To change…or to let go

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Yesterday, I spoke at the Creative Connections workshop hosted by Mosaic Arts, our local arts council in the Green Bay area.  It was a wonderful day, full of lively discussion, packed sessions, and intriguing ideas.  I gave what is becoming my stump speech, on change and challenges for the arts in the 21st Century, newly revised to include examples from my recent travels.

After the session, a gentleman from a local presenting organization approached me with questions. Here is an approximate transcript of the conversation that followed:

He: You said that we shouldn’t put words like “Experience the Magic of Mozart” on the poster.  So what should be on the poster instead?

Me: What audiences are you trying to reach?

He: We are always trying to get younger audiences but we have not been successful.

Me: Have you considered…

He: (interrupting) We give free tickets to the schools all the time.

Me: And, let me guess (commiserating).  They don’t use them.

He: No, they don’t!  The teachers don’t come either! That says a lot about the poor quality of music education in the schools these days!

That, unfortunately, had to be the end of the conversation as we were being called into the next session.  But it has stuck with me.  I really want to have a longer conversation with this gentleman, who is a well-meaning, hard working community volunteer with no knowledge of contemporary marketing techniques. Not knowing his name or if he was inclined to jot down the URL for this blog from my slide show, I will take the liberty of saying here what I really wanted to say.

Sir, I thank you for giving your time to your community and helping the arts to happen.  I’m sorry you are struggling.  I’m sorry you haven’t been successful in attracting what you perceive to be the next generation of audience members, which will save your organization.  But I have some questions for you.

First, if you were a high school or college student, would you come to one of your concerts?  Did you go to these kinds of concerts when you were in school?  What makes you think, then, that it’s the fault of our educational system and/or “young people these days” that they aren’t leaping into your arms when you give them free tickets for a weekend concert featuring an artist they know nothing about when they probably have plans with their friends?

And what do you mean by “younger audiences” anyway?  What is the average age of your current audience?  Have you considered the fact that “younger audiences” might be people in their 40s and 50s — people who would be much more comfortable walking into a room of grey-haired people than 20 somethings?

But we also need to get to the crux of the matter.  If you are struggling with declining audiences, have you done the kind of hard thinking about why your organization should even continue to exist? I know your organization well.  Your organization was part of a concert revolution in the early part of the 20th century, the Community Concerts movement that worked to book a series of performers on tour to small towns across the Midwest and, eventually, America.  What a great idea!  Small towns starved for great art would have the opportunity because of block booking and coordinated tour management to see some of the greatest performers in the country.  A subscription-only business model ensured that all costs were paid for before the artists were even booked.  From the 20s to the 50s, people signed up before they even knew who the artists would be.  When I arrived in Green Bay in the early 90s, the series was sold out in subscription, no single seats were ever available.  A few years ago, you started (reluctantly, I understood) selling single seats, but the subscription remains the core of your marketing efforts and, at $82, is a great bargain but far from the $35 for 4 concerts it was in the 90s.  And the subscription model is considered by most marketing experts to be incompatible with most of today’s consumers’ hectic lifestyles.

Although there are several Community Concerts affiliates scattered throughout the United States, most book independently now since the original organization, a collaboration with Columbia Artists Management since 1930, was dissolved in 1993. What is more important, in 1993 our community opened the 2000 seat Weidner Center, followed soon after by the renovated Meyer Theater downtown, the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton, and other presenters in other communities throughout our area.  Consumers now have a wealth of choices for live concerts, in venues of all sizes and genres, and can go to them in modern facilities with a variety of amenities, including refreshments and valet parking, while your series still takes place in the area’s oldest high school auditorium.

Your organization has a long and storied history.  But before seeking new audiences or bemoaning young people, you need to do some introspection.  From my point of view, you have three choices.  You can celebrate your loyal subscribers (on your website it says you have over 600!) and do more to encourage their participation rather than seeking to grow. You can figure out what is unique about your organization, and market that.  You can realize that in order to continue selling tickets (and certainly to attract new audiences), you need to change your business model rather than trying to change your potential audiences.

Or, you can decide that your organization had a great history and contributed to our community’s cultural life for many years, and go out on a high note rather than gradually withering away.

As much as I support the arts in communities, I really can’t get behind putting continuing efforts into something that isn’t working.  If it isn’t working, change it – or let it go.  Nobody – nobody will think you failed after nearly 100 years of art.

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About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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