Five actions arts and cultural organizations should be taking NOW
A little more than a year ago, during the tumultuous days following George Floyd’s death, I
challenged arts organizations and other listeners in a TRG 30 virtual meeting to consider bold
action to propel themselves forward.
I provoked that arts and cultural organizations have missions that may not be good enough
anymore; systemically weak working capital; governance that limits rather than drives; weak
attitudes and postures, and beliefs that place artists as creative cogs in wheels rather than
central to organizational thinking.
I encouraged action, but I knew that only some leaders would get there.
And here we are today: a return to LIVE. Live performances, open exhibit halls, and live
audiences and visitors. And even with the difficulties posed by reopening amidst the spread of
the new Delta variant, we are, nevertheless, here, returning to live in small and large
ways, depending on local communities, comfort levels and government restrictions.
But this return is about much more than a raising of curtains or an opening of doors. It is
– or should be – the start of a reinvention of the arts and culture sector, caused
by the implementation of new ways and new standards. 21st century standards.
Is your organization on track? If not, it may help to focus on these practical actions that are
defining what it means to be a 21st century arts and cultural organization,
regardless of your organizational status, be it charitable, governmental or commercial. These
actions apply to all of us.
1) Listen – and listen well.
If your organization desires audience growth beyond this pandemic, what it does NOW will have an
outsized impact. Retaining existing audiences and connecting with new communities now require
new techniques in deeper engagement, deeper listening. Our audiences, visitors and patrons
must be seen and heard and talked to now more than ever. Likely, we’ve been engaging with
them largely in a transactional way, via confidence and other kinds of surveys, and now we need
to ignite their imaginations, involve them in dialogue, and share with them who we’re
working to become. I’m talking programs that enable closed-loop conversations designed to
foster relationship more than survey campaigns designed to acquire data.
Especially if they’re among the new group of participants whom we engaged in digital
offerings during the pandemic.
Performance anticipation. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels.
Omaha Performing Arts (OPA) has one of the leaders
that’s going solidly toward the 21st century named Joan Squires. The OPA is
listening and mapping the experiences of its patrons so that the administration understands
potential pain and positive points; it is gathering Net Promoter Scores (NPS) and discussing the
feedback with the president and senior leaders. The idea is to have empathetic ears to different
audience segments at specific points during this return and to respond accordingly. And
then, always, ACT. Closing loops in communications, on a one-on-one basis, in lobbies and more.
21st century organizations know: successful futures rely on successful relationships.
2) Examine decision-making about future programming.
Arts and cultural organizations are making decisions now about programming and curation for
2022-23 and beyond, and we are seeing smart operators – 21st century ones
– collect demographic and listening data described above and use it to shape those
decisions. The question is: If our objective is to create programs that appeal to new and
diverse audiences, well… is that really happening? It IS possible to create positive
change, no matter the business model.
Violin section. Photo by Samuel Sianipar on Unsplash.
The most recent TRG Arts Comeback Planning
Study reports on our industry’s plans for programming mix and shows 66% of U.S.
and 58% of U.K. organizations will keep the same balance of traditional and contemporary works
as before the pandemic. But Canada is doing it differently. Just 33% of Canadian organizations
are keeping the same mix. They are ahead of their U.S. counterparts on making programmatic and
curatorial changes that reflect our times, and in this specific case, responding to the need to
reconcile national history with indigenous people. To them, I say bravo. And to other
countries, courage! We need it now.
Producing organizations have a direct ability to alter plans. To that end, the Shakespeare Theatre Company
(STC) in Washington, D.C., provides an example of programming changes designed to
disrupt the status quo. Aligned with its mission, Artistic Director Simon Godwin is another
example of a virtuously strident leader, offering two Shakespeare plays, one of which is a
co-production with Theatre for New Audiences in New York City and features one of the
pre-eminent Shakespearean actors in the country, John Douglas Thompson, as
Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. STC’s upcoming season also includes a drama
about pioneering Black actor Ira Aldridge (one of only 33 English actors honored at the
Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the only one of
African-American descent). And a first for STC: a Broadway-bound musical, Once Upon a One
More Time featuring the songs of Britney Spears. Courageous and different.
Presenting and receiving houses face more limits insofar as executives must book what’s
available to purchase in any given year. And here I have questions: is local talent available
that might better reflect the tone and need in your specific community? How could you
communicate your intention to both agents and your community? And finally: truth is,
we’re all waking up to the need for more diverse, inclusive programming. It’s out
there. Go get it.
3) Manage inventory and access to deliver on your mission.
If arts and cultural organizations intend to attract new stakeholders and communities, they must
reconcile whether access and inventory management meets the intention. Talk is cheap.
Inventory and access is where the rubber hits the road, and I see few leaders willing to disrupt
the status quo with existing loyalists to enable access for the broader community. CEOs and
boards talk about wanting to engage different, broader communities, but do inventory or
event access practices follow? Whether desired new participants are of a different age or race,
in a different geography or some other demographic group, our actions say EVERYTHING about our
The Virginia Symphony Orchestra is one of the organizations we know leading the way here. Karen
Philion is another 21st century leader who has created a way to ensure and measure
the organization’s commitment to new audience development. The VSO has created a
“Catalyst Team” made up of marketing, development and community outreach leaders who
are working together to invite new communities to access specifically held seats and other
“catalyst” experiences. The goal? Not only to invite, but also deepen, over time,
the relationship with the VSO.
The 21st century organization will match up its seats and event inventory and find a
way to provide access that matches its intentions. This will be hard. But this
is important and brave work, and necessary to enable future stakeholders to see
themselves in the spaces they inhabit.
4) Before you press “send,” consider other ways of connecting.
In the “everything-old-is-new-again” category, direct mail seems more like a novelty.
These days, when everyone is glued to their phones and laptops; when every event takes place in
Zoomland, a piece of mail in your physical mailbox (do you still have one??) feels distinctively
old-school. And yet:
Today, this kind of “novel” communication method may be more engaging to people
swimming (drowning?) in a constant flow of digital information; especially newer, younger
audiences who may delight in a tactile direct mail piece.
You’ve got mail. Photo by Carlos Cuadros from Pexels.
According to the Data &
Marketing Association, the average direct mail response rate is now 5-9x higher than
email, and almost 90% of direct mail gets opened, compared to 20-30% of today’s
emails. Other things to consider from the D&M Association and other data from Canada
and the U.K.:
- Over-sized envelopes have the highest response rate (5%).
- A full 60% of catalog recipients report visiting the company’s website.
- Epsilon reports that 73% of American consumers prefer to be contacted by direct mail because
they can read it on their own time in a variety of places easily.
- While the best target age for direct mail responsiveness is 45-54, Millennials report a
purchase preference for direct mail over email, too.
- In Canada, Canada Post conducted neuromarketing
research that showed direct mail is easier to understand, more memorable, and 20%
more persuasive than digital media.
- And according to Royal
Mail Marketreach, the UK’s leading expert on the power of mail, a record 96%
of all mail was engaged with during lockdown, and 70% of consumers say mail makes them feel
Some of the best practices that served us well before email can serve us well in the
21st century, too. Right person, right message, right way.
5) Learn systematically from your experiences.
“Learning agility” is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to
do, and it requires effort and commitment from individual leaders and staffs,
especially those working in organizations that believe “agility” is a word that
applies only to Olympic gymnasts.
Earlier this year, a Forbes
article by Lara Albert of human capital management firm SAP SuccessFactors, described
learning agility as the new organizational “it” factor, saying, “Learning
agility is a concept that amplifies a human instinct to learn, adapt, unlearn, and relearn. It's
how we keep up with constantly changing conditions and figure out new ways to navigate them
without actually knowing what to do. But instead of using gut instincts, we rely on past and
present experiences to make sense of any uncertainty. Fostering a workplace culture that is open
to new ideas empowers employees of all levels to challenge the status quo and drive change
– which is a tremendous departure from yesterday's hierarchical structures.”
Orchestra with audience. Photo by Manuel Nägeli on Unsplash.
I couldn’t agree more, and this year we have been teaching learning agility to a group of
international arts CEOs. It’s not rocket science, but it does require intentional focus on
things like post-mortems, slowing down to ensure we receive, and deliver, feedback, seeking out
new experiences so that we can practice being uncomfortable and more.
One more thing: having diverse perspectives on teams helps create learning-agile environments. A
terrific article in Harvard Business Review entitled, “Teams
Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse,” explains why,
but my net-net: there are so many reasons why we should be recruiting diverse people, with
diverse experiences and perspectives. This is just one more.
Too often, we hire new people, insisting they need arts and culture experience, show them a desk,
get them started on a project, and fail to follow through on what is and isn’t working.
And then the failure is their fault? 21st century organizations know that
new models for day-in-day-out working are required to thrive in 2022 and beyond.
And a shoutout to Celebrity Series of Boston! Their executive leader, Gary Dunning, is investing
in learning agility — learning it, so that they can make it part of their culture and
eventually teach it to future staff. They know that the resilient future of their organization
will require a team that does things well, even when they don’t know exactly what to
The moment is NOW
I can’t encourage it enough. Arts and cultural organizations that want to ensure relevancy
moving forward must take action now.
Are you inspired? Do you know your next steps? You can continue the discussion by signing up for my newsletter here.
I want to gather the stories of what defines a 21st century arts organization, and
you can help me do it with your powerful examples.
And if your organization wants something more, such as support with ongoing guidance and
direction to inspire your future resilience, take the next step and schedule a call with TRG
Jill S. Robinson
CEO | TRG Arts
Jill S. Robinson is CEO of TRG Arts (The Results Group for the Arts), a
renowned international, data-driven change agency and a ColoradoBIZ Top 100 Women-Owned
Company. As a driving force in the arts and culture sector, Jill has inspired leaders and
organizations for more than three decades, and her expertise and counsel are sought out by
arts and cultural executives worldwide. Jill believes in the transformative power of arts
and culture experiences, and that positive, profound change in the business model of arts
organizations leads to artistic innovation that can inspire entire communities.
Blogs from Jill
Leaders: Do you consider yourself to be creative?
This year, I'm on an exploration of creativity, sharing reasons why the arts
and culture sector isn’t as creative or resilient as it could be. I
invite to you to join me:
I'd love to engage with you about what I’m seeing, what you’re
seeing, and what we might do to make a difference.