The Key to Success in the Performing Arts

Every arts organization has a mission,  be it bringing great art to their community or advancing the arts industry. But what if I told you that every mission is devoid of the most essential element for success?

Let's look at a few mission statements:

San Francisco Symphony: "sets the highest possible standard for excellence in musical performance at home and around the world; Enriches, serves, and shapes cultural life throughout the spectrum of Bay Area communities; Maintains financial stability and gains public recognition as a means of ensuring its ability to fulfill its mission."

Houston Ballet: "To inspire a lasting love and appreciation for dance through artistic excellence, exhilarating performances, innovative choreography and superb educational programs."

Opera Philadelphia: "committed to embracing innovation and developing opera for the 21st century. Delivering outstanding productions of traditional and new repertoire that engage our public and propel our genre forward. Identifying extraordinary artists, both established and emerging, and provide opportunities for them to create their most imaginative and inspired work. Presenting innovative programming relevant to the multi-cultural Philadelphia region that broadens and diversifies the opera audience."

Though the missions of these organizations (and the thousands of others around the globe) are strong and diverse, they all still fall short of one substantial element:

I have yet to see a mission statement that puts the community above the organization; the core idea being that community members explore art independently.

If it exists, send it to me, because I want to shake every person's hand on that staff. This kind of shift in mission ideology is daunting, but it's a game-changer.

Arguably, the biggest challenge that most arts organizations face is a financial decline of sorts, either with decreasing audience numbers or with funding sources becoming more limited (or both). So, making the organization's mission, "Hey community, go explore this art on your own" can be scary.

And while most arts organizations won't admit to this fear, the effects of it are everywhere:

  1. Dance companies don't share video of their choreography. The fear: amateurs will learn choreography from the video and perform a poorly received version of it, therefore they should license the work and have a trained company member show them how it's done.

  • Music organizations rarely send recordings of an evening's repertoire to concert-attendees ahead of time. The fear: what if they don't like the music, and then return their tickets?
  • Orchestras don't release preview clips of rehearsals. The fear: it's not part of the union contract, and what if we don't sound polished?
  • Recording labels haven't unified around one metadata format for classical music, resulting in hundreds of ways to list one piece. The fear: how are we to do justice to the composer's intended listing when the track listing character count is so limited?
  • But the fallout of this fear is detrimental: audiences don't explore the art on their own, so it's not part of their core habitual lives.

    Think for a moment about how an audience member behaves in different scenarios. They are more than happy to pay $150+ to watch a B-rate band on a jumbotron screen in a loud arena with sticky floors, but we can't get them to buy our $50 opera tickets without discounting them to $40.

    And there's a really simple reason for this: people adopt things they feel emotionally connected to, and they connect emotionally when they discover something for themselves.

    I remember when I first discovered Macklemore & Ryan Lewis -- I saw their NPR Tiny Desk concert and thought, "woah, that's pretty awesome" and picked up a recording that day. I don't even like rap, but I discovered it, and it felt like mine. Macklemore didn't buy an email list from some other guy to introduce his discounted album to me...

    Once we figure out audience discovery, everything else comes to play: Is it well marketed? Can I share it? Does it fit popular design and visual trends? Now that I've discovered it, what does it make me feel?

    So, when I look up Beethoven's Eroica and the #1 result only shows a portrait of Beethoven over the music, why would I feel any connection? It's a great recording, but is there really a strong emotional connection when you can only see 45 minutes of still images?

    To boil this down into one idea: arts organizations aren't in this game to sell tickets and put butts in seats, so it's time we stop focusing on that.

    Our work starts with each and every person in our community discovering art for themselves, and allowing them the respect and space to feel like it's their art to own.

    So, when we talk about education and community engagement, let's stop providing information and information and more information. Don't inform... transform. Let your program notes tell the relevant story behind the symphony rather than a detailed biography and musical analysis. Put instruments in kids' hands instead of performing for them and expecting that alone will resonate with them for the rest of their lives. Give every ticket buyer a Spotify playlist with the evening's repertoire, and let them get familiar with the repertoire so they can wait in anticipation for their favorite part of the piece. Release short and unpolished snippets of rehearsal, choreography, composition-in-progress.

    Give the audience the opportunity and resources to explore, and don't hand hold them through the experience. Audience members are capable and intelligent; give them the respect to transform their own experience to emotion.

    Adopting the performing arts into the community's daily cultural life doesn't come from a logical place but an emotional one. So let's stop pushing ticket discounts, and start developing a community culture where it's cool to say, "Do you like Shostakovich's 5th?" at a casual party.