Hessenius Group Discussion on the FutureHi everyone.
"And the beat goes on....................."
We continue the discussion we began live at the Americans for the Arts Conference in Milwaukee last month on the shifts and changes facng the arts.
Group Members participating include:
At the Americans for the Arts Conference in Milwaukee, the group discussed the implications of changes in population and other demographic shifts, including the retirement of 77 million baby boomers beginning this year. Boomers have long been one of the mainstays of individual philanthropic support for our field, but we have probably only scratched the surface in terms of the total number or percentage of boomers who are active in our ranks. As they retire, a huge portion of them will have unprecedented time, money, energy and the inclination to want to participate in something. How do we now go about tapping into the whole segment of the boomers who have yet to get involved with us? How will we compete against all the other sectors that are planning on courting the boomers anew? What should we be doing right now?
One of the interesting implications of this population "growing up" is the evolution of the gated community, and it's implications for the arts. On the one hand, some might see a threat in self-contained communities that give residents absolutely no need to leave their neighborhoods and clubhouses to find meals, entertainment, fun and activities. Personally, I see an opportunity. Many of these communities have an arts center or stage or performance area, where you can find "boomers" tap-dancing, singing or acting. What is most powerful to me is that, in seeking the "ideal" community to live, these folks are embracing, not just viewing, the arts. They are doing more than simply traveling to see a show that's in town for one night. In some cases, they are going back to the participatory model of childhood, where it really doesn't matter about "quality;" what matters is being part of the arts experience. And let's face it, the folks who can afford to live in these communities in the first place are the ones who have the $$ and influence we are seeking. So we need to get into those communities. Is it easy? No - you still need a permit, and probably permission from a whole bunch of neighborhood associations. But it's worth pursuing.
One of the advantages the arts has over for-profit activities is the ability to use volunteerism to engage new audiences. As boomers begin to retire, many of them will seek out ways that they can serve their community while also having fun. Arts organizations could encourage existing boomer volunteers to bring a friend and then provide benefits of free or discounted tickets for performances. Or try for two generations at once by providing an incentive for younger audience members to purchase gift tickets to arts events for their parents. Which leads me to a somewhat off-topic thought: Many industries have found great economic success by selling gift cards, but I don't see this strategy being used a lot by arts organizations. How easy do we make it for people to purchase a "gift of the arts" for their friends or family? This may be a good strategy for attract boomers, as one could assume that their materials needs are decreasing while their free time is expanding.
Audiences today are not monolithic. There are still vestiges of the older generational cohort still in place and things like season tickets are not completely relics. But I certainly think that we are on the brink of tremendous changes.
I believe that we need analysis in several areas. Participation research certainly has helped understand why and how often people by tickets. We know more about the desire to have an experience not just be a passive participant. I think we also should not be so blinded by chasing the fickle desires of boomers at the expense of building audiences in younger cohorts. I would also ask the following questions:
1. How many resources should we expend on trying to solve the riddle of baby boomer audience participation?
2. Should we re-invent the arts organization to suit any particular cohort?
3. Does the boomer penchant for participating by doing ( see research on new communities of interest for retiring boomers in sports, science, archeology) hold any promise for expanding the boomer audience? Or is that fools gold. That is, can we use the zest boomers have to participate in the arts by making art as a nonprofessional, to any effect in building new audiences?
4. What can we do to mitigate the effects of late boomers, or the fifties generation caught in the sandwich generation, having children later in life and caring for elderly parents at the same time?
5. Exactly what would we like to see? More consistent participation by the existing boomer cohort or the development of new audiences among boomers? Should we ignore ethnic, rural audiences? How do we market and serve people with disabilities?
6. What about the three or four demographic cohorts that come after the boomers?
7. How can we interest thirty year old people who may have had very limited experiences with arts in schools (when they were going through schools in the 80s)? Are they a lost generation?
8. What is our response to digital art? Should we resist the twenty- somethings desires to use the computer as a tool to make art and other messages and not a means to receive them? Can we imagine being arts organizations that co-produce art with our audiences through digital means rather than produce and present art as a finished product?
Bob Lynch said in Milwaukee that "the audience as we know it is dead". Anyone care to comment on that?
The audience as we knew it, that is, a consistent, loyal group of people, with high participation and season ticket buying inclinations is dying away. It is hard to know for sure that it is dead but it sure is in a coma. The average age for many of traditional arts disciplines continues to climb. The older cohort of people who lived through depression, world war and the building of suburbia make up far higher percentage of season ticket buyers than they are a percentage of the population. They still support ballet, classical music, traditional theater and visual art in much the same way as generations before them.
So our potential audiences may have four or five age-sensitive cohorts. The older generation described above, the boomers are a second and then there are probably two or three younger audience demographics. I never really thought that baby boomers could be relied upon to be consistent and loyal audience members and have always viewed them as a distinct new behavioral group. That is; what motivates boomers to buy tickets is much different than earlier generations. They may at times act like previous generations but for different reasons. They opt for flexibility in their buying habits, and have a fairly low civic boosterism quotient. I also believe that they are the first demographic to clearly blur distinctions between fine and commercial art. This distinction is important here it seems to me in understanding their response to the question: do you support the arts?
They may be committed to an art-form rather than an organization and may support several competiting groups sporadically. If I see myself as a "consumer" rather than "supporter" of the arts, then the marketing, sales and service loop for me is negotiated on different terms than my predecessors. And as a baby boomer I have a lot of choices, I like to travel and seek out the exotic rather than the expected (see the new vacation research). I want to be entertained as often as stimulated on most nights.
We all know from participation research that this group is also facing some new issues as a group. First, they use a lot of energy, money and time fighting aging (so spas and makeovers compete for arts dollars), second they are often caught in the sandwich generation, that is having their families later and caring for children and for older and more infirmed (than previous generations) parents at the same time, and they work very long hours and do not necessarily leave work at work. Lastly, while not completely comfortable with the computer as younger cohorts they do have a penchant for using the Internet to shop and browse for information.
I spent a good deal of my career working in the field of gerontology, having worked in the policy and program arenas. I have studied how businesses are preparing for the aging of the baby boomers, jockeying for position for services to this group. They know that baby boomers want to participate by doing. Residential planners are busy building communities of interest, colonies if you will, that will entice boomers to live in their communities. These include various sporting communities, but also include archeology, science, and art communities. These communities may be in completely different regions of the country than the baby boomer lived most of their life. How will the urge to make art impact ticket buying? Is participating in art as maker help or hinder audience building? (Issue: Can you assume that a person who makes art as a nonprofessional will be more or less likely to participate as a audience?)
Arts organizations in retiree concentrated cities like Tuscon know that this group looks at art differently than previous generations. Events like art exhibits that do not have a starting time and do not require advance planning are doing well in these communities but more traditional arts disciplines, locked into schedules dictated by auditorium or concert hall necessities do not fare as well.
We know that younger audiences make decisions about attending events relatively near the event itself, that they get their information about the event from friends, the internet, podcasts and the like - and not from traditional advertising venues, so the audience as we know it may be dead - at least as relates to the younger generations.
Your distinction between "consumers" and "supporters" is well taken - particularly as we talk about audiences. People don't "support" the movies, they go to movies if they think it is one they will enjoy. But younger people may go to the movies not just to see a particular film they want to see, but as "something to do". The arts don't seem to have achieved that status. Can we?
The younger cohorts depend on edgy and quirky image making. Information is delivered in associative ways rather than more direct ways -- the Mac as young, hip and flexible and the pc as staid, rigid and older. That ad tells you a lot about marketing. The younger cohorts have a greater penchant for the moveable feast art events, like second Saturday art walks or festivals. The by-word for the under thirty cohort group is co-producer. This group is very at home with the computer - not just as receiver of messages but as a tool to make and send messages, artistic and otherwise. Their main street is myspace.com and media arts websites. They trade images and words without formal separation between the artist and the audience.
My somewhat tongue in cheek comment on the conference panel is actually borne out by all the comments above, whether baby boomers looking for new challenges, or gated communities, or 30 year olds with limited arts education, all these groups constitute a new audience with a new appetite for information and entertainment and meaning. And they will be confronted with as well as creating the biggest pool of available opportunities in all these areas ever known to our American public. Digital and other technological inventions are tapping potential audiences for other more personal art experiences. That will continue and will grow. Home participation opportunities, whether because of improved elctronic delivery capacities or enhanced venues for the enthusiast to personally play music against an electronically provided background or make visual art using off the shelf digital aids etc, will tap other parts of a potential audience. This too will continue to grow. Plus all the figures we have seen about growth in America point to growth from immigration, new language audiences, new art forms from these new poulations. All the above trends make for a brand new audience and appetite for everything and especially for the arts in the decades ahead. But I think some old fashioned tools still apply to help any arts organization and any community cope with these changes. One such tool is planning. Dwight Eisenhower once said (and my staff is sick of hearing this), "plans are nothing, planning is everything." It is not the document, but the ongoing process. The elements of good planning begin with a scan of the current environment and trends in audience, community, art, and support for the single art organization or a whole state. This is followed by a strong visioning process that is not done in a vacuum, but with all the elements of the new community and new audiences and new voices. With this broad approach an arts organization can still create a good plan incorporating the kinds of strategies and programs and hopes and dreams that can adapt when inevitable change, good and bad, comes. So I guess that I see the audience not as dead but actually in the process of reincarnation. Either way the arts community will need to adapt and evolve to cope with these new realities.
Increasing fragmentation and complexity of arts and culture audiences (consumer and practitioner) presses arts organizations to be crystal clear about who they need to reach whether audiences, contributors, volunteers and/or board and staff leadership and smart about figuring out what about their organization's mission and programs are relevant and compelling enough to the targeted constituency(ies) to get engaged.
Yes, we need to plan, to foucs and to be smart. But isn't the problem always that it takes resources - time, people, money, energy - to plan, to get to the point of "crystal clarity", to, in fact, "be smart" -- resources that by and large we don't have. If the audience is dead (or dying) "as we know it", then how do we capture whatever has taken its place? So - don't we need to figure out either how to prioritize and focus on small "do-able" objectives OR how to ban together so as to use our collective strength and numbers to compensate for our individual lack of resources? I think Moy is right that audience development is increasingly complex due to fragmentation, but to the point that each organization is suppose to mount some sophisticated analysis of the marketplace and develop individual mechanisms to compete? Because that just isn't possible. Why don't we figure out how to pool our efforts to address our common needs and goals? I'm just trying to be practical here. Knowing what you face is half the battle, but the other half is figuring out what you can do (specifically). I agree with Bob that there is lots of opportunity for us, but that realization doesn't address the historical and ongoing problems we have had in taking advantage of opportunities on our plate.
Are our individual organizations so isolated, so territorial, that we can't jointly do market analysis, share marketing strategies and audience development efforts based on common geography, artistic discipline or some other mutual common ground? (to a greater extent than we are currently doing.
In Milwaukee, Anthony Radich opined that the arts organizational structure might be so out moded that it was time to put it out of its misery. Anthony, can you clarify what you meant?
Today, only the most self-isolating arts administrator fails to realize that audiences for nonprofit arts programming have fundamentally changed. While our field can research and deploy more effective ways to build participation for existing arts programming, such actions will not be enough to arrest a stagnation in participation that hints of decline. While some nonprofit arts organizations will succeed in their efforts to expand participation in their programs, many more will continue to attempt to fill halls and galleries with a public that has largely lost interest in what is being offered. One important element in the resolution of this dynamic is to take steps to reduce the volume of arts programming offered by euthanizing a swath of the country's arts organizations.
Why euthanize nonprofit arts organizations? There are several good reasons:
1) Many of todays arts organizations were built on a vision of an audience and its growth that was predicated on the arts growth trends of the 1970s. Clearly, that vision has not been realized. The tremendous expansion in options for entertainment and leisure participation since that period has made nonprofit arts programming simply one of a host of attractive options and no longer one of the preferred options for an individuals discretionary time. One result is that the nonprofit art sector is far too large for today's audience. It can be smaller and still be vital.
2) We are now harvesting the bitter fruits of 20 years of severe decline in arts education in the nations schools. One outcome is that we now have a public that is less aware of the languages and processes of the arts. This lack of a framework with which to understand many art forms in depth has reduced the appetite for a large segment of nonprofit arts programming. Why supply programming that only a relative few can fully appreciate?
3) Recent societal trends have not favored participation in nonprofit arts programming. In the 1960s and 1970s, the arts in America had high aspirational and coercive value. During that period, involving oneself in the arts confirmed a level of social prestige, which brought with it a bundle of social and business connections that made participation in the nonprofit arts advantageous to the advancement of an individuals career and social positioning. With some exceptions, this is far less the case today. In today's world, the field of sports has a far stronger and socially advantageous networking mechanism.
The days of what I call coercive participation in the arts are largely over. In the past, a rising executive at a corporation that supported the arts would likely become involved in the arts as both a patron and participant. In the last 20 years, changes in corporate culture have placed a greater emphasis on building ones career by helping to fatten the corporate bottom line not on outside activities such as cultural participation. As a result, previously coerced persons attending arts events for reasons other than for their enjoyment now participate in other, more self-selected activities. They leave empty chairs.
4) Today, nonprofit arts programming is more market driven than ever and audiences are voting with their feet. Population bases in much of the country continue to grow, yet this growth is not reflected in arts attendance. Our field has long argued that market failure of one type or another is the reason to subsidize the arts, but when the potential audience is growing and empty seats are common rather than the exception, what does that say about even the core need for our work? In today's hyper-market economy, we need to consider that the degree of market failure that requires intervention may be entirely different from what it was in the past. Even as the point of intervention may have changed, so, too, has the public's consensus regarding the level at which market intervention is appropriate. The questions we should ask are: If our population has increased by 25% in the past 10 years and there are still no more people attending your programs, why should we continue supporting you? Do our residents value what you offer?
So lets euthanize some arts organizations. Lets pull some of the nonprofit arts programming off the arts-production line and free up funding and talent for reallocation to stronger efforts--especially to new efforts tilted toward engaging the public. Lets return to the concept of offering seed money for organizations that, over a period of years, need to attract enough of an audience and develop enough of a stable financial base to survive and not structure them to live eternally on the dole. Lets find a way to extinguish those very large groups that are out of audience-building momentum and running on inertia. Instead of locking arts funders into a cycle of limited choices, lets free up some venture capital for new arts efforts that share the arts in new ways with the public.
Euthanizing arts organizations will not be easy, but the alternative is the underwriting of a museum of arts organizations a dust bin of well-intentioned nonprofit arts programming that either never quite connected with the public or whose day has passed. The public expects more from our field. They will return in numbers to nonprofit arts programming when we clear out the ghost organizations that live on without community support. These entities are a heavy weight on our efforts to share meaningful and insightful arts experiences with others.
Am I arguing for nonprofit arts organizations to only present popular arts forms? Not at all. I am suggesting that the structure of the nonprofit arts organization can be much more responsive to the public, and much more attentive to the aesthetic issues, interests, and obsessions they engage in every day.
I fully agree that there are many arts organizations out there that need to die the peaceful and dignified death that they deserve, rather than the protracted, painful process of life support that keeps many floundering orgs alive. I applaud the fact that we are at least talking about this - as painful as it is.
What I find myself worrying about is this - will we euthanize for the right reason? I would hate to see the field go on a rampage of getting rid of the non-performers simply because they can't make their budget. There are some art forms that simply cannot be supported by market forces, even when the public loves them. That's where SUCCESSFUL non-profits come in. Or new model of doing business. Who knows what structures, partnerships, incubators, etc, are out there? Bring it on: let's find them and make them work.
I think this debate surfaces a powerful concept that the arts field is struggling with: relevance. We are starting to realize that our old ways of creating are not entirely relevant to the audiences of today. It's not that the audiences are dying - they are choosing. And they are choosing what is most relevant to their life - and in many cases, the arts aren't. Actually, I should say, the arts that are facing declining audiences aren't. There are all kinds of art forms that are highly relevant - just not the ones we're used to. What can we, as arts organizations, do to become more relevant?
Shifting gears, the point about changes in corporate support is an interesting one, particularly in context of Northwest Arkansas, where I live and work. Anyone who has seen the growth in this region knows that our business community is highly engaged in the arts. And we work very hard to keep them that way. I wonder if we will see another trend in the future - corporations relocating or locating to culturally undeveloped areas (because, frankly, it's cheaper). What an opportunity that could be for the arts community!
Jodi is right - we should be discussing this issue, and we need to be careful as we do so. In the private sector, the supply and demand market forces ostensibly take care of weeding out non-competitive entrants. But even in that sector, advertising, branding and positioning within the marketplace allow products that may be overpriced and sub-standard in comparison to newer products to triumph. In the arts, the traditional marketplace forces of audience and individual philanthropic support are altered by public and private subsidies. So, there are two major issues that stand out: First, government and foundation support, if consciously withdrawn, would have the euthanasia effect, but the issues of who to support and on what basis (established art vs. experimental forms, traditional art vs. avant garde etc.)are difficult at best. Second, there are issues of equity and balance - based on ethnicity, geography, and other criteria (particularly relevant to taxpayer based government support at the local, state and federal levels). Then there are arts organizations outside the performance / exhibition category, that are less subject to market forces. Do you support them or not and on what basis? All of these considerations are, of course, highly politically charged.
But in fact, government and foundations make decisions all the time that deal with these issues. In deciding what categories to fund, where to allocate their money, whether or not to make many small grants or fewer larger ones, whether to emphasize stability, capacity and operations vs. programming etc. These are all considerations in considering the issue of allowing the marketplace to weed out less financially successful organizations (and I say "less successful" because even the most financially successful arts organizations depend on some kind of subsidy funding beyond their earned income.)
Anthony's argument is compelling. But this is a tricky and complex area. Other thoughts?
Its all about relevance. It doesn't necessarily take new resources or new research to figure out how to better connect arts products with existing and potential audiences. It does mean constantly communicating with audiences and potential audiences and using what is learned to improve what and how opportunities and experiences are offered. The volume of market research amassed about arts participation is impressive. But without the same level of resources expended to help arts providers apply that research -- well, whats the point?
Successful arts providers (whether for profit or nonprofit) are continually exploring creative, affordable ways to keep current with what their communities find entertaining, provocative and interesting, when, where and at what cost. They haven't dumbed down offerings, but rather have found ways to make them more inviting and more accessible. There are hundreds and hundreds of successful examples of organizations that have made their offerings more relevant and accessible (or partnered with non arts entities that could) in order to entice and expand the number of consumers/users. I'm not suggesting this is a cakewalk. Change and adaptation are very hard. Organizations which are myopic and stuck in an operating mode because it's comfortable and worked so well years ago, unwilling to consider new ways to make offerings more accessible and consumable within their communities are irrelevant and will disappear. Those excited, energized and actively pursuing ways to diversify offerings with their communities will thrive.
Whether the audience as we know it is dead, or the time has come to euthanize non competitive organizations or the organizational structure itself, are questions that should be discussed and debated as widely as possible as a prelude to policy formulation. And the topic of policy formulation - the process of how policy is considered and created, by whom, when, with what intent and result, should itself be discussed by the field. While constant change dictates flexibility and adaptation in formulating policy, we still need to work to develop policy positions around which we can unite. This week's discussion barely scratches the surface. As the commentator's observations note, there are fundamental questions involved and contradictory considerations. I hope the dialgoue continues.
Thank you all.
Have a good weekend.