Alright, we’re back from our self-imposed blogging hiatus to talk a little bit about partnership as a transformative strategy for artists and arts organizations.

Enacting real change can be difficult; in fact, one could argue it always is (and maybe it’s supposed to be that way!). This is especially true of culture-producing entities, which are constrained by imbedded (and often conservative) practices and niche markets. Yet organizational change is a continuous and often necessary process, and institutions are beginning to explore new paths that will render them more efficient, effective, and impactful. I would posit partnership as a low-risk/high-reward strategy for change. For many performing artists, the concept of partnership is self evident in and even integral to their work, so why not carry this into the administration of their art? Think of partnership opportunities as a continuum, with collaboration on one side (a temporary pooling of resources to create a joint artistic product or event) and merger on the other (a permanent and legal amalgamation of two organizations and their operations). I know “merger” is often seen as a dirty word, but if more than one entity is producing a certain kind of  artistic work or delivering the same good or service to its audience, then a merger can be an effective way to streamline costs without distilling impact (just look at the Washington National Opera, which merged its administrative operations with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2010).

I recently read an article that explores the merger process in the Administrative Science Quarterly (ASQ), a journal geared toward management scholars (it sounds more highfalutin than it is, I promise!).[1] Written by a group of authors from Penn State, the essay—titled “Transitional Identity as a Facilitator of Organizational Identity Change during a Merger”—does a really nice job of explicating organizational change through the lens of a merger between two healthcare providers. I know this seems far afield for us arts folks, but the common organizational behaviors and strategies that constrain and enable change resonate across industries. According to the authors, when potential partners focus on their previous identities and internal processes, substantive change is unlikely to occur. However when partners are able to negotiate their individual needs to create a new, shared identity, change is more likely to stick. This is especially true in the context of a merger, which is as much a political negotiation between two partners as it is an exercise in rebranding.

No matter how deep a partnership you forge, your collective effort must be rooted in a mutually defined goal. Collaborate with organizations that share your values but boast a new and different skill set and/or consumer base. Stay true to yourself and your mission, but also invest in partnerships that can enhance the value you create for your constituents. If you maintain open lines of communication and build a sense of trust, partners can leverage strategic alliances (or even mergers) to enact wide-reaching change. Remember: if you enter the partnership process with a goal of simply surviving, paying no attention to the impact of or demand for your services, failure is practically guaranteed. Instead, increase your chances of success by focusing on your mission and the surrounding economic reality, using partnership as a tool to refine the delivery of that mission and the operational structure behind it.


[1] Shawn M. Clark, Dennis A. Gioia, David J. Ketchen, Jr., and James B. Thomas, “Transitional Identity as a Facilitator of Organizational Identity Change during a Merger,” Administrative Science Quarterly 55, No. 3 (September 2010): 397–438.

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Just a quick note to say that I’ll be traveling to the east coast for the next few weeks, so it may be awhile until our next blog post appears. In addition to some work-related meetings, I’ll be engaging in research for the second chapter of my dissertation, which requires a visit to the New York Philharmonic and League of American Orchestras archives.  In a nutshell, the chapter examines the Philharmonic’s gradual transformation from a musicians’ cooperative to a nonprofit corporation in the first decade of the 20th century, connecting a shift in organizational structure with programming trends, audience demographics, and artistic reputation, all of which were subsequently shaped by a booming metropolis undergoing cultural upheaval at the hands—and wallets—of a new philanthropic elite. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions–i’d love to hear them!

Also, those of you who are affiliated with UofM, you have one day to apply and speak at our local TED conference in April–don’t miss it!

For those who weren’t at this year’s Arts Enterprise National Summit, I’m sorry–you missed a lot of interesting conversations with a lot of fabulous people! I didn’t get to spend much time exploring Kansas City (although we did find a great karaoke bar only a few blocks from the hotel…), but the content and enthusiasm shared by this year’s participants was rejuvinating. Some of the highlights included:

  • An interesting panel on “The Portfolio Career,” in which Amy Bogard, Adam Siemiginowski, and Micah Killion shared how they have created successful career opportunities across industries, disabusing us of the notion that we must find an existing path and stick to it.
  • Two top-notch keynote addresses: one by Andrew Taylor (Director, Bolz Center for Arts Administration, University of Wisconsin School of Business) and one by Margo Drakos (Founder of InstantEncore.com). Their collective insights into the past, present, and future of the arts world were profound, especially concerning how arts professionals might better engage audiences.
  • A student-led visioning exercise presented by AEIdeas, an initiative run by AE board members Kristen Hoverman and Andrew Charnik (managing partner of Symphony Bros.). Groups of students set out to define a problem/opportunity, propose a solution, and create the seeds of a new business–all in less than two hour! I’m looking forward to hearing more about the winning venture, ConcertON, in the near future.

The future of Arts Enterprise, with its presence on campuses across the country, seems to be in good hands. People involved in the arts have some tremendous opportunities to enact change and have a real impact on their communities, and we at Symphony Bros. look forward to being a part of that by helping artists and arts organizations reach their potential.

Just a friendly reminder to follow what’s going on in Kansas City this weekend, where the second annual Arts Enterprise Summit is being hosted by the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Kauffman Foundation. If you’re at all invested in the future of the arts and business, this is for you.  I’ll try to post some real-time updates on this blog, but you can also check out the latest developments on Twitter: #AE2011KC.

Mark your calendars: on February 19–21, 2011, Kansas City is going to be swarming with some of today’s leading arts thinkers and practitioners, courtesy of Arts Enterprise (AE)—a budding organization that explores the intersections between the arts and business on university campuses across the country. Founded in 2006, the organization is unique both in its vision and its grassroots, student-driven program, which reflects the diverse membership of the organization. Both Andrew and I sit on the board and are AE alumns, so we’re especially excited for the groups second annual AE Summit, hosted this year by the University of Missouri, Kansas City.  The event includes a series of concurrent sessions and workshops, and is geared toward prospective students, faculty, and administrators interested in what AE does, as well as current and former members of various AE chapters. Invited speakers include Margo Drakos (Chief Operating Officer, Instant Encore) and Andrew Taylor (Director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration, University of Wisconsin), and registration is still open.

So if you’re in or around the area, or are just curious about the future of the arts in American society, come to Kansas City and say hi! For more information, please see http://www.artsenterprise.com/resources/ae-summit.

Dear readers,

In addition to some updates to our site, I’d like to share a short post that i recently wrote for Home Grown: The 2011 Boston Theatre Conference, an event for local theatre artists, advocates, and administrators that i’ll be speaking at in late February. Enjoy, and please leave comments or questions if you have them!

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In today’s global marketplace, arts organizations of all types are vying for the attention of an increasingly busy clientele. Contemporary audiences have less time to attend more functions and events than ever before, and potential concertgoers are always on the lookout for experiences that are unique and valuable, on their own terms.  In order to confront this dilemma, orchestras, opera companies, and other arts institutions are redefining their role as intermediaries in the performance process. Indeed, incorporating the artistic voices of audience members through participatory behavior has become a principal operating mechanism for many organizations.

I’ve recently spent some time trying to come up with a conceptual framework that helps us understand how arts organizations can engage potential audience members by reconciling traditional institutional practices with the blurring of professional and amateur performance culture (i.e. the “Pro-Am Revolution”). Arts organizations of all types have experienced a shift in the way young audiences associate with art, as they move beyond simple “interaction” by helping to imagine, plan, execute, and evaluate artistic events as equal stakeholders. Although much of my own work has taken place in the context of the orchestra world, it seems to me that theater is uniquely situated to forge lasting relationships with new audiences. Many of the characteristics inherent in theater—including drama, tension and resolution, and communication—make it an especially effective medium for impacting and inspiring audiences—especially new, young audiences.

Case in point: in my recent work with the University Musical Society (UMS)—a major arts presenter in Ann Arbor, MI—I oversaw a study questioning how organizations might create innovative participatory experiences for the next generation of artists and audiences. The result: a new series that has UMS working with professional actors, student leaders, and a major business school to introduce non-arts students to various facets of artistic creativity through a theater skills workshop. The reception has been almost universally positive, with students and faculty alike praising the applicability of theater techniques to life “off the stage.”

So what do you all think?  What do “non-artists” have to learn from us, and what might we learn from them in return? Does such a mutual exchange hold value for audiences and arts institutions alike?

With the holiday season upon us, I thought I would share some thoughts I’ve had for some time concerning one of the more promising movements in the performing arts: El Sistema.

Since 1975, Venezuela has been the home to one of the most radical experiments in music education: “El Sistema,” or FESNOJIV (the National Network of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela). Originally conceived of by economist Jose Antonio Abreu as a means of social reformation for the nation’s poorest youth, El Sistema has become a global phenomenon that offers new evaluative measures other than artistic superiority or financial gain.  The project’s pervasive success can be linked to the meteoric rise of alumni such as Gustavo Dudamel (music director, Los Angeles Philharmonic), whose recent tours with the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra garnered international press.

As one might expect, much has been written about the remarkable successes of El Sistema, prompting performing artists and arts managers from all corners of the globe to adopt a mission of social betterment through musical education.  The seemingly altruistic tenets of El Sistema have become particularly attractive in the orchestra world, where music education initiatives are not only becoming an important part of value propositions and mission statements—they serve as a partial solution for many of the challenges the industry faces (see http://orchestrarevolution.org/, the League of American Orchestra’s 2010 annual meeting blog, to see how pervasive the  “El Sistema model” is in industry conversation). The project’s merits have been especially well discussed in the U.S., where music education has been systematically dismantled over the last two decades. Since 2000, several El Sistema-inspired initiatives have popped up here, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles) project and El Sistema U.S.A., which was founded as an arm of New England Conservatory’s Preparatory Division in 2009 and graduated its first class of Abreu Fellows in 2010.

Yet the original scope and value of the Venezuelan initiative, rooted not in a “system” but instead in an ideology of almost obsessive dedication by underprivileged youth, does not map easily onto the practices of contemporary American culture. Don’t get me wrong; I’m as firmly on the “El Sistema Bandwagon” as the next person, and it’s hard to deny the valuable work being done by music teachers in Venezuela and beyond. Nevertheless, as the movement picks up steam, the industry should take a long, hard look at what components of the “system” are central to its students’ success.  After all, isn’t that the point?

As it currently stands, who exactly benefits from this work—America’s youth or the ailing orchestra industry itself? Are these two “communities” mutually exclusive, or can they both benefit from El Sistema’s remarkable objectives, regardless of national or cultural context?

Discuss…

Artists are good at more than just ‘art’-ing; they bring valuable alternative viewpoints to organizations that are looking for innovation and change. Yet in many management situations, their voices are rarely heard, and when they are, they are often ignored.  Indeed, artists can and should be an integral part of the decision-making process. As anyone who has worked in the industry knows, however, this can be more complex (and more contested!) than one might imagine.

Why?  And what can we (or you) do about it?

While it could be argued that the act of administration is itself an “art,” the management of artists and their art-making is usually posited as a more mundane but necessary part of production.  For large performing arts organizations, the role of manager or administrator is often divided among a professional staff with varying degrees of artistic and business experience.  For more intimate operations, however, administrative tasks often fall to the artists themselves, especially early on in their careers.

Thus for much of the twentieth century, artists worked to distinguish themselves and their work from administrative tasks.  The separation of art from arts administration was a direct response to the professionalization of the performing arts in the United States during the middle of the century. In turn, the desired result of this movement—to exalt and distill the value of artists and their art—made it possible for creators of all types to contract hired hands to do their administrative tasks, from accounting to booking.

Simultaneously, a second, more sinister outcome of this ‘division of labor’ came to light: the disenfranchisement (both real and perceived) of the artist. As managers became more knowledgeable, more efficient, and more powerful, a generation of artists grew up not having to manage themselves or their work.  Regardless of whether or not arts administrators have outgrown their intended role and function (full disclosure: I don’t think they have), the backlash to this movement is very real.  Many artists contend that managers are doing their art a disservice by focusing on a dollar-driven bottom line; some contend that they themselves could do a better job; and nearly all find themselves feuding with management for some reason or another.

I don’t pretend to know why the schism between artists and arts administration exists to the extent that it does, but it seems to me that much of the friction between these two factions is based not on substantive disagreement but instead on historical principle.  In other words, the infighting between administrators (management) and artists (employees) is built into the traditional operating structure of arts organizations.

Richard Evans (president of EMCArts, Inc.) points this out in the fall issue of the GIA Reader, discussing the need for institutions to utilize their “creative capital” when making decisions about their future:

In the past era, arts organizations were in many ways set up to contain and limit creative thinking, shutting out artists, in particular, from the realm of management and organizational problem solving, and thus sequestering some of the sector’s most valuable creative capital. We divorced the creation and production of art from the systems of delivery we built, and robbed ourselves of some of our most important human resources, almost by design. The genuine integration of artists into our organizations—not to represent a programmatic perspective, but as full members of the team, divergent thinkers and creative strategists—was one challenge to which the orthodox business model did not rise.(1)

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  One of the essays in a recently published book titled 20Under40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century (to which I also contributed– more on that in a later post) deals with this very issue.  In “Redefining ‘Artist’ Administration,” Sue Landis (Weill Music Institute, Carnegie Hall) and Jessica Rivkin Larson (Stern School of Business, New York University) argue that the best artists and administrators share certain capacities, including questioning, critical listening, focused vision, and intelligent risk-taking.(2) Keeping these characteristics in mind, select arts organizations have experimented with integrated leadership models that blur the line between artist and administration, with some achieving more success than others (for a remarkable example, check out the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra).

I’m not suggesting that the distinction between artist and administration should disappear altogether.  After all, there are certain tasks that are better left to artists, and others that are more appropriate for administrators.  We can’t all be great at (and have time to effectively execute) everything—it’s that simple.  But integrating the viewpoints of the artist into administrative processes may ultimately lead to a better experience for all of us—including the almighty audience. We would do well to reach across the proverbial aisle and make the effort to build a workplace environment that is truly collaborative, transparent, and driven toward a shared mission of artistic and organizational excellence.

1. Quoted from Janet Brown’s blog for Grantmakers in the Arts, which in part inspired this post (Janet Brown, “The Power of Artists,” accessed 20 November 2010 <http://www.giarts.org/blog/janet/power-artists&gt;.
2. Sue Landis and Jessica Rivkin Larson, “Redefining ‘Artist’ Administration,” in 20Under40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century, edited by Edward Clapp (Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2010): 53–64.

As some of the readers of this blog know, I have an ongoing professional relationship with the University Musical Society (UMS)—a top-notch performing arts presenter in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Over the past 18 months, we completed a four-stage study aimed at uncovering how arts organizations can better engage audiences through educational programming.  Our leading research questions included:

•    How effective are public educational events in their role as primers for performances?

•    What role do UMS educational programs play in recruiting and retaining ticket buyers?

•    What kind of engagement practices inspire life-long arts advocates?

The end results of this work are still forthcoming, but will likely include a list of best practices, along with ten “Rules of Engagement” for presenters and performers to keep in mind as they plan their productions. UMS has already begun to incorporate these findings into the design of their educational offerings.  For instance, we recently launched an online “tour” in conjunction with ONCE. MORE., a 50th anniversary festival celebrating the avant-garde art scene so prevelant in 1960s Ann Arbor.  You can check out the tour and its full explanation here, but the general gist was to provide patrons with a virtual means of revisiting and remembering some of the historic venues that housed ONCE-related performances and get-togethers, many of which no longer exist.  UMS posted this tour as an entry on their dedicated audience site, the UMS Lobby, with the hope that audience members would take the tour and share their own experiences and commentary with other members of the community.

Based on an analysis of site traffic, we can deduce that the tour was effective at engaging UMS patrons before the corresponding performances. However, we do not yet know how effective these types of efforts are at recruiting ticket buyers, and thus generating revenue.  The next step, then, is to design an interface that can track how potential ticket buyers are influenced by supplementary educational programs like this tour.  This could be done in any number of ways, such as polling potential ticket buyers or tracing how patrons make the jump from “event recognition” to purchasing a ticket or engaging in a transaction.  Regardless, these types of “experiments” in audience development are a critical component of any artist’s toolkit—or at least they should be.  They provide a low barrier to entry for new listeners, and offer arts organizations an opportunity to transform potential ticket buyers into life-long investors.

It’s easy to get lost in the administration of your art.  More software and services emerge everyday, allowing you to create, distribute, and market your product with relative ease.

But what about reaching your audience and growing the presence of your art?  We believe that a successful business starts with a single connection to a consumer, followed by an opportunity for that consumer to buy something of significance and value from you – a transaction.  Whether you are for-profit, non-profit, solo artist, or large organization, the same core concepts apply.  Empowering YOU, the artist or artist organization, is a critical step toward connecting WE, the audience, with your artistic experience.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you grow YOU the artist into YOU, the sustainable artist business:

First, practice the connection.  Your ability to connect with an individual through your art is what you do best.  Practice your craft and share it without reservation.

Second, grow the connection.  Understand how your art affects others and what kind of people you reach in the most meaningful way.  The best way to discover this is by asking them.  Then find where these people are, go there (physically or digitally), share your art with them, and give them ways to share your art with their friends.  Start with physical media such as a CD, a link to your website where your art is accessible, or an invitation to your next event.  After you connect with them, find a way to remind them about yourself.  You can ask for their email address or phone number to stay in touch with them, but don’t abuse this communication.  Use it to grow your presence—and the presence of your art—in their lives.

Third, don’t forget about the transaction, and be smart and creative with it.  Now that you’ve got their attention, offer them something they would enjoy and like to purchase.  There are a lot of standard things you can do such as selling a digital file, physical product, or ticket, but YOU are an artist, and thus you do non-standard much better.  Create one unique way per month to make a transaction.  Start by selling an object, and move on to selling an experience.  In each case, concentrate on making it convenient and easy for your fans to purchase your art and recommend it to their friends.

These three steps put you well on your way to growing your art.  Remember that you don’t have to be the most experienced business person to succeed.  Successful enterprises thrive because the people running them are able to come up with creative solutions to the problems they face.