Wear your heart on your sleeve

By Belinda Taylor, C2Arts Consultant

I agree with Morrie (below) about the need for arts organizations to be “strategically nimble” in order to weather the current recession. What ails the field, however, goes deeper than this economic crisis. You can’t go to an arts convening these days without hearing about shifting paradigms (like kids with attention deficit disorder, those paradigms just won’t sit still).  Profound changes in American culture and technologies began affecting the nonprofit arts field prior to the faltering economy roiled box office receipts, before foundation endowments fell into a collective sinkhole and donor wallets snapped shut.

Metaphors abound to describe the field’s response to cultural changes and a faltering economy: the ship captain in the furnace room madly shoveling coal, too busy to go on deck to see the looming iceberg; the frog in the pot of water that grows ever warmer, not noticing it’s about to boil to death.

Diane Ragsdale of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation shared the iceberg and frog metaphors at a meeting recently convened by Theatre Bay Area of APASO (Alliance of Performing Arts Service Organizations). These organization see aging audiences, shifting buying habits, and a move away from season subscriptions to single tickets, resulting in drooping box office receipts for many organizations.

Meanwhile artists, craftspeople, administrators, marketers, interns and volunteers are in the furnace room working like crazy. And the development people and grant writers? Up on deck, watching the approaching iceberg, saying their prayers.

Add to this new media technologies that are shifting faster than the paradigms. After 30 years of “creeping normalcy” – the hapless art frog in the pot – what are arts workers to do?

As arts consultants we suggest that arts organizations get out of the pot. By the pot I mean the cauldron of business as usual. New times demand new thinking.  Kay Sherwood, at the Wallace Foundation, sums it up, “How can arts providers take the longer view of the importance of building more diverse and more deeply engaged audiences while confronting an economy that is severely threatening their bottom lines?” 

* Consider: a hugely popular commercial Broadway musical in San Francisco forced to slash ticket prices in half, while a tiny theatre nearby on the edge of the Tenderloin sells out every night. High ticket prices are a barrier to participation, more so in a recession.  But it’s not just price sensitivity. The producers at the small theatre – Cutting Ball, in a co-production with the Playwrights Foundation (full disclosure: I served many years on the PF board) have tapped into something we’ve been advising arts organizations to do for at least a decade.  Connect with your community. How? Wear your hearts on your sleeves. The play, Marcus Gardley’s bold and beguiling…and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, is rooted in American myth and history, a heart-felt story by a rising young West Oakland African American playwright. This play is received like a gift.
*  On Second Thought: A much-loved suburban theatre space with strong connections to its community closed its doors. When the company fell several hundred thousand dollars in the red, it sent an urgent e-mail SOS to its subscribers, donors and friends. But the last-minute plea failed, and the theatre shut its doors. Why? The lead time was too short. The email was impersonal. And even to its most ardent supporters, the amount seemed impossible to raise in so short a time. I’m not sure what the moral to this story is, other than if you are up on deck, you better have a good set of binoculars because those icebergs may be moving faster than you think. And even strategic nimbleness requires forethought.
* The pause that refreshes: two delicious examples of marketing philosophy from Coca-Cola, America’s iconic consumer product. Here’s the old model:  “The sole purpose of marketing is to get more people to buy more of your product, more often, for more money. That’s the only reason to spend a single nickel, pfennig, or peso. If your marketing is not delivering consumers to the cash register with their wallets in their hands to buy your product, don’t do it.” —Sergio Zyman, former Chief Marketing Officer of Coca-Cola Co.

And here’s the new: "Coca-Cola will use a diverse array of entertainment assets to break into people's hearts and minds. In that order. Coke is  moving to ideas that [would] elicit emotions and create connections. On Coke's Web site consumers can share personal stories about their relationship with the product -- stories that get organized around themes such as "romance," "reminders of family," "childhood memories," or "times with friends.” The ideas which have always sat at the heart of the stories you've told and the content you've sold... whether movies or music or television... are no longer just intellectual property, they're emotional  capital." Coca Cola CEO,  Steven J. Heyer, in his keynote address at the 2003 Advertising Age conference.

Once you get past the crassly cynical nature of Mr. Heyer’s advice, think about the legitimate stories you can tell about the art you make and its impact on your community, individuals, families, students, and for lack of a better phrase, the greater social good. Nonprofit arts enjoy tax benefited status solely because the capital it creates is value, not financial profits. 

What to advise clients? Talk openly and candidly with your artists, staff, volunteers, board, the larger community and your patrons about the value you create and what it would mean if you were to go away. Tell the story early and often.  Wear your heart--your art--on your sleeve.  Finally,  hire a young techie.  Because now you need to blog and twitter about it, too. 

To read Diane Ragsdale’s full article, go

Belinda works with small and mid-size organizations and individual artists to develop communication and marketing solutions that emphasize brand identity and core values. She can be reached at 510-282-0351.