What Is Normal Anyway?

Yesterday I got my morning fix by way of Tom Cott. His daily e-mail highlighted Andrew Taylor's blog in which Andrew commented on post by Neill Archer Roan, which talks about whether the current economic crisis is not the "new normal" after all. The provocative thought here is that perhaps what happened between 1950 and 2000 was an aberration, and that we need to look back before that to see what the future may bring. Commenting about the arts, Andrew wrote:

….it's a good time to check ALL of our assumptions about what
we do, how we do it, and what we define as success. And it also might
be a good time to dust off our history books to see how arts and
culture worked before 1952. There might be some useful ideas from the
OLD normal that could be revived.

I think that's a good idea. Let's then look back even before the 50s to, say, 100 years ago. The arts we talk about in our field and the way we produce them here were in large part an import from Europe, where going to cultural events was as much a social experience as it was entertainment. Concerts in the 18th century routinely dragged on for three or four hours with multiple intermissions, which gave people a chance to congregate. Back then, there were no phones, no radio or TV — the cultural events served a fundamental societal purpose of bringing people together. Indulge me here — you could even call it a form of social networking.

And, yes, the strata of society that attended the arts were, like our audiences today, wealthy and educated. Not only enjoying the arts, but also mingling with their own is partly why generations of folks repeatedly subscribed and made it part of their lives — they were patrons of the arts.

And, in addition to patronage, somewhere along the line, the state got involved in supporting the arts. There was an idea of civic responsibility which meant that the arts should provided by the government, in the same way as clean water, or the fire department. That's why there's an opera house in virtually every small city across all of Italy, and why a relatively unknown city like Dresden has one of the finest orchestras in the world.

Now fast forward to the U.S., where we imported the notion and the practices of European culture, including the concept of a "subscription."  We kept patronage in new clothing, but we largely left out the public-funded part.

So the struggle for money to fund the arts here begins at conception, and lasts forever. In flush times, and with less competition, the arts tend to do okay. Patrons (rich and less rich) pay, and governments do their small part. But compared to Europe (where government still routinely picks up 80% or more of the bill), we rely on patronage much more — survival depends largely on the whims of patrons rather than more regular and predictable government funding. Ultimately the model we live with here is structurally unsound, forcing vast amounts of time and resources to be shifted from making art to amassing the money to pay for it, and soaking up vast amounts time of executive staff, and board members, and artists.

That's the way it is now, and I believe the way it will continue to be. I don't think there's any likelihood that our government will ever step in to support the arts in a meaningful way. Increases like we're seeing at the NEA (just this week) are important in the absolute, but even more important as a catalyst for private funding.

What this points to is that the relationships arts organizations develop with their patrons are the key ingredients to their success — in whatever economic environment we live in. The traditional ladder of arts patronage, starting with attendance, and moving up towards philanthropy and board involvement still works. And creating a social networking experience is also part of the game, as it was before.  

Those organizations that are obsessively managing their patron database will have a significant advantage. Cultivating deeper and more meaningful relationships with patrons is still the fuel for success.

These days, thanks to the Internet, arts marketers now have a host of new and affordable tools to accomplish this better than ever. Database marketing techniques such as highly targeted and relevant e-mails, personalized fundraising appeals, timely and relevant follow-ups to the live experience, and even Facebook and Twitter posts — these are the new ingredients for success. (For example, I learned last week at NAMPC that the Obama campaign's e-mail list had 300 targeted categories.)

My take is that the new normal will be the same as the old normal after a big diet, and the game arts managers must play will simply have to be played better. It's going to be all about efficiency: the careful, measured, analyzed, and targeted use of precious non-profit capital will be the thing that makes the most difference in the next 10 years.

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One response to “What Is Normal Anyway?

  1. I believe your last point is critical. Whatever happens during this economic recovery, I don’t think that we can expect to see the economy return to the pre-recession level. It will be somewhere between the low now and the high of a few years back.
    As such, you are absolutely right on that doing more with less will be more critical than ever. You need to connect to patrons in a meaningful, targeted way. Electronic communication and social media is opening up a new way to make those connections.

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