Can arts save their way to health?

July 1, 2009
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"Arts organizations that consistently do good work and are aggressive about their marketing are the ones which succeed, both programmatically and financially."

So says Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in a recent item at Huffington Post. Kaiser will be hitting the road, visiting all 50 states, to lead "Arts in Crisis" discussions. Included is an August 11 stop in Indy. Details here.

He states that canceling performances, eliminating educational programming, shortening seasons, or "dumbing down" product in the name of accessibility is wrongheaded.

"These approaches to dealing with the current recession all assume that cost is the underlying problem of the arts; conventional wisdom suggests that an arts organization can 'save its way to health.' But this is wrong, dangerously wrong."

Is Kaiser right? If quality stays up and the message gets out, will audiences (and donors) show up? Does what he says apply perhaps to the Kennedy Center's home in Washington, D.C., but not to Indianapolis?

Your thoughts?

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  • Why wouldn't his comments apply to Indianapolis? Of course they do. Or, should we just dumb down what culture we have left out of existence here in corn country? Maybe the ISO could have an evening of Bob Seger music...
  • Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Once one heads down the road of dumbing down the product, in effect talking down to one's audience, the road back becomes awfully hard to find. I see it all over, not just in Indiana. This holds true in the political/governmental realm, too, but that's a discussion for another time and place.
  • The problem with cutting programs to reduce overall expenditures is the assumption that the programs are not necessary in the first place. I know of no arts organization that develops a program just for the heck of it--it ALWAYS serves an expressed or observed need. The need will remain whether or not the program exists. The key is to carefully do a needs review to identify programs that are happening just because they've been institutionalized--they once served a need that is no longer there. Then the impact of removing the program(s) should be assessed, both financially (since people have come to expect the program and may stop coming if it is no longer provided) and mission-related.

    Making programs more accessible (i.e., dumbing down the content) is unacceptable. Altering quality to remove controversy and attract a wider audience is likewise unacceptable. Cuts can be made by reducing overhead; unfortunately, at this time, reducing marketing overhead is tempting but wrong as well.
  • I think its presumptious to assume that if you have a good product and get the message out, audiences and donors will just continue to show up - at least in the same way they have been. They may want to show up, but if they don't have the cash, it won't matter.

    However, I do think you can carefully analyze how and what your organization is doing and determine ways to keep your programs and quality, while cutting costs - and it's not necessarily cutting overhead. For some organizations, there is little overhead to cut - i.e. volunteer based organizations. It's more of focusing efforts and being realistic about what will and will not pay for itself. It may be necessary to do more things for a less amount of time - fewer performances - shorter gallery time - etc. This may actually cost more - more time and overall more money because things are changing out more frequently- but can widen your appeal with variety, and mean more people come through the door - balancing it out.
    But, you still have to get the word out.

    Don't dumb down the content. That's just a bad idea all the way around.
  • Making content accessible does not mean the same thing as dumbing it down. The ISO's Symphony on the Prairie season is a good example: Throughout the summer, you can hear music from the Grateful Dead and the Beatles, and you can hear Mozart, La forza del destino and Bolero. At the Eiteljorg Museum, you've had the chance to see art from popular, blockbuster artists such as Dale Chihuly and Ansel Adams, and you can see the work of classic Western artists such as Frederic Remington every day.

    Accessibility simply lowers the intangible barriers people unused to visiting cultural institutions build up in their minds. Once you get them in the door, you have the chance to convert them. But you have to get them in the door first. I don't call that dumb at all. I think it's pretty smart.

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