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Thinking like the audience

0 Robert Levine

I linked yesterday to a Huffington Post article by Michael Kaiser which was both interesting and frustrating:

…money concerns truly have begun to overwhelm artistic decisions in too many arts organizations. The fear that the organization will not survive has driven many arts organizations to produce safer, more accessible, and, unfortunately, more boring art, especially in this current economic downturn.

This is a deeply scary phenomenon. If arts organizations do not take risk, they cannot create the next great work of art. If not-for-profit arts organizations begin to think like for-profit entertainment companies, we will not produce the next generation of great playwrights, composers, artists and choreographers.

…The arts suffer inflation more than other industries and no one is providing us with a cushion to protect us if a risky project fails in spectacular fashion. It is scary to be responsible for the salaries of so many people with so little money coming in. But I also understand that without risk there cannot be art and that the organizations that do the most innovative and exciting work will also have the biggest financial rewards, and thus, ultimately, the most stability.

At the Kennedy Center, I know that I need to achieve fiscal balance every year. But it is not accomplished by selecting only safe works. I think of every season as if it were a stock portfolio; balancing the riskier projects with safer, more accessible programs… If every season does not have a few wonderful, surprising moments, than I will not be able to maintain the interest of my large donor and audience bases. Without their support we obviously cannot continue to build a larger, more diverse calendar of performance and educational programming.

When I hear artists evaluating a project based on audience size, a project’s attractiveness to donors, and other measures of financial success, it makes me sad. While every artist must be realistic about the fiscal implications of a given work, this should not be their primary concern. We need our artists to be thinking expansively, to be challenging themselves to be truly creative and to be challenging their administrators to find the resources required.

What’s frustrating about this is that it alternates between being obvious, optimistic, and unhelpful. Obviously audiences want exciting programs. But what does that mean in practice? And I think it’s far from a given that “organizations that do the most innovative and exciting work will also have the biggest financial rewards.” It all depends on who finds it innovative and exciting, doesn’t it?

Reading an article like this from an arts executive as gifted as Michael Kaiser leads me to believe that he doesn’t really understand the nature of his gift. Anyone can be “innovative”; the trick is being innovative in ways that audiences will enjoy.

It’s a little like being told by Warren Buffet that the secret to successful investing is buying low and selling high. That’s easy; what’s hard is knowing when a stock is low and when it’s high. The problem for arts managers in executing Kaiser’s “strategy” is that it’s very hard to design programs that aren’t “safe” that also stand a reasonable chance of bringing in audiences. There’s lots of innovative that will empty halls in a hurry. Almost by definition, it wouldn’t be innovative if it had been successful in lots of other places.

I suspect that what makes Kaiser successful, at least in this regard, is that he can think like an audience member, which virtually all musicians and many arts managers find hard to do. We may find a Beethoven cycle not very interesting. That doesn’t mean a lot of the audience won’t find it attractive. We may find a Martinu festival to be the cat’s pajamas. That doesn’t mean the audience will.

Of course there’s another solution to the problem of trying to make earned income off innovative programs, and that’s to stop being dependent on earned income. But that’s a subject for another day.

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