-of-tune arts are arts)

So there it is - arts advocacy in a nutshell.

But it's so much more than just advocacy. It's how we should be marketing ourselves to ticket buyers, to donors, to non-ticket buyers, to each other. We are all connected, and what is it that historically connects us more than anything? The arts.

  • For the person who has ever cried at a movie, chances are there is a dance piece, or a play, or a violin sonata that could also touch their heart
  • For any dance professional that trains for years perfecting their Fouettes for the New York City Ballet, there's a BeyoncĂ© dance move than will blow them away
  • For anyone that has ever spent an hour on the treadmill with Gaga in their headphones (guilty), there is a tap number that will get them off their feet  
  • And for anyone that thinks pole dancing is not art, here is a video for you: 

The point here is that we are ALL artists (see pole dancer above) or arts enthusiasts (see every frat house in America).  Period. No questions. No qualifiers. We are all involved in the arts.

If we, as arts managers and fundraisers, act on this assumption more often, it will make our lives so much easier. We will more easily connect with new donors, we will see new and potentially groundbreaking opportunities in programming, and we will see a much better connection between arts marketers and arts patrons. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Art of Focus

I had a conversation recently with a long-time friend who runs a software company.  As we often do, we talked about challenges and exciting things going on at work, and one of the keywords that came out of our conversation was "focus."

As we talked about all different scenarios, we realized how much this word can apply to every aspect of your day, or career, or organization.  When you have time and energy to focus on a task, it tends to get done quickly and thoughtfully.  When you have a clear direction in your career, you will likely achieve your definition of success.

Today, I want to highlight more of the benefits of organizational focus.  We all know the company that tries to be everything to everyone.  AOL is a good example.  They started off with a very narrow focus - internet access.  As the "walled garden model" that AOL used to provide access became less relevant, they made a crucial mistake.  They didn't ask themselves - "how can we keep our focused mission of providing internet access?"  Instead they said, "how else can we make money?" They got into film media, mapping, music, news.  15 years ago, if you asked me to describe AOL's brand, I could easily do it.  Today - I honestly can't.

That's a problem.  When people don't know your brand, they will be less inclined to engage with you.  The same thing goes for arts orgs.  If you try to be all things to all people, it can be hard tell your audience exactly who you are.

This is especially true of small-mid arts orgs.  As more money is becoming available, and more back alley arts orgs are popping up all over the country, competition for audience is getting even harder than it was before. Now you have to reach the demographic of left-handed, jazz loving (New Orleans, not Swing!), 28-37.5 year-olds, living within 6 square blocks of the outdoor music hall, who identify as non-traditionalists, but not hipsters. It gets tricky to brand yourself in the right way while discovering an audience big enough to keep you in the black.

The big arts orgs are lucky, in that they have the resources, space and trust of the community to appeal to almost any audience.  Look at Lincoln Center in NYC: today there are several films going on, a presentation on Flamenco, a Broadway show, an opera, a jazz orchestra, and the Ballet Spring Gala.  Wow...talk about a diverse audience!  But they can do it - they're big enough and they have established themselves as the arts center of NYC.  

We don't all have that luxury.  So until you do...stay focused.  Figure out your mission, be open to new ways to achieve that mission, and stick to it.