On February 1 & 2, 2014 the Kennedy Center, in association with the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, presented the 2014 Kennedy Center International Arts Leaders Forum, an intensive weekend program for artists, arts managers, and board members to share ideas and discuss solutions to some of the big issues confronting the arts community today.
The first in an annual series, the forum brings together some of the world's brightest minds from government, media, and the nonprofit world as keynote speakers and panelists for three symposia.
"The performing arts are undergoing dramatic changes, and this summit will bring greater attention to the critical concerns of the artists, arts managers, and board members who must navigate these changes successfully.”
—Michael M. Kaiser, Kennedy Center President and forum host
Owing to a previous engagement, I was only able to attend Sunday's event. I took copious notes and have a few photos to share as well.
Arts Managers Symposium
Moderator: Brett Egan (Director, DeVos Institute of Arts Management)
Panelists: Deborah Borda (President and Chief Executive Officer, Los Angeles Philharmonic), Howard Herring (President and Chief Executive Officer, New World Symphony), Patrick McIntyre (Executive Director, Sydney Theatre Company), and Chris Widdess (Managing Director, Penumbra Theatre ).
This discussion focused on issues facing arts managers in the changing global arts environment. The panelists discussed ways to develop new sources of income, approaches to exploiting new technologies, and how to maintain artistic relevance and identity with the core audience while fostering and growing a robust base of younger audience members and donors.
Moderator Brett Egan opened the discussion with an anecdote. He compared arts organizations to Modern Family, an American comedy series about a diverse, nontraditional family and used the Season One Season Finale episode, “Family Portrait" to explain the problems facing arts managers. In this episode, Claire’s elaborate plans for the perfect family portrait is spoiled by various mishaps. Eventually, she does get the entire family together and they are all dressed beautifully in white. However, her constant need for perfectionism gets on everyone’s nerves and a mud fight ensues. Claire is forced to let go of her perfect family portrait, and confesses later how much more she loves it
As for how this situation mirrors the challenges faced by arts organization, Egan said that many arts organizations have a network of stakeholders (artists, audiences, and board members) who are committed to their organizations mission and vision, but are beleaguered, overworked. In addition to current duties and responsibilities, these folks must learn how to adapt to a radically diversified and ever changing community. In addition to this challenge, arts managers are trying to discover new ways for audiences to consume art and new venues in which to present art, while working to fill in the gap between what it costs to produce our work and the amount of revenue we’re able to bring in. Basically, we have a basic productivity challenge while audience participation is dropping. Click here to read the results of the latest survey from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA).
Egan then listed a breakdown of what he calls the Arts Manager’s Dilemma:
From there, the panelists spoke about their efforts to grow audiences. Here the questions that resonated with me:
The entire conversation was informative, but I was particularly moved by Chris Widdess' brief, but powerful and informative presentation. She spoke candidly about recent challenges and successes at Penumbra Theatre. She also contextualize the impact of Black Theatre being created today. Here are some of the key issues she addressed:
I appreciated that this conversation addressed issues of diversity and inclusion as a way to grow audiences and better serve our ever-changing communities. However, I left feeling that our role of as artists as catalysts for social change and justice was undercut. While not surprising, because just as the arts are undervalued in our society so to is education. Still, I want to find ways to promote the work of artists as leaders and partners in civic engagement and social change.
Julie Taymor was meant to be our keynote speaker, but she had strep throat and so was unable to attend. Michael Kaiser stepped into her place with a speech I'm told he gives quite a bit. It was my first time hearing it, so here's a snapshot of essential points:
"Nations around the world are looking to the U.S. for models for how to sustain arts funding. Unfortunately, we don’t enjoy the support of large government funding. The Puritans who founded our nation believed music and dance were evil and that has led to a separation of art and state that has endured to this day. Organizations of color and rural organization face the greatest challenge when arts funding is cut. However, there is a great spirit of generosity in the American people.
First, I am concerned about the quality of the art itself. I have observed that the creativity has been beaten out of so many artists and arts organizations. Everyone is so concerned about money and 'what sells' that we have gotten too conservative with our art-making. Producing boring art is the surest way to create fiscal problems because our audiences and donors look elsewhere. And, especially with so many online entertainment options available today, there are plenty of places to look. Too many organizations think they can remain healthy by producing safe art and too many arts organizations spend more time talking about money than about creativity.
We don't just worry about money too much, we even talk about it too much. We must remember that our function is to inspire, entertain and educate our communities. We have spent so much time complaining about our plight and focusing on our financial challenges that many people do not want to interact with us anymore. They have come to us for respite but we have not been as accommodating as we need to be. We talk about money in the press, to our audiences, to our donors and especially to our board members. Our board meetings are almost entirely devoted to discussions of cash flow and income statements.
We forget to discuss what we do for our communities, how much fun it is to come to an exhibition or performance, or how we educate our children to be creative thinkers. Then we are surprised that board members stay away and, worse, do not introduce us to their friends and associates. We must return our focus to our contributions to the community; few people really care about our problems. They have problems of their own!
My second concern is that arts organizations simply are not doing a good enough job of marketing. We have a lot to learn from the sports world. Sports leagues do a great job of engaging people through their marketing activities. They don't just sell tickets, they encourage a relationship between the individual fan and the team as a whole. And these fans repay them by spending a great deal on tickets and souvenirs, food and parking.
Too many people believe arts marketing is only about selling tickets. So their marketing efforts focus on advertisements, direct mail, email blasts, etc. These activities, which do help create earned income, I call programmatic marketing. Arts organizations have done a good job of creating programmatic campaigns though I observe that too many do not differentiate enough between the marketing needs of different types of programs. Most arts organizations have a template for marketing every project: they do three advertisements, a direct mail post card, a radio spot and two email blasts, for example. Others require a great deal more information, a new play by an unknown author, for example. These more challenging ventures need what I term missionary marketing – they require much more detailed explanations than can be accommodated by a poster or simple advertisement. We must save money on marketing the first type of program to invest in the second.
And we must appreciate that online activities are our new best friends in creating visibility and educating audiences. We can reduce the amount we spend on programmatic marketing by using email, web sites, social networking sites, etc. to their full potential. People are getting their information in new ways - that is why newspapers are going bankrupt - and we must recognize it. But we must also invest in a second type of marketing, institutional marketing, that creates excitement for our organizations as a whole.
My third concern relates to the ages of our audience members and donors. It is almost trite to say that our audiences are too old. In fact, that has been true for over a century! But we now face a different situation. American children were introduced to the arts by their parents but also in schools. I can remember a time when every child had a chance to sing in a chorus, perform a school play, play an instrument and learn to paint. Most children, although not all, stopped their arts participation when they hit high school and began thinking about dating, college, marriage, careers and families. Most people did not resume arts participation until middle age, when careers were underway, children were grown and they had more discretionary time and money.
So while our audiences were older than the population in general, we had a constant replenishment of audience, donors, board members and volunteers. But today we have so little organized arts education in our schools that I am not so certain that as the current generation of school children ages, they will find their way to the arts if they didn't have them as a child. If not, who will be our audience members and donors of the future? In fact, I am far more concerned for the arts 20 years from now than I am about the current economic challenges we face.
And while there is far too little arts education in our schools, even the education programs we do have are not substantial enough. They are disjointed, episodic and not very potent. That is because we leave the purchase decision for arts events to the individual teacher. If a third grade teacher loves the arts, the children in the class will get many arts experiences: they will visit a museum, produce a class play, learn from a teaching artist, etc. But when these same children get to fourth grade, they may have no arts if their teacher does not care about them. We do not teach any other subject that way. Imagine if your children or grandchildren came home and said they were not learning math this year because their teacher didn’t like it!
My fourth major concern for the health of the arts relates to boards of arts organizations. Too many board members simply do not know enough about what creates health in the arts. While they approach their board duties with tremendous generosity of time, spirit and resources, they make decisions that are not necessarily in the best interests of their organizations. The most common mistakes include cutting art and marketing to balance the budget (when art and marketing are the very reasons people support us), believing that building an endowment will cure everything, suggesting that safe art is the easiest art to support and not forcing their executives to plan art early enough to help attract new donors.
We need board members who know how to perform the five key functions of boards: developing and approving plans, understanding and approving the budget, hiring, firing, compensating and motivating their direct reports, participating actively in gathering resources and serving as ambassadors in the community. Arts organizations have a life cycle and board composition must change as the organization matures. When an arts organization is founded, the board acts like quasi-staff. They may do the bookkeeping, do the marketing, even sew the costumes. But as the organization grows and matures, it hires staff to fill these functions and needs its board to be more active in raising funds. Arts boards that do the best job of evaluating and changing their own compositions are typically the healthiest ones in our nation. While boards require training, arts managers need it too.
My last major concern is that arts managers simply do not have the training they need to deal with the range of challenges I have addressed today. And that takes us back where we began, to the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center. The Institute addresses my belief that the greatest problem facing the arts today is not a shortage of great composers, choreographers or playwrights, but rather a serious deficit in trained managers to employ and support these artists. Arts management is a very young field and too many arts managers and board members simply do not know how to build the levels of support needed to makes artists’ dreams come true.
The field needs its sophisticated donors to encourage, and might I say force, our arts managers to learn how to plan for important art, well in advance, to pursue sophisticated aggressive marketing campaigns, to create meaningful arts education programs and to encourage board members to fulfill their responsibilities effectively.
Without strong leadership, the arts will not be able to create the artistic and educational programming that is so vital for our communities.
Without strong leadership, our arts organizations will not build the large, engaged families of audience members and donors we need to stay healthy.
Without strong leadership, we will not build the future generations of arts lovers and arts leaders. And without strong leadership, our system of arts funding will not sustain the remarkable arts ecology this nation has created.
We are so fortunate to have the freedoms we have to create art and arts institutions in the United States of America.
But with this freedom comes the responsibility to do it well."
Performing Artists Symposium
Moderator: Mo Rocca (humorist, journalist and actor)
Panelists: Terence Blanchard (jazz trumpeter, bandleader, composer, arranger, and film score composer), Ben Folds (singer-songwriter and record producer), Judith Jamison (dancer and choreographer, and Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater), John Lithgow (actor, musician, and author), Deborah Voigt (operatic soprano).
This conversation addressed issues affecting the careers of performing artists: pursuing artistic interests in the face of changing audience demands, building new audiences, embracing new technology, coping with changes at arts organizations, and building a meaningful career.
First, I must stay that this was a lively, passionate, entertaining, and poignant conversation. It was the perfect way to end this symposium. However, going into it, I learned about the sudden and tragic passing of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I was deeply saddened and in shock, so it took me a while to get back into the flow of the conversation. You'll see that my notes are a bit scattered, but I've done my best to capture what was shared.
Moderator Mo Rocco opened the discussion by asking the panelists about their early exposure to the arts. In a number of different ways, each of the panelists were exposed to the arts by parents, teachers and friends. Rocco then asked whether their parents ever asked to do something they didn't want to do. This drew a lot of laughs from the audience. A few of the panelist begrudged these early responsibilities, but ultimately appreciated that they were taught discipline, focus, and respect for practice at such an early age.
Rocco then asked the panelists to speak about saying "yes" versus "no." For many young and emerging artists, this is such an important question. There is a tendency to say yes a lot early on, because being asked is such a golden opportunity. Eventually, however, you'll need to start saying know when the work either doesn't move you forward in your career or doesn't speak to the kind of work that you want to do. Saying no is just as important as saying yes, because each decision will help you learn about your voice as an artist and define your craft. Here's what the panelists said:
John: I was mostly saying “Please!” and said yes whenever he had the chance! But regardless, whatever choice you make, will be the wrong one. You just have to make the best of it and know that you’re going to be fine.
Deborah: As I've gotten older, I've had to decided whether I want to invest the time and energy into a role that I might never play again in my life.
Judith: Early on, I had guides, teachers, and mentors who said yes for me. In dance, you'll have people telling you yes, regardless of what you might have wanted to do. And you're grateful for them, because they can see the path of your career in a way that you can't.
Terrence: I say no a lot. I have to ask myself, do I want to present this work to the world knowing this isn’t who I am. But you sometimes take a beating for it because folks don’t necessarily run to promote you. After working with Spike Lee on Malcolm X, I was offered 11 Black films. Only I didn’t want to pigeonholed into one thing and so turned a lot of work down that didn’t represent who I was.
Ben: I said no a lot as first because I was defining who I was as an artist. I played the piano and so I had a to have a piano. It would have been easier to play the guitar, but that's not what I wanted to do. Eventually, I grew to a place of yes, because I was interested and open to hearing input. But I still don't share my work until it's ready. I have to be at a place where I'm ready to share it and ready to hear input.
Rocco then asked the panelist if they would every appear in a commercial or allow their work to appear in a commercial. Sometimes the idea of doing commercial work can be seen as selling out. Here's what Deborah and Terrence said:
Deborah: Yes! It shouldn't be a problem for an artist to offer their expertise in a commercial.
Terrence: I don’t see a problem with endorsements. What better way to introduce audiences to different genres of art. It is incumbent upon us as artist that once we have these audiences that we education them.
This led Rocco to ask the panelists ]how we talk about the impact of their work and also the intersection of multiple art forms. I thought this question was great because for as many artist who remain specialized, we have an ever growing number of interdisciplinary artists. Also, as we look to grow audiences, we need to find more ways to collaborate with each other across forms. Here's some of what was shared:
Terrence: When I work with students, I talk to them about finding their own voice. When we start out, you want to be or sound like someone else. I wanted to be the next Miles Davis. But you can’t be that someone else. You have to be you. So you have to take your experience, have confidence in your value, and create the art you were put on this earth to do. You are trying to communicate to an audience.
Ben: Also, you want to listen to your peers and respond to what is happening so that you in the conversation that is happening now. You don't want to be at a dinner party where everyone's been talking about the football game and once the conversations over, look up and ask if anyone saw the football game. You don't want to be that person.
John: Also, you never know the value of the impact of your work. Years ago, I did Footloose. It was a not so important movie. We didn't know at the time what it was going to be. Later, when I was working on 30 Rock from the Sun and an actor came up to me-in tears-- and he told me that because of my part in that movie, he was the first of six siblings to go to his high school prom. That actor’s father was a Baptist preacher. You just never know what your impact is going to be..
Rocco then asked them about the impact of social media. He was curious about whether the constant feedback has a positive or detrimental impact on the work.
Ben: You get the feedback from the live audience. Anyone who puts out music and art, you’re going to have people who are going to hate you. But it’s tricky if it changes what you do that can get tricky.
Deborah: She judges her performance by the reaction she receives from the audience. Works hard not to read the reviews. The longer you’re in the business, the harsher the criticism will be If I read a review and think it’s wonderful, then you have to read the bad reviews too. She heard from young opera fans that they are frustrated that there is a lack of social media around the work.
Judith: I'm not on Twitter. I live a fairly private life, but after this conversation ... I think I might get on Twitter just to see what it's all about.
Rocco asked the panelist about fun versus easy. "If the work is fun, does that mean it's easy? Do these two ideas go hand and hand?"
John: Actors are playing a part. There is a playful and engaging exchange that happens between audiences, but it’s hard work.
Judith: I tell dancers to enjoy themselves as they are going on stage. Enjoy this while you’re doing it. It’s not going to last forever. Savor every single bite. You’ve worked hard to get here. You’ve work hard in rehearsal. Be ferocious in your delight of the experience. In that ferocity you have your release.
John: But the hard part is when it’s not happening anything.
Terrence: But you don’t show the sausage being made. We don’t show the audience how hard it is. If you’ve worked at your craft, then there is no greater feeling that feeling free on the stage.
Rocco's final question for the panelist was about labels. Ben summed it up perfectly:
It’s complicated. You don't want to simplify anything, but you want people to receive information about what you do, the kind of art you're creating, and also know what to expect about the experience. The label has to be effective.
At this point, the conversation was open to the public. The loose structure brougt reality back in But I dipped back into the discussion to hear that an audience member asked the panelists to speak about how they negotiate fear.
Terrence: Fear fuels me. It’s what I learn from and intrigues me the most. I don’t want to be in the same place. If you’re standing still, the world is changing all around you.
Rocco then ended the panel discussion by quoting Ben Folds Five song, "Do It Anyway":
"And if you're paralyzed by a voice in your head
It's the standing still that should be scaring you instead
Go on and
Do it anyway
Do it anyway"
And with that the Kennedy Center's first ever International Arts Leader Forum came to a close and we were all invited to take part in a lovely closing reception.
However, before we went in, I talked Dafina McMillan (Director of Communications and Conferences, TCG) into getting a photo with the legendary Judith Jamison and because I spent most of undergrad listening to my best friend, Andrea Burghart (now Hinojosa) go on and on about the brilliance of Ben Folds, I got a photo with him!
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I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!