Sunday, May 10, 2015

Four Areas Arts Organizations Need to Master

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………………."

Everywhere the search for lost audiences and a safe haven continues.  We have new research every week that adds new dimensions of things we need to consider as we try to figure out who is coming, who isn't, why and what we can do about it.  We have no shortage of information and data, no shortage of questions -- yet we don't have many answers.

The world has already changed, and it's hard to get a handle on it.  We know a lot, and we know almost nothing.

There are, I think, four areas that we have to figure out, and to some degree, master - if we are to survive and thrive.  There will be no one prescription, no one best practice, no 'model' to adopt - as everything will be localized, individual and different from any mold.  While there may be much to learn from each other - what we need to learn has to do with our collective experience - not with solutions from one place that we hope can work in another place.

Here are the four areas that we need to master:

1.  The digital world:  We absolutely have to master the way digitization defines and impacts our world, and how it might facilitate our future success - and that includes access to what we do, distribution of our art, solicitation of needed support, and recruitment of talent on every level.  It has to do with how we do business, how we compete, and everything else. In literally everything we do, we have got to be on the edge of how anything and everything that has to do with computers and technology may have any bearing on the health and viability of our organizations.  Mastery of the digital world isn't an adjunct to whatever business strategy we have embraced, it is the core of the strategy and how the strategy gets applied.  We've got to equip our people with all the skills (from coding to gaming and beyond) that might be necessary, to first understand, then become expert, at using technology to do what we do.  We have to rethink what we know about technology, and, even more importantly, how we think technology ought to be part of our lives as arts administrators.  We've got to get ahead of the curve.  We have talked about this already.  But we haven't moved on it nearly as much as we need to.  We are nowhere near the head of the class in this area, and it shows.  We're still using flip phones in a smart phone world.

2.  Monetization:  We have to figure out new ways to make money.  NEW ways.  Not just some improvement on returns we have relied on for a long time.  Government money, philanthropic support (individual, corporate and foundation), and earned income (from ticket sales and maybe merchandise) are not going to be enough as we move forward.  For while we need new ways to monetize each of these areas, and improve on what we are already doing, we also need to figure out new revenue sources that don't fall under these common headings.  (Perhaps they might be enough for a few arts organizations -- but over time that number will get smaller and smaller.)    We need to think about how we can invest for profit; we need to think about new benefits and value for people to give us money or invest in us; we need more than new audiences -- we need to figure out ways our audiences can pay more - not less - and be happy to do it.  We need to figure out if there is any way we can make a profit.  This may sound glib, but we have to figure out how to offer art in a way that is valued by a large enough segment of the public to pay what it costs to mount the effort.  Absent that, we won't last long. And we haven't done that yet - except in isolated cases.

3.  New Collaborations, Partnerships, Associations:  The days of each arts organization being able to stand  on its own two feet, independent and isolated from every other arts organization, are likely to soon be over.  Increasingly, to survive,  arts organizations are going to have to find ways to work together to leverage whatever strengths that may give them to open new doors and vistas to new possibilities.  What am I talking about?  I don't know for sure.  But it will likely involve completely rethinking what an arts organization is and how it functions.  We likely won't know what might be possible until we fundamentally change how we see ourselves in the context of independence, and until some of those new doors open up. I'm not talking about economies of scale, and saving money by mergers etc.  I'm talking about what might be possible if we are open to the idea that to survive we have to be open to the idea of being part of something bigger than the way we have scaled ourselves up to this point.  That doesn't mean we have to lose our identify or forsake our mission.  It may mean finding a new identity so that we can fulfill the mission.  This may require us to rethink much of how we have done business for the past half century.  Maybe the Met can go it alone, maybe some others can too.  Most won't be able to do that into the future.  We need to redefine ourselves as a field.

4.  Re-Programming:  We are going to have to move away from the blind and absolute loyalty to protecting and preserving the heritage of our individual art forms to the exclusion of any other purpose, and embrace those arts forms as they might now be transitioned into the new millennium.  That doesn't mean we abandon the great art that our organizations represent, but rather that we complement that art with the great art yet to be created within the form.  Art has to be more than a snapshot of how great it was at a point in time.  If that isn't true, then we aren't arts administrators at all - we are preservationists charged with protecting the zenith of a now dead form.  And we have got to embrace the new art forms that are emerging as the artists of the world themselves change.  Keep the old, but make room for the new - with a solid emphasis on the latter.

Is this simplistic.? Yes, unfortunately it is.   Getting to mastery in these areas (and others) will likely be a step by step process until we get to some milestone tipping points. While there are places, pockets as it were, where we are doing spectacular things - overall, we struggle.  We've got to re-imagine our very being on a fundamental level, or we may go the way of newspapers, records, and other platforms now virtually obsolete and gone.  I think the above four areas demand some new approaches and ideas, and at least people thinking out loud about change.  As a start.  Will that happen?  It already is in a few places.  It will grow.  It has to.  Slowly I suspect, as change is often a difficult thing.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit