What story are you telling (yourself)?

What story are you telling (yourself)?

Long before you were on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn, you were the sole subscriber to a continual, perpetual one-person, private feed: your own inner narrative.

This means that for as long as you have been conscious, you have been digesting everything that is happening in your life, and interacting with yourself about it, inside your head.

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We are already creating with our audiences. Now let’s do it better.

The arts are a very natural platform for creating with others. After all, what is a live performance but a natural coming-together of two partners, the performers and the audience? Inherently, these parties exchange energy, each bringing something valuable: the performers, their craft and their expression, and the audience, their receptivity, their openness to the experience that is unfolding.

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What’s an audience for?

A compelling artistic vision and a high-quality artistic product are absolutely fundamental to every successful artistic venture. If something incredible, transformative or exciting isn’t at the basis of what you do, you can forget about your ability to perform the other business functions effectively. (My mentor Michael Kaiser is 100% right about this). And most of what’s on stage – maybe not the details, but many of the broad strokes, such as the who, where, and what of the season – is an administrative exercise.

Where, then, does the audience fit in?

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The sweetest successes are deliberate

I recently began to notice that working backwards is a vital practice in my career as an arts manager and consultant. Early on, I learned never to enter a classroom without identifying a desired objective, having a plan for achieving that objective, and having measures at hand to prove that the objective was indeed achieved. Thus, at the end of a lesson, it was clear whether or not the objective had been achieved.

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The loyalty algorithm

Our work is about art – the essence of human expression, transmitted through a particular medium and shared with others. In my opinion, there could not be a more pure, transcendent, incredible field of work.

There are people who experience what we do one time and who instantly become lifelong champions of our work. But on the whole, loyalty is not linear.

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“Why do the arts matter, anyway?”

If you work in the arts, you will be faced with this question at some point in time.

“After all, if [insert current catastrophe on people’s minds and lips] is happening, shouldn’t we devote our time and resources to solving that? Wouldn’t that make more of a difference?”

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Audience development is not like The Lord of the Rings

If you aren’t familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic, click here to catch up to speed.

Fast forwarding, according to Wikipedia, the translation of the inscription on the magic “one ring” created to dominate the land and the people is:

One ring to rule them all,

one ring to find them,

One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

Darkness aside, this is not how audience development works. There is no “one ring” in our work.

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The definition of insanity

Today, performing artists and managers hear constantly about the importance of diversifying and developing new audiences for their work. In my opinion, this perspective comes from an attitude of lack, that there are not or could not possibly be enough people interested in what we do in order for us to keep moving ahead, to persevere in the long run.

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Do We Exist to Create or Share, and Who Is the End User?

In the arts, there are two key phenomena: the creation and the experiencing of the art. 

Artists are typically focused mainly on the creation of the art, and (usually) less so on the experiencing of the art. Their primary work is to transmute the pure creative potential of their vision into something more concrete, into a more tangible form. And often, as in the visual and performing arts, that form is intended to be shared, to be experienced by others.

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Audience Development is Not About Transactions

From my perspective, all of us in arts and culture – from artistic, marketing, board, volunteers, staff – are in the business of audience development.

Quality, exceptional art is the beginning, but it is most certainly not the end, unless we choose it to be. Is great art truly great if it is never experienced by another human being? Perhaps. But I find that the more compelling questions are: are we really taking responsibility for the way we approach reaching current and potential audiences? Do our expectations of our approach and efforts really align with the ways we expect our audiences (or ticket buyers/donors/board members/community) to respond? Is our approach thinking more of ourselves or of them?

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