Grow the family

by Yule Heibel on July 5, 2010

Are you in the arts? Frantic about funding? You might want to take an hour to listen to Michael Kaiser‘s presentation at the Fifth Street School in downtown Las Vegas: the entire presentation, including an extended discussion period, is here.

Kaiser is the president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, and he has been on a tour of US cities to promote the arts and spark a national conversation about the role of the arts. He also blogs for the Huffington Post. Kaiser’s podcast presentation here is part of the Arts in Crisis series.

What did I learn, what was new?

Kaiser noted that 18 months ago, Americans for the Arts estimated that out of 100,000 arts organizations, 10,000 would go bankrupt in the upcoming year. Yet it didn’t happen – because, as Kaiser argued, arts organizations are already used to working with less. (That produced a wry chuckle or two.) They are already a very efficient industry. (And that produced a pause!)

That’s kind of different from what you’re likely to hear from the more hard-nosed sectors of the business community. There, they think that the arts are inefficient. The reason that business (or outsiders) think the arts are inefficient is because the arts suffer from one serious problem: they don’t improve worker productivity very well.

As Kaiser pointed out, if you’re an arts organization, you can’t play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony faster every year. And Hamlet still has same number of players, five hundred years after Shakespeare wrote it. As a result, the arts don’t benefit from worker productivity improvement like other industries do. Costs go up really fast and you can’t squeeze efficiencies in the usual way (play the Fifth faster, cut the cast of Hamlet, etc.). Another problem is capital assets: once you build a theater or museum, real earned income is literally set in concrete. Kaiser had a wonderful anecdote from when he was director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and took his troupe to Athens to dance in the marvelous Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the foot of the Acropolis. While the dancers – and everyone else – were over the moon at the beauty of the setting, Kaiser thought, “same number of bleachers for 2000 years – no ability to increase fixed earned income!”

These constraints create a gap, and the question becomes: how do you fill this gap? Kaiser’s message is that there are creative ways to fill it, and he talked about ten ways that every non-profit (especially financially troubled organizations) can use to address the gap.

#1 Every arts org in trouble needs one leader. Lots of people think they know what will work, but if there are too many people pulling in different directions, it’s curtains.

#2 The leader must have a plan, and it can’t just be to “work harder” – that’s not a plan. Instead, you need to ask: how are you going to get people to want to be in your family? Build the size of your family (that is: audience, board members, volunteers, etc.), and as the family gets larger, that will help build revenue. Have a plan for how to build your family of participants.

#3 You cannot save your way to health. The first reaction to an economic crisis is to cut programming, which means that you also end up cutting marketing. It’s the worst thing you can do. If you do that, and you cut both your programming and your marketing, you will cut your family size.

#4 Focus on today and tomorrow, and not on yesterday. Don’t blame, forget forensics. Look at today and tomorrow.

#5 Plan your planning and your calendar far in advance: plan bigger than what people think you can accomplish. Don’t plan for six months, but for five years. Think about what you can do three or four years from now, and then start talking about it now. Too many arts organizations have had the creativity beaten out of them by the economic crisis – don’t let it happen to you, dream big, and plan.

#6 Marketing is more than brochures, web, etc. Marketing is really two pieces: there’s programmatic marketing (that’s tickets and so forth), and then there’s a second kind of marketing. Kaiser calls this institutional marketing, and he says this is more exciting (and rewarding). Its lessons apply from small to huge institutions. It includes having a campaign to get people to understand who you are: do not assume that people know who you are.

Kaiser had another funny anecdote that happened while he was with Alvin Ailey. He assumed that everyone just knew who and what the dance company was. Wrong. When Alex Hailey died, the dance company was deluged with condolences. Haily, Ailey, same diff, eh? Well, no. The company also realized that their main venue for marketing – print ads in the New York Times – didn’t exactly make them a household name in African-American households. And so they decided to give institutional marketing a huge push: whenever an opportunity presented itself, they grabbed it. They went on the Phil Donahue show, they coat-tailed on White House galas, they did whatever it took to get their name out there. It worked: suddenly, more people wanted to “join their family,” and suddenly board members, who in previous years didn’t seem to have any friends who might be interested in becoming donors, were bringing friends with deep pockets into the “family” fold. In turn, as the family grows, the community gets more excited about the programming.

The truth about any marketing is doing it, and doing it again and doing it again and again and again.

#7 There has to be one spokesperson and the message has to be positive. No whining in public about money and funding cuts. Audiences don’t come to hear problems, it pushes people away from the table.

#8 When you’re really sick, you shouldn’t focus on the $20 donor, but you can’t be immature and ask the richest person for a big whack of money.

#9 A board has to be willing to restructure itself. It has to be willing to ask itself, “Are we the right board?”

#10 Have the discipline to do the other nine rules. You can’t do ‘em just once, you have to do them over and over.

Then he added #11 Joint ventures: explore joint ventures – Kaiser used the example of the Kennedy Center’s January “Shakespeare festival,” which draws on ballet, jazz, and theater companies: as a result, the press had to pay much more attention.

Do not cut back on programming or marketing, but squeeze every other aspect of the budget, squeeze every nickel “until the buffalo poops.” Do not cut the parts that will shrink the family; focus on growing the family.

Kaiser also had some words about high ticket prices. The Metropolitan Opera announced its upcoming prices: $750 for a pair of tickets. For that amount of money, you can buy a computer and watch Joan Sutherland and Leontine Pryce on Youtube forever, as Kaiser noted. The arts may not be irrelevant, but they’re often way too expensive. Make them free on a regular basis. Keep in mind that young people tend to buy at the last minute – gear your marketing to that. Kaiser had high words of praise for Twitter and Facebook. He noted that there’s a reason that newspapers are going bankrupt: it’s because people are getting their information in different ways, and the arts need to think about that, and need to advertise and market themselves differently.

During the Q&A some other interesting points arose. For new, starting organization and arts groups he had this advice: collect the email addresses of everyone you can because you will want that database later. A great way to get email addresses is to hold raffles (for free tickets or for dinner at the restaurant next door – get the restaurant to donate the prize, do not spend a penny on it yourself! Also, do joint-ventures with other arts organizations: you can start to look bigger, and that will draw more attention to you.

For dance companies he had the following advice (which our local company certainly follows): bring as many people as possible to dance rehearsal: it’s one of the best marketing tools to get people excited about dance, because they can see how it’s done before all the glitz and magic of costuming and sets kicks in. If you’re courting people who can help financially, bring them into the wings and let them watch. Demystify the arts for your patrons and your important family: it helps make the enterprise approachable and real.

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