Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Red Carpet Culture

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on……………………..”

Treat Them Like Rock Stars:

A couple of weeks ago was the opening of the S.F. Opera Season. I think it was the Opera. It could have been the Symphony. I don’t remember. Doesn’t matter. What caught my attention was the spread in the newspaper of all the grand dames of the patron set, on parade in their couture gowns and plenty of bling. It dawned on me that for these well heeled Opera goers / supporters, this annul opening extravaganza was their “Red Carpet.” And they were enjoying themselves immensely.

We live in a “Red Carpet” culture today. Years ago, the Oscars and Grammys were merely award shows to celebrate and honor achievements in film and recorded music. Then the Awards Show mentality took over and now there are scores of televised popular entertainment Awards Shows (it almost seems like there isn’t a night that goes by without some Hollywood Awards type show on television), and all of them feature prominently the famed “Red Carpet” whereon the celebrities of the day parade in their finery for the cameras and the adoring fans. The “Red Carpet” has become a fixture of these shows, and in some ways actually more important – both to participants (including it would seem, nominees) and the public - than the substance of the awards themselves. It’s part of the celebrity mentality and the almost obscene need to be seen – where being a celebrity trumps actually doing anything of note that would merit celebrity status (reminds me of the Beatles lyric: “Got to be good looking, cause he’s so hard to see.”) The need for fame and recognition as young and glamorous feeds the ever-growing frenzy.

The Opera’s splash in the newspaper was about the Opening – not the Opera being performed, of course, but the glamour of those attending (the hoi polloi need not apply). Specifically it was about what the women patrons of the Opera were wearing. It was their chance to be on the Red Carpet. Maybe not as exclusive and rarefied as Hollywood’s elite, but it was the same phenomenon. Major urban cultural institutions know full well, that this version of the Red Carpet plays a huge role in garnering support from the wealthy in the first place, and they are smart enough to understand how important this aspect of the whole Opening of a Season is in keeping alive the “tradition” of the patron support system. Men have, and do, serve on this, as well as other cultural institution boards, but this night wasn't about, or for, them. This Opening Night event, and the financial support it represents, was really about their wives and widows - and their chance for the Red Carpet experience.   We should not marginalize the importance of that experience and its direct relationship to why these people are supporters at all.  Many of the women may actually be Opera Lovers – though loving the Opera isn’t necessarily high on the list of why anyone is a big opera booster. (for validation of this idea click here:) It is important to remember that the reason people support cultural institutions doesn't always have to do with the nature of the programming, its artistic vibrancy or the experience of the performance, but rather with tangential benefits as perceived by those people.  Take away Opening Night and the Red Carpet experience of major operas and symphonies around the country and I wonder how enthusiastic some of the current supporters would remain.

I see nothing at all wrong with this. By the smiles on their faces, the women at the Opera opening were having an enormously good time. And why not? They were having fun.  Fun should be part of the mix.  All of us are somewhat slaves to fame and recognition, and many would happily and gladly be part of some Red Carpet culture were we in the position to do so. My interest in this is that the major operas, symphonies and ballets know that according the biggest donors and supporters treatment that makes them feel special, if not superior, is part of smart marketing. Making your supporters and audiences have a jolly good time is key to keeping them happy. And happy customers are likely satisfied customers.

To the degree any arts organization that wants to raise its visibility and increase its donor base can single out their biggest supporters, or all their supporters, and make them feel “special” - the more likely they will be to expand that base. And in fact I think it incumbent on all organizations to figure out some way to treat every single donor – at every level – “special”. Of course, the actual Red Carpet and haut couture gowns on parade approach doesn’t work for but a few major organizations, but that only makes the challenge of figuring out how to accord everyone status more difficult.

And that is the challenge: how can you make everyone who gives you money, who attends your performances or exhibitions feel as though they are “special”? What can you do to single out everyone so that they can bask in their fifteen minutes of fame? Surely, we are creative enough to figure out ways more sophisticated and meaningful than the tired old trick of listing donor names by amount given in our programs – not that such an effort doesn’t work. It does work. People like to be acknowledged -and publicly thanking those who pony up support is appreciated and a simple way to make people feel good. That is the same theory behind the other old trick of according people different levels of rewards for their support – from the Platinum Member all the way down to the Bronze category (or whatever designations one may employ). Ditto limited access Q&A pre or post performance talks with the artist, or dinner with the cast or whatever. 

These things are good. But again, we have to be able to figure out even better ways to make people feel singled out. Yes, I suppose if everyone is special, than no one really is (at least in their own minds). But I don’t think that is really a problem. We just have to figure out different ways to single out different sets of people. We have to think harder, be more generationally on target, and come up with more ideas about how to make people feel they are, if not literally, than at least figuratively on some kind of conceptual “Red Carpet”. The more an organization can do that, the better I think they may fare in keeping those people happy, satisfied customers.

Here is a link to a related article on: The Five Things Every Arts Organization tries to expand their younger audiences THAT DON’T WORK.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit