As the 2016 year rolls to an end, I — like many of my arts colleagues — are feeling the pressure to fundraise before December 31st. But I’m taking a precious moment out of that effort to share something that’s been weighing on my mind.

I’m tired of the status quo.

If you’ve served on a board or work for an arts organization, you know what I mean… the constant fundraising to “sustain” arts programs that have unclear engagement models, all in an effort to maintain an arts audience that’s possibly already niche in its core makeup.

There’s a dangerously wrong assumption that classical music is for the older generations, and that by educating young people, we’ll close the audience age-gap. It’s also equally dangerous to assume that the people who aren’t at your concerts just don’t like classical music, else they’d be coming.

It’s time to reshape engagement.

In this post, I’d like to propose a short manifesto for the future of the performing arts, making a careful and intentional decision to chase innovation over sustainability; and diversifying a new audience over sustaining the existing audience.

This manifesto reads as follows:

(1) The arts are a vehicle for social, political, and cultural dialog; not the end-all-be-all.

I had been thinking about this as the San Diego Symphony reached out to me this week. Their new “Our American Music” festival puts the orchestra at the heart of the political dialog of our nation. They are asking hard questions, like “What does it mean to be an American”, all within the context of a relevant environment where audience members are bound to have different opinions, or even disagree with each other.

But even beyond that, the performing arts has a special way of connecting us to one-another. The arts are the crux of the human experience, packed into a consumable cultural experience. Our goal should never be “butts in seats, we need to sell tickets…”, but rather “whoever is in the seat should have their life changed, partaking in something meaningful and much bigger than themselves or the artists.”

How do we accomplish this? Contextualize. Create new art. Talk with (not to) your audiences.

(2) It’s no longer “us and them”. If you’re an arts presenter of any kind in a community, you need to collaborate with the other arts presenters.

The arts have a long history of, “I don’t like this orchestra, I’ll just go off and start my own project down the street.” And after decades of this, we have a sprawling amount of local, regional, and national arts presenters in our communities. While this is an incredible gift to the community, it’s terrifying how the organizations still see themselves as independent of one another.

This isn’t true. We all rely on the same resources (space, funding, talent, qualified staff, marketing opportunities) to build our art into the community. But the community doesn’t see us as different. Seeing Orchestra A over Orchestra B is still seeing an orchestra, and when we’re competing with cinema, shopping, online entertainment, sports teams, etc… there’s no sense in competing.

Arts organizations need to collaborate in any way they can. Share office space, co-host donor events, trade advertising, co-promote through your websites and social media channels, share administrative functions that don’t cause a conflict of interest, host local panels on audience-engagement, partner on school programs, lobby for arts-friendly legislation together, throw a block party together… There are countless beneficial ways to work together to cut costs, increase engagement, and show collaborative respect to the community and donors who keep these efforts thriving.

(3) Take a hard look at what is and isn’t working, and make change.

Is it hard to measure what a newspaper ad’s reach is? Certainly. But if you’re paying $10,000 for one advertisement, and don’t see a generous $10,000(+) bump in your ticket sales that weekend, there’s clearly a problem.

Take a hard look at everything from your marketing strategies to staff functions, and ask yourself, “Is this necessary and growth-promoting, or something comfortable that we’ve always done?”

The mantra “We’ve always done it this way” can be disastrous.

It means that you likely haven’t evaluated your processes, because even the most favorable evaluation should result in some adjustment towards improvement and growth. Organizations are wasting precious resources (staff time, funds, audience attention, etc.) on something that, if left unevaluated, is hurting the organization. It’s both a loss and a missed opportunity.

Allow the time and resources to evaluate: Ask unbiased questions about impact and result on audience. Identify things that can be adjusted for improved impact. Measure again, testing these new ideas. Implement, and never stop measuring and analyzing the results.

Fete The Future

The performing arts industry of the future does not have to be Michael Kaiser’s “Curtains”, where the larger organizations only spiral larger, and the smaller local and regional organizations close as the spiral overwhelms them.

We need to be trimming excess in large organizations (evaluate, identify, make change towards growth!!!), and creating resource partnerships with local and regional organizations. Here’s why: local and regional organization have the reach into communities that are otherwise unengaged or under-engaged. While they may not have the resources or tools to develop broader programs, their influence on a community should not be understated. A rising tide raises all boats, and if organizations are collaborating and resource-sharing, the audience grows as a whole for everyone involved.

So what does a bright future in the performing arts look like?

A future where the community thrives.

Note: I did not say “a future where all organizations thrive.” I also didn’t say “a future where the audience thrives.” Neither fully realizes the true mission of arts organizations —helping the communities they serve thrive.

This is a community that’s curious, endeavoring on their own to explore meaningful, life-changing art. This is a community that finds inspiration from the art that is most influential on their own personal journey, and then uses that inspiration towards great change in our communities. These are people — young and old, of diverse backgrounds — who support organizations because they understand the important role that the arts play in the political, social, and cultural landscape of their world.

And for the organizations that promote this future? They draw sustainability from innovation, rather than chasing sustainability so that they can then innovate.