2019 State of the Arts: Do you have what is required for the “long now”?

2019 State of the Arts: Do you have what is required for the “long now”?

We all watched last week as the Notre Dame cathedral burned. Like so many, I was glued to Twitter throughout my day, checking in for status updates, and found myself intrigued by a thread about “The Long Now”—a concept that someone on Twitter described to me as “planning with a time horizon of centuries …which implies sustainability…”. I found www.longnow.org and my mind was blown: this organization talks in terms of 10,000-year planning horizons. Indeed, Notre Dame was designed to last for centuries. And, it will.

In arts and culture, planning with a decade in mind seems to be a stretch. Does your organization have the resiliency required to be as strong in a decade as it is now? Or even here? Every person on your team should be thinking through how they answer this question. Today, tomorrow, and the next day. If you’re being candid with yourself and each other, then implications of the answer to that question is humbling. My colleagues Jim DeGood and Nariman Tulepkaliev in TRG Arts 2019 Generational Analysis create the compelling argument that if your organization isn’t already acting in new ways to address coming generational changes, it’s behind the curve.

And if you’re leading your institution, it means you’re behind the curve.

Those of you who follow us on social media, read our blog, and work with us know that we’re obsessed with translating data into action that gets sustainable results. And, action — consequential action — requires leadership. Leadership is responsible for understanding the environment; listening, making decisions, and ultimately motivating the action that gets results. That requires grit.

Right now, I’m obsessed with leaders that drive organizations to sustainability, but then move them beyond that curve to the resilience that will be required in the next decade. Developing a resilient organization requires some level of grit, I think. Angela Duckworth in her book, Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance, says that grit requires passion for your organization and its purpose, investing in practice and coaching time to grow your leadership skills, and BELIEF that the hard work will have an impact. Take a moment and ask yourself: Are you cultivating your personal grit? Would you call yourself “gritty”?

My curiosity has been fed and my obsession nurtured in my early travels this year where I’ve met with chief executives and administrative teams from around the world in different settings that have sparked a variety of conversations. Not surprisingly, there were themes and common threads to the dialogue; and put in the context of my thinking of what is required for leaders in the near future, they were striking to me.

Reality One: Beyond generational change, there’s a clear need to ensure that arts and culture is more relevant to more people everywhere we work. And the need is real.

Equity, diversity, inclusion…whether you’re operating in the US, or Canada or the UK, every organization we talk to has local and national pressures with which they’re grappling. There are change management issues and opportunities in their communities and organizations, writ large, that are pre-occupying, motivating, and in some cases, threatening.

Reality Two: No one is talking about the demographic changes that our Generational Research suggests we must attend to.

In just 10 years, the aging of Boomers combined with the size of the Generation X cohort (which is 10-15% smaller) will result in a smaller population pool at the target age for arts and cultural participation. This shift, combined with differences in the ways Millennials expect to engage, result in real and effecting C-H-A-N-G-E for our sector. This is starting to occur now in the United States.

As I said before: if you’re leading your institution it could mean you’re behind the curve. As my colleagues so aptly put it in their report:

“TRG’s research reflects what the field has been wrestling with for a decade: audience development is multi-pronged, takes time and focus, and challenged to take a long-term view. The most sustainable organizations will acknowledge the required “and” statement here. They will invest in a strategy that deepens loyalty with each generational cohort independently. The way forward is to deepen loyalty with Boomers. Grow loyalty with Generation X. Invest for the long-term with Millennials.”

Reality Three: Resilience is a desire that we have for our organizations, and a set of behaviors.

Almost a verb. The industry is waking up to what being resilient is all about. It’s entrepreneurialism, it’s developing cultures of accountability and feedback, and it’s dramatic innovation that pushes us into new and exciting territories. It is also experimentation and not fearing failure. I see the push and pull of all of these things in the work we do, and I hear the need to talk about grit and how we can develop it as professionals on behalf of our field.

Reality Four: Technology has become a huge asset, and a huge distraction.

I recently presented the keynote at the 2019 Ticketing Professionals Conference in England and I shared this same observation. Feedback from attendees confirmed that we’re all feeling similarly. “Thank God there’s tech and new tools!” people said…and, in the same (sort of under their) breath, “Oh, hell. I can’t keep UP with all the new tech and new tools…”. I suggested that we follow Accenture’s 2019 tech theme of “Human +”, which reminds us that humans are the key to so much and can help focus brilliant tech and the people that use it.

If you are a person who wants to help create resilience, sustainability, and more in the face of these realities, then I urge you to ask these questions of yourself and your organization:

1. Are you listening to data in your organization? Really listening? That means studying, contextualizing, talking about it, chewing on it? As importantly, are you FOCUSING on the data that matters? Increasingly, I see leaders who assume that the volume of data available in their organizations equals a similar volume of resulting action. Which is crap and we all know it.  

2. Are you listening to the customer; however, your business model defines that customer? And are you really listening? TRG recently fielded a study of almost 2,000 arts leaders about their use of surveys and found that 86% of our organizations are using surveys (at least) annually, most more often. But of that, only 15% were organized to follow up and talk to responders to more deeply understand the issues and opportunities. A survey hears. Listening is something completely different and requires relationship, action, follow-through.

3. Which leads to this question: Is your organization acting? After you listen, (and you WILL hear that different patrons and audiences require different things), is your organization prepared to act? This is complicated! It requires resources and a culture that can take feedback, integrate it non-defensively, and create solutions. Is that YOUR organization? Are you leading in that way?

Do you have the grit to do these things confidently and authentically in your institution? As leaders we must make time to develop ourselves in dialogue with our peers. The challenge that I offer you is this: Join me on Thursday, June 27 for Arts Leadership Book Club.


We will be diving in to Duckworth’s book, Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance. We must ask more questions and take the challenge of leading change to get the sustainable results we need for the now, and the LONG NOW.

Those of us serving this sector believe in the power of arts and culture to drive new approaches, to embrace failure (and success!), and lead us into new ways of thinking in our communities and nations. That is why the organizations you’re part of matter so much. That is why you and your people matter so much. Let’s do it and do it together, for the long now. Remember: data doesn’t do, people do.

Posted April 23, 2019

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