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Arts and Culture

How to Expand Our Arts Communities

In a fast changing culture, seven ideas for connecting with new audiences.

Diane E. Ragsdale 30 Jul

Diane Ragsdale is associate program Officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This article is part of a series drawn from her address to the Vancouver Arts Summit, an event presented by the Alliance for Arts and Culture and 2010 Legacies Now attended by administrators and supporters of arts and culture organizations.

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[Editor's note: This is the second of three articles drawn from Diane Ragsdale's recent address to the Vancouver Arts Summit. Yesterday, Ragsdale described the 'iceberg' art groups fear hitting, the dwindling audience for their offerings. Today she lays out seven ideas for revitalizing that relationship.]

Accepting that it may be necessary to adapt can be difficult. It can be particularly hard for the largest, leading organizations. In The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman says that the great company IBM nearly self-destructed because it stopped listening to its customers and stopped creating value that mattered for them. Friedman explains that "when a company is the pioneer, the vanguard, the top dog, the crown jewel, it is hard to look in the mirror and tell itself it is in a not-so-quiet crisis and [that it] better start to make a new history or become history." IBM made a new history.

So, I'd like to humbly offer some thoughts on how today's arts and culture organizations might approach adapting to the culture change.

1. Don't conflate big numbers with big impact

In his book Convergence Culture Henry Jenkins talks about a relatively new configuration of marketing theory that he calls "affective economics," which seeks to understand the emotional underpinnings of consumer decision-making. He says that commercial entertainment companies are beginning to realize what their fan communities have been saying for a long time: that what is more important than the number of people who buy your product or watch your television show is the depth of their loyalty and the quality of their engagement.

Jenkins gives some examples of this trend.

He tells a story about Coca Cola CEO, Steven J. Heyer, who said in his keynote address at the 2003 Advertising Age conference that Coke would "use a diverse array of entertainment assets to break into people's hearts and minds. In that order."

Heyer said Coke was "moving to ideas that [would] elicit emotions and create connections." On Coke's Web site consumers can share personal stories about their relationship with the product -- stories that get organized around themes such as "romance," "reminders of family," "childhood memories," or "times with friends." Speaking to this room of advertisers, Heyer said, "The ideas which have always sat at the heart of the stories you've told and the content you've sold... whether the movies or music or television... are no longer just intellectual property, they're emotional capital."

In his book, Jenkins also introduces the ideas of Kevin Roberts, the CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, who argues that the future of consumer relations lies with 'lovemarks' [as opposed to 'trademarks'] which are more powerful than traditional 'brands' because they command the 'love' as well as the 'respect' of consumers. These companies are talking about love and connections between people. And they are selling soft drinks and soap!

Former Wired editor, Kevin Kelly wrote an article a year ago called "1,000 True Fans" in which he says that an individual creator -- someone producing works of art -- doesn't need a mega-hit to get out of the long end of the tail and make a decent living, he just needs to acquire 1,000 true fans. What's a true fan? Well, for individual artists he says, "A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the superdeluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can't wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans."

Are we commanding the love as well as the respect of consumers? Are we cultivating true fans? How many true fans does it take to sustain an arts organization? Or an arts community? Do we have a sufficient number to be sustainable?

2. Go cellular

In 2005, I read an article in The New Yorker, by Malcolm Gladwell (author of Outliers, The Tipping Point and Blink). The article was called "The Cellular Church" and was about Rick Warren, head of one of the most successful mega-churches in the U.S. The way these churches maintain a "sense of community" as they grow very large, says Gladwell, is by creating "a network of lots of little church cells -- exclusive, tightly knit groups of six or seven who meet in one another's homes during the week to worship and pray."

The church has thousands of volunteers who are charged with getting to know each member that walks in the door and getting that new member plugged into a small group, formed around shared hobbies and interests -- knitting, quilting, mountain biking. These cells effectively function as social networks, fueling deep friendships between church members. Without the small group, Warren explains in the article, going to Church with 5,000 people could feel pretty impersonal. Perhaps a bit like going to a theater or concert hall with 1,200 people?

What's clear from the article is that people who are in small groups are more likely to show up at church on Sunday, stay a member of the Church longer, and give more money. These mega-churches are succeeding because they understand that for most people, it is the social connections they form as an aspect of going to church that in large part drive them to attend and donate.

Perhaps likes these churches, arts organizations need to help people create social connections as much as we help them form a connection to art and artists?

I heard last year of an arts organization that started calling its lapsed subscribers and discovered that quite a few were widows who had stopped going because they had no one with whom to attend. The theater created a special program for these patrons and arranged for a bus to pick them up at their homes and bring them to the venue, and served them cake and tea prior to the performance. It's been quite successful and is a great example of creating social connections.

3. Go slow

I think we kid ourselves when we believe a primary reason people are not patronizing the arts is because they have no time, even if they tell us they have no time. Saying "no time" reminds me of the oft-used, let-me-down-easy breakup line: "It's not you, it's me."

If you've heard this line, or used it, you probably know that it really means just the opposite.

Is the barrier really time?

The Slow Food movement was founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life; the disappearance of local food traditions; and people's dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. It has helped people rediscover the pleasure and satisfaction that comes with savoring well-made locally-grown food, appreciating the place it came from and the farmers and artisans that grew and prepared it, and enjoying the company of the people with whom you're dining. In other words, the Slow Food movement has given people a reason to make time for (and spend money on) finding, preparing, and enjoying good food.

And this movement, along with cooking shows, has had a powerful influence on our culture. Plenty of Boomers who have no time for the ballet are spending hours shopping at their local farmers market and chopping in their well-equipped kitchens, so they can enjoy gourmet feasts with their friends and families. I wonder: What would a Slow Arts Movement look like?

4. Break down the barriers

There are many barriers to participation and many of these have been enumerated for years. Arts organizations need to address them. Here are a few that seem to continue to plague the arts:

Our Spaces Constrain Artists and Audiences. Your three-quarter thrust or proscenium theater, or gilded concert hall, long one of your greatest assets, may not be able to accommodate the ways that artists currently want to make work, or the ways that audiences want to experience it. We need spaces (live and virtual) that support artists, support socializing, and that enable a more dynamic interaction between patrons and artists.

We also need to recognize that when an arts organization takes the decision to own a permanent space that it may be (consciously or unconsciously) changing its mission or limiting the kinds of artists or projects with whom it can work. When arts organizations get involved with capital projects boards spend a lot of time talking about how to raise the money, but is there a conversation about the difference between an artistic idea that is suited to a 200-seat black box theater and a 600-seat proscenium theater?

Arts organizations may also need to spend as much time talking about the non-performance areas in a venue as the performance spaces. Lobbies need to be more than holding pens. A kiosk with a pot of coffee and a tip jar, or a "mini-bar" with $8 beers stuck in the middle of a cramped or cavernous room with gray walls, no comfortable seating, harsh lighting, no music, nothing to engage with visually, and that shuts down after intermission, doesn't cut it anymore -- and I'm not sure it ever did. Lobbies could be living rooms, galleries, book shops, Internet cafés, or really great bars -- the third space, as they say. Museums have, of course, been doing this for years -- incorporating restaurants and shops into their spaces. Theaters are also getting on board. Portland Center Stage and Center Stage Theater in Baltimore have both designed their lobbies to create a more relaxed and social environment.

We Lock Down the Art. A growing number of musicians, most notably Prince, are giving their music away as a way of generating awareness, building a fan base, and developing an audience for their live performances. In order to reach broader audiences arts organizations may need to create free and low-cost opportunities for people to sample and share their art with others.

I tend to seek out dance and music concerts at which new music is being played -- often premiere performances. I'm amazed and disappointed at how frequently there is no recording available for me to download from the organization's site the next day, no clip for me to put on my Facebook page or email to friends. There's not even an invitation or opportunity for me to check a box saying I would be interested to be notified if a recording is released so that I can download it at some point in the future. The easier an organization makes it for me to deepen my experience and share my interest and enthusiasm with others, the better. And if I encourage my friends to purchase a piece of music or go to a performance, it's going to have much greater impact than if the organization itself does.

If the premise of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail is true -- that the future of culture and commerce lies not in creating blockbusters but in creating and mining niche markets -- then arts organizations with distinctive programming might be amazed at how many people around the world would pay a modest amount to download high quality audio and video recordings of performances that they have seen or that they currently cannot access any other way. Mediated experiences can break down geographical, social, economic, and time barriers.

This is not about top-down control from arts organizations; it's about allowing patrons to be active participants and turning them into devoted fans and catalysts for participation by others -- in other words, driving word of mouth.

Speaking of which, what about patron as critic? If the consumer has achieved tastemaking status anyway, then why not elevate seasoned patrons to the role of reviewers and encourage them to write thoughtful reviews, posted as blogs on your Web sites? Prior to joining the Foundation, I was the managing director of a now 30-year-old Seattle-based organization called On the Boards that presents contemporary performance artists from around the world. With the help of Doug McClennan at, OtB started a patron review blog in late 2003. It's been incredibly successful.

Patron reviews not only give your organization critical information about what patrons are thinking, but help patrons build community, and improve their capacities to process, discuss and understand what they have experienced -- in other words, develop cultural literacy. A blog welcomes and promotes alternate viewpoints from those espoused by the local art critic -- let's not forget that art is subjective, after all; and, in the absence of a review, a patron review is a strong substitute for satisfying those "latemovers" who need to hear what people think before they will buy tickets. And they may trust your patron reviews more than they trust the local critic, anyway. (Assuming you're fortunate enough to still have an art critic writing for your local newspaper. Or a local newspaper!)

We make people feel inadequate and intimidated. First, as Bill Ivey suggests in his new book, Arts, Inc., it may be time for us to let go of the idea of artistic hierarchies. In other words, if we want more people to participate, we may need to stop hammering so hard on the idea that Bach is intrinsically better than Bjork, who is intrinsically better than my brother who plays banjo in a pro-am banjo club.

Or, to use a theater analogy: that the plays of Chekhov are intrinsically better than the screenplays by the Cohen brothers, which are intrinsically better than the one acts written by members of your local community theater company.

I recently interviewed Bill Ivey, and he said that rather than seeing themselves as "the be-all and end-all," fine arts institutions need to see themselves as an important part of a spectrum of art making. It's all valuable; and in fact, commercial entertainment companies like HBO and AMC may be beating us at our game with shows like The Wire, In Treatment, and Madmen. They are working with excellent writers, directors, actors, and designers and doing bold, ambitious work.

Second, we don't often acknowledge that the experience of going to a live performance or museum can be unfamiliar and difficult for the uninitiated. In fact, sometimes it's difficult for the initiated. Like the gym, one needs to go on a regular basis before it becomes familiar and before going feels better than not going. In his book Economics and Culture, scholar David Throsby writes, "...taste for artistic services or goods is cumulative. It is apparent that a person's enjoyment of music, literature, drama, the visual arts, and so on, and hence her willingness to spend money on consuming them, are importantly related to her knowledge and understanding of these artforms."

I am convinced that a major barrier to participation is lack of knowledge and understanding -- I've been going to 150-175 performances a year for five years and I still have days when I feel "ill-equipped" to go to a performance. Are arts organizations doing all they could to address this barrier? Are prices low enough that people can make the arts part of their daily lives or even monthly lives? Beyond that, are we giving people the knowledge some may want and need to derive everything they can from a piece?

This is not merely a call for more K-12 arts education. Jazz at Lincoln Center has a great program called Swing University, geared to adults, which explains jazz, its development, and how to be an effective listener. Perhaps we need more programs like this?

Finally, we are only hurting ourselves when we believe and let our patrons believe that they are meant to be passive and appreciative and well-behaved. There is value in demystifying the artistic process (as choreographer Elizabeth Streb says and does) and encouraging patrons to be actively engaged. Let them clap when they feel like it; let them come to a rehearsal even if they haven't donated $10,000 to the organization; let them express opinions -- yes, even publicly and even negative ones; give them dance, acting, and music lessons -- yes, even the adults who never wanted to be professional artists and don't have any experience.

In January of this year, the Joffrey Ballet needed a way to generate new income so it decided to offer dance classes to the public.  By March they had generated $200,000 in revenue, and were expecting to earn another $300,000 by June, according to the press release I saw.  Moreover, people who take the classes are buying tickets to see their teachers and the rest of the company perform.

Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago has an exemplary program called First Look 101 in which they invite regular theatergoers to join them at key steps along the rehearsal process. They attend, for instance, the first read-through, blocking rehearsals, and technical rehearsals. Interestingly, when On the Boards launched its blog several years ago, one of the first things we noticed was that the people we asked to blog started showing up to volunteer and donating money to us. People like to be invested, to feel ownership.

5. You can't fix it in post

When artistic director, Irene Lewis, arrived at Center Stage in the early 90s, the theater was producing works primarily by white playwrights, performed by white actors, for white audiences. Center Stage is based in Baltimore, where 65 per cent of the population is African-American.

Irene Lewis astutely determined that Center Stage was not actually serving the larger community of Baltimore, and the theater made the commitment to change that by programming 2-3 out of 6 plays each season by African American playwrights or about the African American experience.

Despite angry subscribers and financial consequences, the theater stayed the course. Today, the African American plays in the season generate the highest attendance and revenues. It took 15 years to get there.

No podcast, YouTube video, Tweet, or other new media strategy is going to make 25-year-olds want to go to a performance that doesn't seem relevant to their lives in a venue in which they do not see other people their age. Intellectual relevance cannot be relegated to the PR department.

Whether you're trying to reach younger or more diverse audiences, like Center Stage, you need to do it consistently and authentically and you may need to be prepared to lose some current patrons in order to gain new ones.

6. Be a concierge: Filter and make recommendations

One of the greatest challenges for consumers created by the Internet is having too many choices -- people are bombarded with information. Consumers increasingly expect customization, and for retailers to understand their preferences and market to them accordingly. Recommender-sites, like Amazon, are built for this. Arts organizations, on the other hand, really don't seem to get this and are generally terrible at helping patrons make smart, satisfying purchase decisions.

Arts organizations tend to tell the public, "Hey! We've got eight shows this season, and they are all fantastic!!" Well, they may all be pretty good, but they are not all the same, and by not helping patrons find the play, concert, or exhibit that they are most likely to enjoy seeing, there is a greater likelihood that they will either choose none of the above; or not have an enjoyable experience.

Perhaps arts organizations could become arts concierges: responsive, reliable, and trusted friends who help patrons make decisions about what to see, who to invite, and where to go for dinner beforehand. We live in a time when most people don't have a culturally sophisticated friend or relative to help them engage with the fine arts so arts organizations could create value by taking on this role.

And much of this could probably be completely automated. If you buy a book on Amazon, it often encourages you to buy another book by the same author and get both at a discounted price. If I buy a ticket to Three Sisters on one theater's Web site, what if it encouraged me to buy something else: "You bought a ticket to Chekhov's Three Sisters. Here are other cultural activities (at our theater or others in town) that might interest you. Bundle any of these other items with your ticket purchase and receive a discount on all the items." If every cultural organization did this in partnership with other peer cultural organizations I have to imagine something good could come of it.

But being arts concierges, filtering, and building partnerships organization by organization may be just the beginning.

7. Aggregate supply and demand

Imagine this idea scaled for an entire city. What if all the products from all the arts organizations in Vancouver were aggregated by a site called "" and you could get a periodic email in your inbox making personal culture recommendations to you from everything that's happening in your city.

Using a sophisticated recommender system, coupled with social networking and patron reviews, such a site could help patrons make more informed decisions, make recommendations, and maybe even increase participation.

And what if this site allowed patrons to create horizontal subscriptions bundling artistic experiences from various organizations? These could be customized or the site could suggest some thematic packages: "A Masterworks package" an "An Avant-Garde package" "A Wholesome Family Entertainment package".

By doing this, one concert on your season could appear on hundreds of niche packages.

And what if these horizontal subscriptions included nightclubs, commercial theater, films, gallery exhibits, books, music, and other entertainment?

What if because you bought a ticket to a play, you could automatically get an alert when the lead actor or playwright was being interviewed on your local public radio station? What if the interview was automatically downloaded as a podcast, or emailed to you? What if because, at some point in the past few years, you rented the DVD "O", you were automatically alerted when one of your local theater companies was producing Othello? What if you were one click away from buying a ticket?

In 1992 sociologist Richard Peterson coined the term Cultural Omnivore to describe the tendency of many people to develop tastes for everything: high art and pop culture and everything in between.

We may have a generation of cultural omnivores out there, but we've made it really difficult for them to feast because we've created silos between high art and low art, and between the disciplines of music, theater, dance, opera, the visual arts, film, and literature.

Why not help these omnivores find their ways from the film In Bruges to the Martin McDonaugh play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore? Rather than competing against one another to sell subscriptions and single tickets, perhaps arts organizations could work together to increase cultural participation? Perhaps we could, among other things, create "Cultural Omnivore Subscriptions?"

In the minds of the consumer, it's all culture.

By maintaining our "separate and better than others" status the arts could be losing their spot at the banquet.

Tomorrow: More ideas for invigorating the relationship between arts groups and audiences.  [Tyee]

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