One of the primary purposes of this blog is to write about arts and cultural organizations who are discovering new rules for the 21st century – who are attempting to weather the sea changes going on in our industry by looking at the old forms, structures and program delivery, seeing which ones don’t work very well, and trying new things.
The arts industry isn’t the only industry needing to evolve. Some of our most basic products and business structures — the newspaper, book stores, retail shopping entertainment — seem to be undergoing transformations at the cellular level, letting go of formats that have served them for (in some cases) hundreds of years. Businesses need to innovate so quickly nowadays that even businesses founded in the last twenty years like Netflix and Amazon (themselves innovators who shaped our consuming habits) are undergoing fundamental changes in the way they do business.
One of the symptoms of the sea change is the number of traditional arts organizations, like symphonies and opera companies, who are either closing their doors or radically restructuring in the wake of declining audiences, donor fatigue, and changing audience participation patterns. While the demise of any business is mourned in a community, there is a reason that there is a different kind of wailing and gnashing of teeth when a newspaper or a symphony dies than when a restaurant shutters its doors or when a manufacturer moves its operations elsewhere. Yes, losing that manufacturer can seriously affect the economy of the town, and the wellbeing of all the displaced workers. But the loss of a newspaper or a symphony is the loss of something each community member has a stake in – without a newspaper, without a symphony, why, we’re back to the Wild Wild West where there are no rules and people spit into spittoons.
I have been asked why arts organizations aren’t as willing (or able) to innovate as for-profit businesses. After all, some say, look at Netflix, who was on the verge of disaster but instead chose to revolutionize the entertainment industry by producing its own entertainment products and making them available immediately to stream – no need to wait for a season which plays out week by week. I don’t think that is a fair comparison — after all, there are plenty of for-profit businesses which also fail to innovate and pay the price (Blockbuster, anyone?). But I also think that there are some elements of traditional arts organizations that make it difficult to be nimble. For example, most traditional arts and cultural organizations are organized as 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations. Since the early part of the 20th century, this has been a benefit for both arts organizations and their communities; arts organizations have been at least partially shielded from the whims of the marketplace and communities have reaped the benefits of having high quality artistic activities which benefit the community as a whole.
But not-for-profits by their very nature are not as nimble as many businesses. One of the reasons they are not is that they are dependent not only on the marketplace to sell tickets, but also on donors and grantors for contributed income. What these two groups of stakeholders want can be very different, and it can be very risky trying something new when you risk losing not only audience, but a big grant. Another reason is that many arts organizations are caught between a rock (traditional audiences, which many polls show are aging) and a hard place (attracting new audiences who want different programming and are open to new methods of delivery). Newspapers know this too: it would be a lot easier if they could just get rid of the printed newspaper and move online, but they are dependent on the longtime readers who need the printed paper and the newer audiences have not been convinced that they should pay for a single source of news when you can get articles on social media for free. Like newspapers, the most savvy arts organizations know that innovation doesn’t just mean convincing younger audiences to come to the same thing you’ve always done in the same way you’ve always done it. But to let that go – to move toward recording, online delivery and smaller, less formal performances – means also letting go of the audience that is currently paying the bills.
Unlike some, I firmly (let me repeat, FIRMLY) believe that the future of classical music, traditional theatre and ballet doesn’t lie in playing popular music or choreographing Disney movies. We’ve tried “pops concerts” for at least thirty years and they have not saved the symphonies. Not that you can’t find high quality art in any genre, but an arts organization saying that they need to dumb down programming to attract audiences has lost the battle on many fronts. If you do alternative programming, do it the very best it can be done (and PLEASE don’t call it “pops,” old people).
So. With all of this in mind, let me state that I believe in evolution. I believe that arts organizations can and should evolve to serve audiences of the future – and that they can do it while maintaining the very highest artistic standards. There are arts organizations out there doing amazing things, and I am on the lookout for them. Do you know of organizations that have tried new programming, new technology, new ways of reaching audiences? Who are breaking out of structural boxes? Please – share them with me. I promise to share some with you too – starting next time when we take a look at an exciting new online class being shared by the Milwaukee Art Museum in cooperation with Google.
See you soon!