Nonprofit Arts Organizations: Water Is Wet. And Cultural Crossover Doesn’t Work Unless You Center Your Full-Time Intent Downstage of the Footlights.

Incidentally, it’s my birthday today. So, hey – I have the perfect gift all figured out. Just click on any image you see…

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Click on any image in this post to help me on my birthday.

You had a nifty idea. Combine hip-hop with one show this season. Then they’ll subscribe to your theater, symphony, or ballet forever more. Neato.

Nifty ideas that come from a place of desperation and vainglory never turn out very well.

I know. People aren’t coming back. Or, to be fair, they’re not coming back to your large, we-do-everything, nonprofit arts institution in that great big building where, at the groundbreaking, Governor Whatshisname and Big Donor Whoozi Whatztit, lined up with the then-artistic director, the then-managing director, the then-board chair, and a few other then-leaders who smiled awkwardly toward the then-photographer as they dug their then-silver shovels into a patch of then-ground.

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Remember, click on any image to help on my birthday. (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)

They’re not coming back to your we-do-performance, art-for-art’s-sake, and we-have-a-groovy-education-and-outreach-program-on-the-side company. You’re not devoid of an audience, but the ones who are there are clamoring for the wheelchair seats and the earphones. Maybe, if you’re producing the Nutcracker Ballet, A Christmas Carol, or Handel’s Messiah, there are families in the house. Why? Because these are the audiences who see the Nutcracker Ballet, A Christmas Carol, or Handel’s Messiah every year and nothing else you offer.

If you spend more than a buck and a half trying to turn Christmas attendees into first-time season ticket holders, you’re wasting time, money, energy, and everyone’s patience.

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Remember, click on any image to help you for my birthday. (Photo by RDNE Stock project on Pexels)

But how, you ask, are you going to gain more season ticket holders out of whole cloth to see your “regular” offerings? Your new version of Dial M for Murder, Dvořák’s New World Symphony, or Wagner’s Lohengrin.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the reason people may not be coming to your big ol’ honkin’ venue to see your big ol’ honkin’ art is because your organization believes that the center of the arts universe is located upstage of the footlights.

It’s not. It never was.

Ask folks in your arts community whether they’re having the same troubles you are. Not the other ones who are producing great art and hoping for the best, but the ones whose art is being used to establish connections and grow the success of the communities they serve. Black companies. LGBT companies. Latinx companies. Those companies depend on the connections they make in their respective communities for everything, but it’s a symbiotic relationship. They provide services and art to people who have been traditionally left out of the discussion; in turn, those people support the work.

Unlike the wealthy elitist zombies on whom you’ve chosen to depend for your company’s… survival? (no, that’s over-the-top) … devotion to your artistic vision? (no, they don’t like when you produce work that doesn’t make them laugh) … payroll (ah, that’s it), those other companies depend on those who depend on them. And if they’re not as successful as they could be, it might be because there are too many larger companies hoovering cash out of the arts-mosphere.

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Remember, click on any image to help your community thrive for my birthday.

It is with that frame of mind that I studied the February 2024 report, “In Search of the Magic Bullet: Results from the Building Audiences for Sustainability Initiative,” a relatively predictable, but confirming report published by the Wallace Foundation (Read it yourself; don’t take my word for it.). “Predictable” because the crux of the findings had to do the idea that purposeful programming for the members of the community lay at the heart of sustainability, not the subjective nature of “excellence” or the mistaken notion of “leading the audience.” In short, if you believe that your company’s future lies with the current audience, you’ll be bankrupt in just a few short years. And if you believe that continuously programming work that interests you without regard for that audience, you’re crazier than you look.

The most compelling argument (so much so that the Wallace Foundation used it as a pull-quote):

“If organizations want to change audience engagement with them, then organizations need to be open to changing themselves.”

There was a secondary finding in the report, also predictable. If your large arts-first company is trying to woo people into your customer base by incorporating a contemporary, popular artist; by doing a production that speaks to people currently not in your customer base (that Black play from that White theater, for example); or by co-presenting/producing with a small, nimble company that does draw that audience you never see, that will result in one-time interest. Do not expect them to come to your joint when you put up the sign, “We now return to our regularly-scheduled programming.”

Did you really believe otherwise? Why? What’s the difference between that type of effort and pulling in the Christmas crowd to see Strindberg? (Editorial note: No one really wants to see Strindberg. Leave it to the colleges.)

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Remember, click on any image to help you help the world thrive for my birthday.

If you want to expand your audience, all you need to do is eschew your current crowd. If you go fishing in a pond that has no more fish in it, you move to a different body of water. And if the bait you’re using isn’t working in that new body of water, you change the bait. Why? Because you can’t change the fish.

If I seem exasperated on my birthday, it’s not because of you and your company, if you have chosen not to change — change is difficult, risky, and not changing may be comfortable, but it’s a predictable failure scenario. It’s not because of your company’s devotion to toxic stakeholders — that’s a predictable outcome from uninspired, unexceptional leadership, and the United States is full of all kinds of companies that suffer from that.

If I seem exasperated on my birthday, it’s the silence from those who know better. You know who you are – you’re the ones not commenting on this very post. Your nonprofit arts organization is a gift from your community. Why spit on them for giving it to you by ignoring what they want?

Happy birthday to me.

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