Saturday, February 21, 2009

February 21, 2009


Hello everyone.

"And the beat goes on................................"


Ben Cameron is one of our sector's most popular public speakers - both for his oratory skills and for his keen insight. In a recent speech to the Chamber Music America Membership Meeting National Conference on January 16,2009, he identified four areas that challenge the arts even more than the financial crisis that currently vexes us all. While all four issues have been with us for awhile, I think it important to pass on his analysis. Rather than try to paraphrase his remarks, I include those four points in his own words.

"First, concern about the increasing dysfunctionality of the 501(c)(3) model as organization leaders, increasingly overwhelmed by the demands of fundraising, of advocacy, of arts education policy formation, of board recruitment and donor cultivation—an expansion of a portfolio that often resulted in days and weeks passing without setting foot inside rehearsal halls, of engaging artists they never met and more, asked: “Isn’t there another way to finance and support the work we are called to do?”

Second, we heard about an impending generational transfer of leadership. A study supported by the Meyers Foundation in Oregon revealed that 75% of leaders in the nonprofit sector—including but not limited to the arts—will leave their jobs by 2012. And while many of us for years have wondered where we would find those individuals willing to work the long hours, accept the paltry compensation, in essence to embrace the social and financial masochism that were the accepted standards for leaders of my own generation, these conversations brought a new perspective to this issue. “There are more than enough of us ready to lead,” the young people in the room said. “But we are not interested in being the mere custodians of those institutions you have created. Unless we have the same degree of responsibility and autonomy to remake and refashion these organizations as you yourselves were given, we’re not interested”—a position that now places the issue more squarely on organizational flexibility, openness and capacity for change than on the identity of the heir apparent per se.

Third, we heard about the erosion of audiences in every field—declining subscription renewal, difficulties in attracting single ticket buyers, increased “churn”—a term reflecting the high percentage—typically 70–75%--of audience members who attend a single event in a season and do not return—the collapse in the window of social planning post 9’11, when seemingly overnight audiences shifted from committing, not two to four weeks in advance, but more typically purchasing on the day of or, if you’re lucky, 24-48 hours in advance—a disorienting shift that continues to plague box office and marketing departments who struggle to understand the implications on a Tuesday for a sparsely sold Saturday performance. Moreover, the ever accelerating pace of our lives is producing a populace characterized by over-scheduling and exhaustion—a time in which (according to a Yankelovich poll) more than half of consumers in every income level say lack of time is a bigger problem than lack of money, where 42% of men and 55% of women say they are too tired to do the things they truly want to do, and where the #1 answer to the question of most eagerly anticipated use of a free evening is no longer dinner with friends or a movie or a performing arts event, but is instead “a good night’s sleep.” Not surprisingly we heard in ever field that, after decades of growth, our audiences are shrinking and that our own financial needs, driven in many cases by escalating fixed costs of facilities, insurance, health care and more, in tandem with negative shifts in funding mean escalating ticket prices that threaten to place attendance beyond so many in our communities we wish to reach and serve.

Finally, and certainly related, we heard the struggle to understand more fully the impact of technology on the live performing arts. The potential of technology as a marketing device is, if anything, too effective: in trying to attract the attention of potential ticket buyers, we now compete with (depending on who you read) between 3,000 and 5,000 different marketing messages a typical American sees every single day. In fact, technology has emerged as our biggest competitor for leisure time: Gen Xers spend 20.7 hours of leisure time every week on TV and online combined, the majority TC; Gen Yers spend even more—22.8 hours, the majority on line—and last year, in 2007, computer games outsold movie and music recordings combined. Most profoundly, technology is altering the very assumptions of consumption: thanks to the internet, we believe we can get anything we want, whenever we want it, customized to our own personal specifications. We can shop at three in the morning or ten o’clock at night, expectations of convenience and personalization that live performing arts organizations—organizations who depend on set curtain times, specific geographic venues, attendant inconveniences of parking, travel and the like—simply cannot meet. And in an age where young people especially access culture on demand through YouTube and iTunes any time they want it and for little or no apparent cost, what will it mean in the future when we ask a potential audience member to pay $40, $50 or $60 for a chamber music when that consumer has been accustomed to downloading on the Internet for .99 a song or for free?"


As to his first point about the dysfunctionality of the 501 c 3 structure, there is has been much talk about this point over the past three years. Yet this is a very elusive concept, and more often than not, that discussion remains vague. I agree with the analysis, yet wish there were more specificity about what exactly isn't working with the nonprofit structure, how those shortcomings directly impact our work, and what options there might be for change. The questions loom large: does the nonprofit model need to be replaced or merely repaired? What could it be replaced with - a "for profit" model or something else? What else would there be? Is the core of the problem simply that the model doesn't work any longer for funding what we do, or is that merely a symptom of one or more larger problems? Is the model dysfunctional because we are in hard economic times, or are WE in hard economic times in part because the model no longer works? We need to explore this charge -- as I said, now on the table for some time - and delve much deeper into what people mean when they say this. Alas, while I don't dispute it, I confess I don't completely understand what is meant when we conclude the model is broken. And, I think perhaps, different people might mean different things when they make this observation. We need to arrive at a consensus as to what it all means.

As to his second point about the problem of leadership transition - the recruitment, and more importantly, retention of the next generation of arts leaders, this is a subject on which I can claim some expertise - having completed two phases of a study on exactly this issue for the Hewlett Foundation over a three year period (the most recent a Focus Group based exhaustive examination of the attitudes of Generation X and Millennials within our sector - soon to be published and released). I have some suspicions about the Meyer Foundation conclusion that 75% of the current arts leadership intends to step down within the next five years. My own work suggests the recent economic crisis, including the huge rise in job layoffs, the devaluation in retirement accounts, poor future planning by the baby boomer generation, and the continuing need to remain gainfully employed are all contributing to a wholesale re-evaluation by our leadership as to when, and if, they will exit our field anytime soon.

But I take no exception to the conclusion that unless our arts leadership soon understands and appreciates the critical need to alter its organizational approach to granting its younger recruits more meaningful decision making power, and affords them more authority and power as to the operations and the future of how our sector moves forward - by delegating to them more responsibility - a potential crisis looms that, at the least, will seriously harm our chances to retain the leaders we are likely to be able to recruit. I think this point is "spot on" and of major import to our future. I will have much more to offer you on this point, once the most recent YOUTH IN THE ARTS Phase II Focus Group Study is published.

As to Ben's third point - the changing attitudes of our audiences with the resultant drop in their numbers and our income - this is assuredly a very complex issue. Our costs are going up, our ticket sales are not rising correspondingly, and something has to give. There are numerous levels to this issue - ranging from content to audience convenience and beyond. Relevant to any discussion about audiences are issues as far ranging as the extent to which our field is overbuilt (too many organizations, with too much the same product, competing for too few dollars) and the way we have for a long time (perhaps too long) attempted to both support new audience development measures and the overbuilding of the sector -- two perhaps polar opposite objectives that have trumped each other -- to more cerebral areas of examination that attempt to map how the very "meaning" of attending arts events and how those "experiences" are at the center of what approach we must adopt. During these tough economic times, Hollywood and the Movie Industry is doing very well -- is that because of their comparative price competitive advantage -- $8 for a ticket vs. the $30, $40 or higher price for our tickets? Or is it because there happen to be a bunch of good movies out right now? Or are there other reasons? Are our audiences "graying"? Or are only some of our audiences stuck in an age group tier? Is our content meeting market demand? Do we care? When we defend artistic integrity, are we being snobs? Are our marketing efforts in sync with empirical data about who are audiences really are - or are the two on separate and disparate tracks? Does it matter?

I, for one, am confused by the rhetoric, and feel lost as to what avenues should be at the top of our priority lists as we stumble around and try to come up with an answer as to how to, if not increase, then safeguard, our current audience numbers and the income they generate. I think our attempts at audience development / protection are (to a degree anyway) intertwined with Ben's fourth point about how we use technology to develop new ways to deliver our product to audiences (and this reality, whether we like it or not). Yet there are more fundamental questions involved as well - and we will need to ask ourselves probing (and perhaps sometimes painful) questions about what we do, how we do it, and what results we can realistically expect. I believe we continue to live in a kind of fantasy world in our expectations as to our performing arts audience options -- though I certainly have no definitive answers. Were the performing arts like the private sector film industry, it is certain the trends would be thought critically disturbing, demanding some kind of wholesale attention. But we aren't the same as the private sector and should we attempt to emulate them anyway?

Finally, I would certainly agree that we continue to flounder as we search for how the arts should embrace new technologies - particularly the implications of how those technologies are going to change both the access people have to our product, and the delivery systems we employ to grant that access. My studies with younger generation arts leaders strongly suggest our thinking about technology and all its facets and ramifications remains hopelessly, and I might add, dangerously, limited AND outdated.

I think we continue to ignore all four of these challenges on many levels. Our conversations about and around them continue to be short and too infrequent, and on too many levels, vague and even simplistic. Doubtless, all four of these issues are inter-related and connect to each other, and to other of our pressing concerns as well. We need national conferences, Summit meetings and think tanks to take these issues on in earnest -- and most importantly to take them on in depth - with specificity as to the analysis of the problems and the options for solutions. I honestly don't see that happening and it concerns me.

I wish I had more specific thoughts and answers to provide people to move us forward. I'm sure Ben Cameron and others wish they did too. I pass this on in the hope more of you will get involved in figuring out how we can deal with these challenges more concretely. I do know one thing: we simply cannot afford to continue to throw out these really extraordinarily important issues, and then let them lie out there without doing something to address them. Perhaps the NEA might take just a few of the Stimulus Bill dollars and try to put these issues on the front burner. The future of the whole of the sector depends on us moving quickly to address each one of them. What entity, but the NEA is positioned to help us do that?

I salute Ben Cameron and the many others who are raising the bar for our thinking. The clock is ticking.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.