Category Archives: risk-taking

Artists and Administrators: we really are all on the same team

I’m not sure why Mike Daisey’s article from February 7, 2008 has been making the social media rounds again, but I’m reminded enough of the ire I felt when I first read it in 2008 (and saw his production of “How Theatre Failed America” during NPAC in Denver that same year) that I am back here blogging again.

I’m not going to spill a lot of ink on the article itself or Mr. Daisey’s specific arguments because (1) it was written 6 years ago, before the “Great Recession” hit that autumn and changed much of the landscape, and (2) I feel Mr. Daisey makes so many leaps of ill-focused logic and presumptions that it is a waste of breath to enumerate all the flaws in his argument.

I do worry, however, about the perception that the resurfacing of the article may encourage: that (1) “large” organizations (broad and ranging definition depending on who is speaking) do not care about the art or the artists and (2) arts administrators are evil delusionary autocrats deliberately seeking to cheat artists (“they are a dime a dozen”) and fill their own pockets in the name of supporting the edifice of “the institution.”  Granted, I am an arts administrator, so it would make sense that I would take offense to this…no one, not even the most universally reviled criminals would probably paint themselves as a villain.  However, I have spent almost two decades in the non-profit theatre industry and I have yet to encounter one single person who was deliberately trying to find ways to cheat or devalue artists for their own gain.  The sooner we all stop demonizing each other, the sooner we will start to realize there are numerous theatres existing right now that are trying to do what’s right by all their employees and the communities they serve.  When we do that, we can start talking about what works in various communities, why it works, and how these strategies can be modified and replicated in other communities that haven’t found their model yet.

The first, and most important, thing to note is that we really are all on the same team.  The vast majority of us, artist or administrator, came to this industry through a love of theatre.  We have a deep, burning need to share that love with our communities, to help them know how much more beautifully rich our lives are with theatre in them.  That love is why we put in the umpteen extra hours, work for significantly less pay that we would find in the corporate sector, and (for me, anyway) stay awake at night trying to find more ways to make our employees’ lives better.  In the years since Mr. Daisey wrote the aforementioned article, the answer to that last issue has rarely included increased salaries.  We’ve all spent the last six years finding our balance and learning to be better stewards of the public’s funds (we are, after all, by definition of “non-profit corporation”, in the public trust).  We know that our people are the backbone of our organization and, there is no question, most of our theatres rode out the recession on the backs of our people, artists and staff alike.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned in my career and I hear echoed in the conversations of my peers:

  • Your mission, vision, and values must be your guiding light.
  • Great employees (artists and admin) are the only way any organization survives, much less thrives
  • All great employees should be valued, regardless of title or union affiliation
  • Respect is the Golden Rule.  Why on earth would anyone put up with everything else related to working in non-profit theatre if they weren’t at the very least respected for their unique contribution?
  • When there is a choice, you should always prioritize people (we will give raises rather than getting a color copier until all our employees are paid fairly)
  • Sometimes it does come down to “we have to fix the air conditioner” and there is no other choice.
  • It is almost never a question of black and white; so many factors go into every decision (budget, casting, marketing, staffing) it is always a matter of degrees, timing, and competing priorities.
  • Transparency should be the law of the land.  Without accurate information folks are free to jump to whatever conclusions pop into their brains, just as Mr. Daisey did.
  • You have to bring in more revenue before you expand the budget.
  • Breakeven is never good enough.  We’ve allowed ourselves (often encouraged by funders) to believe that if we aren’t “re-investing” every penny we make this year into this year’s expenses then we are not using our funds wisely (and we don’t need their funding).  We must eradicate this thinking.  It is only by establishing cash reserves (not endowments) that we can take the artistic and programmatic risks we all want to support.
  • It should not be a question of “if” but “when.”  Just because you can’t fulfill the organizations wildest dreams (or even more pedestrian ones) tomorrow doesn’t mean you give up and condemn “the administration” for killing your dreams.  It does mean you need to plan out how to take all the steps needed between where you are and where you want to be.  We’ve all been so busy making sure our checks didn’t bounce, it has been hard to lift our eyes to the horizon and even think about dreams.  I’m encouraged by the fact that I am hearing more and more conversations about strategic planning and mapping out strategies to move our organizations to the next level (including the next level of support for our people).

I honestly believe that most often the fault lies not in administrators’ motivations, nor even in the specific budgetary priorities of an organization, but rather in a severe lack of transparency.  Without transparency, there can be no appropriate oversight.  Without transparency, you lose vital opportunities.  Without transparency, there can be no trust.

Articles like Mike Daisey’s encourage and support a culture of fear in an industry where our best work can only be created in a safe environment.  We, as administrators, must lead the way to reverse this culture of fear and the surest way to do this is by sharing what you know and all the plans.  By doing so, we invite in every person in the organization to be part of the solution.  We are better together.  In fact, we can only exist as a team.  Let’s stop fighting and start working towards a better artistic world for us all.


Posted by on October 9, 2014 in Arts management, risk-taking, theatre


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Are public competitions good for arts funding?

Over the past month or so there has been a lot of talk (online and off) about competitions like Chase Community Giving.  I missed my chance to add my voice on the 2AM Theatre blog a few weeks ago because I go to sleep too early but last night’s tweet from Lincoln Center regarding American Express’ Members Project brought a lot of my feelings back to the surface.

While I could use this space to talk about how no company, including arts organizations, should allow anyone to tweet for them without implementing social media guidelines (like “don’t bash the competition”), I’ll save that for next week.  Right now I want to talk about whether all this focus on public competitions is a good thing for arts funding.  My knee-jerk reaction to the Chase program is no.  I’ve always disliked popularity contests and I don’t think that continuously asking for votes is the way to build the relationships our organizations need in order to sustain once the spotlight of Chase moves on.  It is superficial and cheap and has the potential to wear thin on our constituents (especially with Chase where you needed to keep the votes coming in throughout the run of the contest).

I can completely see why it makes sense to the companies running the competitions.  Chase would never have received anywhere near the same amount of exposure had they simply sponsored 200 events or hand-picked 200 grant recipients.  Every time an organization asked for a vote, there was Chase’s logo and the blue hand.  In fact, I often had to look twice to figure out which organization was asking for my vote, but I always knew it was Chase.

Then came the ill-advised Lincoln Center tweet.  This turned attention on the American Express Members Project.  Perhaps I shouldn’t blame AmEx for the misguided Lincoln Center communication, but I have a serious problem with funding mechanisms that pit one organization against another in this public fashion.

While discussing this issue on Twitter earlier today, Aaron Andersen pointed me to his post about the psychological underpinnings for the way we respond to these situations.  Aaron writes about how, once a company was officially in the top 200, the situation changed from “Chase’s money that we might win” to “our money to lose.”  The trick with the AmEx contest (and why I think the Lincoln Center tweeter said what they did) is that all the organizations chosen to be in the running automatically had “money to lose.”  The us-against-them idea is inherent.  There isn’t even a way to play the system by working together as the storefront theatres in Chicago did with Chase.  Cooperation gets you nowhere with the AmEx Members Project.

I worry that a continuation and/or expansion of this type of competition is tailor-made to erode the progress our industry has seen over these past two, very difficult, years.  We’ve learned to cooperate and collaborate out of necessity and the call from our foundation grantors that we need to work together more.  Corporate money has all but disappeared from our income statements as corporate philanthropy departments are shuttered and sponsorships have dried up.  Will we sabotage our partnerships with our sister companies (and our foundation funding) for the bright sparkle of these high-profile contests?  Is there a way for corporations to get the ROI they are looking for on their philanthropic endeavors without making us compete for “friends” and eye each other’s tactics suspiciously?  Am I naive to think that in a time when reality TV reigns and everyone is looking for a way to let the audience feel they are part of the process we could possibly hope that corporations would look seriously at a non-profit’s financial and organizational stability and/or programmatic strength when making funding decisions?

Let me know your thoughts.


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You are not for all markets: Embracing niche marketing

In my last post I talked briefly about creating the profile of what John Jantsch calls the “ideal customer.”  (Yep, another post inspired by The Referral Engine)  In the theatre world we tend to shy away from the idea of creating one customer profile because we like to think that, if we could just get them in the door, most people would love what we do.  Please, keep believing that.  Hope springs eternal.  However, think about the power (and return on investment) of taking a smidgen of your marketing plan and focusing it on your true, core, ideal patron.

As an example, I’ll profile who I think is the ideal customer of Synchronicity Theatre:

  • Female
  • Professional
  • Well-educated
  • Household income of $75,000 or above
  • age 30-60
  • liberal
  • active member of a socio-political civic organization and/or corporate women’s affinity group
  • living within the neighborhoods surrounding 7 Stages Theatre

Think about the focus this provides to the marketing initiatives.  Immediately we know which blogs we should be reading and leaving comments on, which organizations we should be partnering with, where we should be setting the Artistic Director up with speaking engagements, etc.  Being this specific does not mean that we are turning away politically moderate stay-at-home moms or men right out of grad school.  But, those niches aren’t our ideal patron.  Our ideal patron will jump fully into our mission and revel in every nuance of it, understanding immediately the power and purpose of our company.

I challenge us all to take a moment with our key staff and construct the profile of our ideal patrons.  Then, for the entire next season, commit to targeting this patron in every way we can.  Notice nothing I listed above costs marketing dollars, but if you have the money, put some of it behind this experiment.  Plan out your key metrics now and track them against your general outreach and this targeted campaign.   Back to The Referral Engine, Jantsch lists these four goals as good measures to start with:

  • Lead generation:  For our purposes, let’s count this as how many people you are getting your message in front of with each campaign
  • Percentage of leads converted: How many folks from your initial list actually buy a ticket / attend an event?
  • Cost per customer acquisition: This is important!  How much did you spend per converted customer for each campaign?
  • Average dollar transaction per customer: How many tickets did they buy and at what price point?

I would like to add one more indicator:

  • Total income generated per customer acquisition for the season: I contend that your ideal customer will come back more often than the general target.

Come on, try it with me for a year.  Let’s report back at the end of the 2010-2011 season and see how we did.


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Adjusting your initiatives today to turn tomorrow’s marketing challenges into opportunities

Chad Bauman over at the Arts Marketing blog published this post today as part of a series to have industry leaders express their thoughts on the biggest marketing challenges coming our way in the next decade.  While I find it intellectually interesting to hear what these folks have to say (he has an impressive list set to weigh in), I believe the exercise will only be useful if we take the challenges named and examine what we are doing now to prepare for / overcome them.  I think we, as an industry, have become skilled at naming problems from the past, present, and future, real and imagined.  However, we often stop there and wallow in what we couldn’t control (sound like the newspaper and music industry??)  Let’s try to avoid that this time, shall we?

So, I’m going to start by giving my thoughts on what we can do now regarding the challenges mentioned by Thomas Cott and Rick Lester in the current blog post.  Please, add your own thoughts.  And, please, let’s stay focused on concrete actions we can take and not get back into the “no, THIS is the REAL problem” conversation.

Thomas Cott: Thomas lists a number of challenges, among them the demographic shift in our country and the growing “minority majority.”  What are we doing right now with not only our marketing but our programming to embrace this change?  Refer back to Trish Mead’s 2 AM Theatre post on diversity and think about how you are approaching this issue.  I watched Babes on Broadway last night for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed its light, frothy feel right up until the last 20 minutes when Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and the entire cast put on blackface for the minstrel number.  I was flabbergasted.  I thought, wow! I’m glad we are past the period in our history when folks thought that was OK!  Then, this morning, I thought, but what are we really doing today that is including all the voices out there in our conversation?  If they aren’t part of the conversation, you can bet they won’t be sitting in your seats.  What actions are you taking now?

Thomas also sites the change in spending habits for many Americans.  The only way we will get people to spend their hard earned dollars on our production is now and will continue to be that they see more value in the experience than they see in the money they spend.  What are you doing to demonstrate the value of your work in the lives of your patrons?  If we focus on the dollars we will lose, every time.  We must focus on what live performance provides that you can’t get anywhere else.  The visceral connection with the artists and the rest of the audience.  The emotional impact of communal experience and, yes, even ritual.  The lovely folks over at the Pew Internet and American Life Project published this report siting that people who are active on social networking sites are more likely to be out and about in their communities, too.  We are looking for more personal interaction, more real experience.  It is this experience that money does not dictate and it is this experience we need to sell.

Rick Lester: Rick highlights that we were actually once good at marketing to participatory audiences.  They may have performed chamber music in their living rooms whereas now we create music on our computers, but it is a participatory society nonetheless.  How do we harness this surge in the desire for arts participation?  (and, among those who we so bemoan didn’t have arts education in school … curiosity, if cultivated and encouraged, trumps formal training every time.)  How are you inviting your audience into the process?  Open rehearsals?  Reader’s circles for short-listed scripts for future seasons?  Classes?  Open mic nights?  Perhaps a series that brings talented amateurs in to showcase work they do that ties to your mission?  As I said before, you have to invite them into the conversation if you want them to come.

That is all I have time for right now, but I hope it gets the conversation for tactics started.  There are challenges in every era and rarely do people believe they are in a “golden age” while it is actually happening.  Let’s create our own golden age by adjusting now and prevent the need for reacting later.


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Rethink who you consider potential partners

Did anyone else get the ArtsJournal digest email yesterday and read this article from The LA Times and this article from The NY Times back-to-back?  Am I the only one that thought the Wooster Group / Baryshnikov alliance is just the opportunity to provide exciting programming that McNulty found lacking in L.A.’s larger institutions? 

What if the rest of us took a cue from this partnership?  What if these larger companies that find they can’t afford to fill their spaces partnered with smaller groups of complementary nature?  Imagine the cutting-edge work of Sacred Fools filling the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles.  Or the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta bringing Synchronicity to be in residence in their performance space?  Or Zoetic Dance Ensemble creating site-specific works within the galleries of The Contemporary?

Artistic leaders are often hesitant to form these types of partnerships with other theatres due to the fear of competition and ultimately loss of audience.  I believe that given two companies that have distinct and specific missions, this need not be the case.  What you get instead is a very diverse group coming through the doors of your institution.  However, if inviting a smaller theatre company into the space is too big a leap, perhaps partnering with other, non-theatre, arts organization is the way to go.  It works both ways, smaller theatre companies without homes of their own should be talking established dance companies, and even galleries, and museums.  Many of these have performance spaces that often go under-utilized.

If the current economy has taught us anything, it has taught us the old status quo will never return.  Let’s work on creating a new one.  One that is sustainable and not only makes individual companies, but the arts community as a whole stronger.


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I’m a little tired of hearing about the “Arts Leadership Void”

When I started reading this article from Charles McNulty in The Los Angeles Times, I was more than a little afraid that it was yet another cry of hopelessness around this seeming lack of anyone fit to fill the shoes of the geniuses that began the regional theatre movement.  (It turned out to be a wonderfully written article with a lot of things to think about, in fact, I will probably refer back to it again tomorrow.  But the first paragraph set me off and I feel the need to voice my thoughts.)  Don’t get me wrong, the founders of our major (and some minor) regional theatres across the nation deserve the praise that they receive; they cut a new path and created a new way to produce theatre.  Many of us owe our ability to pay our bills through work in the theatre to these trailblazers.

However, to say that no one is ready to take the reins, or that those who are out there are woefully unskilled or under-qualified for the job is ludicrous.  Look around (you don’t have to look too hard).  We are the artistic directors, associate artistic directors and managing directors at small and midsize theatres; we are the regional theatre directors working at your theatres, or your peer theatres, for over a decade; we are the marketing and development directors within your own organizations who volunteer their time to serve on the boards of other nonprofits.  We are here and we are more qualified than you think.  Those years at smaller organizations have given us concrete knowledge of the same things that you learned as you grew your organizations into the multi-million dollar institutions that they are today.  The time we spend on these other boards have taught us to look at the big picture and developed our skills in board leadership.  We are passionate about the field and the mission-driven work.  We are more likely to take calculated risks that reaffirm that mission than the corporate folks your boards seems so enamoured with over the past few years. 

Worried about the lack of institutional knowledge?  Perhaps that isn’t what the organization requires right now.  We bring a new perspective, one that is sorely needed.  One that puts aside the things you may still only be doing because you’ve always done them and can run honest analysis of multiple options without the baggage of history.  A perspective that honors why you built this theatre in the first place: to create great art.  The financial and production history we can easily learn. We can read financial statements and examine budgets with a new eye.  We can also debate the finer points of the voice (or lack thereof) the organization is using on social media sites.

We may or may not be attending the fantastic Emerging Arts Leaders meetings that Americans for the Arts and local arts advocacy organizations facilitate across the nation.  We may not see ourselves as “emerging” at all, but rather fully present and arrived.  We may not be of your generation, your race, or your gender, but we are here and we are ready.


Side note to those leaders who are emerging: if you look to take the reins yourself one day and currently see gaps in your skills, take action now.  Check our the emerging arts leaders groups, here’s the link for more info about the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition’s meetings. There are fantastic classes that can teach you the knowledge base, but, also, get yourself onto the board of an organization you love.  Your skill set will grow and your perspective will broaden in ways you can only imagine.  Set yourself up for success.  Your passion will take you the rest of the way.


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The arts leadership dichotomy and why it works

I read this blog post by James Undercofler on the ArtsJournal site (thanks to Thomas Cott for highlighting it!) on Monday and it got me thinking about this strange dual leadership model we have in the performing arts.  Undercofler talks about a model where an Artistic Director, in theory, leads the artistic vision of a company while only actually in residence for as little as 15 weeks a year.  Meanwhile, a Managing Director does the work of running the company on a daily basis and, in many cases, making decisions that intimately affect the artistic output, all the while trying to appear to only do administrative work. 

While I hear this is often true at symphonies, opera companies, and the like across the nation, I find a very different reality in the theatre world.  Most of us don’t have the funds to have a support staff that allows an artistic director to go off to do other projects for 3/4 of the year and, more recently, we seem to be cutting costs by having our artistic directors direct all or almost all the productions in our season. (this is a topic for a completely different post!)  So, instead of the conundrum listed above, we find ourselves with the potential to have the best of both worlds.  I know many companies are choosing to save money by combining the roles of artistic and managing director right now (we just made this decision at Synchronicity) and, especially for smaller companies, this may be the way to go for the short-term.  However, I believe for companies with budgets of $500k or more, this dual leadership model is necessary for the long-term health of the organization.

Not only is it extremely difficult to find leaders who have to aptitude, desire, and concrete skills to perform all artistic and managerial roles, our leadership dichotomy can actually allow for greater artistic freedom and stronger support of the artistic product.  It allows the artistic director to dream big and concentrate on what would be best for the artistic health and growth of the mission, while the managing director sets about to facilitate that vision.  When I say “facilitate” I don’t mean “make it all happen this year.”  It is the job of the managing director to figure out an appropriate timeline that allows for the raising of the needed funds for the A.D.’s big projects and helping the A.D. to find fulfilment along the way.

I do think that there are some fundamental structural needs to allow this partnership to work in the best way possible.  First of all, the A.D. and M.D. need to both feel secure in their positions and understand the nature of their roles, there are few things more destructive to this model than an A.D. who fears a strong M.D. (I’m sure the other way around is equally destructive, but I haven’t actually seen that scenario play out).    Next, they need to be true partners.  That means appearing side-by-side on the org chart as well as both reporting directly to and voting members of the Board of Directors.  It can be difficult for the managing partner to do their job (especially during difficult times) if they are in a subjugated position to the artistic head.  Finally, communication is the key.  Actually, this one probably should have gone first.  If the A.D. and M.D. cannot learn to speak the same language, and be completely transparent with each other, you will see nothing but crashing into brick walls.  However, I do think that the feeling of security and true understanding of the roles helps tremendously with communication.

When it works, our strange and unique leadership model brings out the best in the organization and allows it to thrive artistically, financially, and administratively.


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