Why Are Artistic Directors Not at the Table?

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Last month, while presenting with Matt Lehrman at the Arts Reach conference in Los Angeles, we polled the attendees to better understand their roles. About two-thirds had marketing responsibilities, and about half were in development. But when I asked how many artistic directors were in the room of about 100, only two people raised their hands.

I’ve thought about that moment a lot, and it seems to reveal a profound structural imbalance right before our eyes.

I’ve always held that arts and cultural organizations are unique in the non-profit industry. On the one hand, they are mission-driven, serving communities, education, children, and other causes. On the other, they operate as a commercial entity, competing for consumer dollars versus all other types of consumers’ entertainment and leisure dollars.

Conferences such as Arts Reach and NAMP exist to address the commercial aspect and the additional challenges it poses, broadening managers’ skills from only raising philanthropic dollars to earning revenue via marketing and sales. But artistic directors generally don’t attend such conferences, so herein lies the problem — and the opportunity.

In my experience, artistic directors at many organizations are solely mission- and creatively driven, spending nearly all their time on the artistic product and leaving the rest to other managers. That’s why we don’t see them at marketing conferences.

But this crisp delineation of roles is an antiquated approach. Those artistic directors who live in an ivory tower, and are therefore not “tainted” with the realities you face every day, cannot possibly be effective partners. Rather, the creatives who invest their time in understanding the complexity of trying to build audience relationships will be doing their organizations and themselves a great service. After all, their artistic vision (and the success of their career) can be realized only if the audience and its financial support is there.

I know this to be true, because when I was the executive director of the American Symphony Orchestra (1991-96), I worked with such an artistic director: Leon Botstein, our conductor. Leon was involved in an equal way in every major audience-facing decision — from marketing and programming to subscription brochure design and pricing. Back then, we were effectively able to compete for audiences in the crowded NY cultural market by being forward-thinking, innovative, and eager to break the norm — largely because our artistic director understood deeply what the norm was to begin with.

It seems clear that the most successful organizations will be those where artistic directors are not separated out, but rather completely informed, involved, and participating in the strategy of audience development and fundraising as core to their roles.

This brings me to the idea to be debated: Why not have a new kind of conference in our industry in which artistic directors, board members, and executive directors all attend the same conference? I’ve been involved in meetings hosted by foundations that bring together board, executive, and artistic leaders as a condition for receiving their funding. But why should it take a foundation to bring these three crucial elements of your leadership team together?

Perhaps it’s time to rethink the way we market, program, and present conferences, by programming for and inviting artistic directors as partners and equals. Can you imagine how much more effectively organizations could be run if the artistic directors really worked in “cahoots” with the executive directors? Imagine how much better off your organization could be if these key constituents were in alignment all year long.

I hope those of you who spend your careers thinking about how to reinvigorate audience development will forward this article to your artistic colleagues. And I hope it will mean that we’ll see more artistic directors at the conferences that Patron Technology attends and sponsors.

After all, though I talk all the time about building relationships with patrons using customer relationship management (CRM) technology and social media, those are simply tools — a means to an end. To get results, you also need everyone to be working together, to embrace the challenges and opportunities together, and that means everyone has to be at the same table.

I hope this article starts a broad discussion. If you’ve got an opinion, please comment below and let me know if you think this is a good idea and/or feasible.

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4 responses to “Why Are Artistic Directors Not at the Table?

  1. I am an artistic director at a music organization in Philadelphia. I am in no way in an ivory tower, dealing only with artistic issues, and I don’t know many artistic directors who are. I deal with questions of marketing, development, grant writing, strategic planning, image, etc. on a daily basis. The reasons why I have never attended a conference such as Arts Reach or NAMP are purely practical: it is expensive to send someone, and if we can’t leave our office empty. So, we send the person who is most directly in charge of those areas, and she shares what she learned with the rest of us when she gets back. Also, I resent the assumption in this article that artistic directors do not work “in cahoots” with executive directors. That may be the case in some of the largest organizations out there, but let us not forget that there are many more small-to-medium arts organizations in this country than there are very large ones, and that there is no such luxury as an ivory tower in most of them.

  2. When I speak at a conference, I get asked to evaluate dozens of brochures for marketing directors or executive directors. If I feel the need to be critical, to point out mistakes or missed opportunities, I sometimes strike a nerve and they become visibly uncomfortable because I am speaking ill of their baby, but more often than not they become giddy and excited and overflowing with questions because I have just unintentionally sided with them in an argument they had lost with their artistic director or their board marketing chair over the design or the language of the brochure. “This picture is confusing.” “That’s what I said!” “This font is unreadable.” “That’s what I said!” “This slogan is weak.” “That’s what I said!” “This information should be up front.” “That’s what I said!” So, I agree. If possible, artistic directors and board members SHOULD attend marketing and development conferences so that when they do involve themselves with how their organization is marketed, it’s for the better and not the worse.

  3. I am an Artistic Director who also oversees our Communications & Engagement department. Our audiences have more than quadrupled in three years; in part because our mission, vision, programming, and communications strategy are in alignment. Communications is in many ways an extension of the artwork in the experience of the audience.

  4. Well, we have three strong points of view here, which is really what this article was all about. We’re going to try to keep this conversation going in other ways and at other events we produce or participate in. To the artistic director below, yes, you have a real practical problem and I get it. However, I just returned from NAMP where, in a room of over 100 organizations of all budget sizes, there was not a single artistic director. That’s 0% — this is an an industry-wide discussion we should be having about the relationship of management to artistic, and whether those two should continue to be in silos, as they are predominantly today.

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