Author Archives: Brett Ashley Crawford, Ph.D.

About Brett Ashley Crawford, Ph.D.

Arts management professor, practitioner, and consultant with a desire to share challenges and insights with the world with a view for a better more arts-filled future.

Audiences – helping them find their path to you

Nonprofit work in the arts is mission driven not product driven, yet we have this unique problem of often having a market-facing product as part of our mission.  We produce a product to be consumed by an audience.  That product is an exhibit, a concert, a work of choreography, a play or a musical. For ego or income, our artists and our institutions want audiences for this work.  Yet, unlike for-profit organizations, we spend very little time trying to strategically communicate with our audiences in ways they want to heaWooden Track Web Away Nature Trail Planks Pathr. We often think we are successfully communicating because we get ‘likes’ and a decent ‘open rate’ to our emails, but are we moving audiences into our spaces to consume the amazing works we have produced?  Less and less.  What is their path and who are they?

First — let’s take an moment of marketing reality.  We cannot determine our audience.  THEY pick us.  Marketers can think they know who is going to buy a product due to the products inherent qualities and the message and visuals launched in the marketing campaign.  But the individuals who show up are the audience.  Many a marketing company has laughed at the “fish they caught,” remember the Pepsi Generation campaign (tried to get Gen X and just caught the Boomers, again).

Second — let’s meet the realities of our marketplace. Research beyond what our board and staff thinks is required.  That starts with honestly delving into your census data compared with your CRM data, Google and Facebook and other social analytics.You may think you want to reach all the ‘millenials’ in your community, yet when you look at your census data you realize that your community has fewer millenials than the national average. Know who your community is starting with the census.  This is your potential audience. Start here: analyze your city, county, perhaps surrounding counties in the census. What do you see for average household size? income? Are you setting yourself to reach the majority of these people?

Next, compare your potential audience with your CRM data. Analyze the zip codes.  Are their patterns by county? By day of attendance? By driving distance?  Where are those zip codes in your city / county? Frequently we assume a lovely concentric circle around our organizations when actually during the week the circles are quite small while on the weekend they are long ovals along the highways.  What do they like? (Check them out in nielsen data (the free one at least).)

Next: Look at your Google Analytics and social media stats.  How does that compare to your community and your CRM data?  Where are the overlaps and retention opportunities? Are there odd patterns, for example, when you increase ticket prices with dynamic pricing does your bounce rate on your purchase page go up?

This leaves you with a lot of patterns and data, but without an answer of what to do next.  That’s because people are not numbers. The true answers lie in talking with our community directly.

Third — Know your customer’s journey (before, during and after the experience).  WolfBrown and McKinsey have excellent resources in this regard. Simply put — your brand and the experience of your work exists outside your doors and your direct communications. Where are the pivotal touchpoints in your potential audience’s world?  For a children’s museum it could be that the critical point of convergence is at the neighborhood playground.  So, how does your message get to the playground?  How do you learn about your community?

Most organizations have significant first time never come backs.  What if you incentivized first attendees to come, stay for a talk-back and a brief focus group? Or follow up with an online survey (similarly incentivized to complete — but NOT with your product btw — give them something of a generic demand like a discount to the local coffee shop or Amazon).   What drove them to try you to begin with?  What did they do after they attended? What were the barriers as they made the effort to attend?  What excited them? Infuriated them? What else do they do with their personal time? Will they come back and if not, why not? Is there something you could do to make it easier.

In all of these conversations it is important to understand a couple of things.  You may not hear things you like, but that’s okay. Additionally, it is rare that people note a change in program as a barrier to future attendance (see Culture Tracks).  If they do, then they are simply not your audience.  That being said,  if you find that the majority of the audience doesn’t like your programming and overall attendance is dropping,  then you have to ask yourself if you are achieving your mission?

The key to the future is creating easy paths to your organization that reinforces your mission and drives toward impact.  The more you can create those pathways the easier it is to continue to grow, instead of shrink, in the face of continual distraction and marketplace expansion.


What If We Are Doing It All Wrong

I started this commentary on arts management years ago and then fell silent.  Partly due to family deaths (3 = too many) and partly due to a less-compromising work load for a time.  However, I reached a tipping point in 2017.  Perhaps the return to this enterprise is simply a redirection of frustration from greater issues in the globe. More likely it is that I have reached a tipping point in my frustration with the field and its 20 year slide against the grain of success.  Definitely seeing a nonprofit annual campaign actually put in bold “we cannot cut it to sustainability,” fueled my fire.  Really? We’re going to ask people to give money to our business that we can’t figure out how to run?

So, you see, I need to bring up the fact that the Emperor has no clothes.  Why? We need to own it honestly and begin sewing for the future.

What do I mean by that?  For the last 20 years (ie the course of my career) I have watched the arts lose traction in society. And I mean effective business operations and audiences. Since I entered the field a brash 20 something, the “powers that be” in the arts have said the problem is that our audiences are dying off and we need to attract new audiences.  Well, twenty years later the same story is true.  So, we didn’t succeed 20 years ago OR a lot of other issues have arisen in the meantime (or both).

The epoch of the glory of the nonprofit performing arts movement seemed to lose steam in the 1990s. YES, the 1990s into the 2000s felt like a continuation of the boom.  We built buildings like they were lego sets. New nonprofit performing arts organizations were popping up like  popcorn.


Yet, once built, we often realized the demand wasn’t as robust as originally observed.  Audiences and contributed income were increasingly difficult to come by in a consistent manner. Today we face, according to NEA statistics, a 20 year continual drop in most traditional art form consumption by USA citizens, a shrinking share of the contributed income pie, our artists are turning to for-profit creative enterprises to ground their careers, and foundations like the James Irvine Foundation who are turning to more pressing matters like poverty.

This intro is not meant to be a downer but a revelation for those who are still convinced of the beauty of the Emperor’s clothes.

In the next few weeks and months, I plan to articulate the systemic forces and individual choices that have created this path.  I will also offer solutions and hope to create a vibrant, not just sustainable, future. There is not just one. We are not a monolithic sector.  There are many paths to vibrant success.   I think that Doug Borwick, Nina Simon, Alan Brown, and others are fellow crusaders in this fight.  I am, however, attacking this problem from a slightly different angle:

a) History — What were the forces and assumptions embeded in the Ford Foundation funded Baumol and Bowen “Cost Disease” report that moved the performing arts into the not-for-profit business?

b) Expected Programming — How that has changed since the performing arts joined the ‘nonprofit’ family and what it has created in our institutions.

c) Basic Economics — NONPROFIT economics (not for-profit).  We can no longer continue as  Jekyll and Hyde enterprise.  One personality engaged in a for-profit, dynamic pricing, wring it out market facing product and our other personality pretending that our market facing activities are supporting our usually more minor community and education oriented activities.  We cannot be both at once.  In fact, the data shows us EXACTLY how COMMUNITY (not our board)  audiences want to engage with us if we just run our data. But more data analysis in the future.

Our job as not-for-profit arts institutions is simple.  We connect the artists and their art to the audiences for the benefit derived from that connection.  We need the best artists, the least barriers, and the most dynamic programming to do it. Let’s go!

IMAGE: Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, USA. Architect Frank Gehry. By Daderot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Equity and Respect: Is it Impossible in a Culture of Bias

While this space is usually dominated by thoughts on the arts, management, etc.  I cannot help but find linkages to our society and the struggles it faces (a frequent topic of the arts, yes?).

I found the article by Leslie Jameson on “Rape, Race and the Jogger” in last Sunday’s New York Times to be particularly insightful as to the impact of gender, race and our socio-political systems.  I had just moved to New York City and was living alone, as a runner, when the ‘Central Park Jogger’ rape occurred.  As a runner and as a woman working in the theatre traveling at odd times and in unusual places, I have always been hyper-aware of my own vulnerability.  But that vulnerability is based on violence against me as a woman. As Jameson notes, our vulnerability is inscribed on our bodies and defined by our society’s perceptions, allowances, and systems.

The US cultural norm is that of violence. Violence against ‘other’ dominates our media, our popular culture and our lives.  I recognize that this is not a US-only problem, but our glorification of violence as a ‘developed’ country is shared only by our cold-war enemy, Russia.

I wonder, then, why it is that when you consider the countries where happiness is highest as rated through the UN’s GDH index if a sense of community and safety is a key to happiness.  We know money does not buy it, but perhaps a sense of belonging regardless of gender, color, sexual identification is the critical factor. If that is true, then it is up to the arts to share that insight and wield its symbolic capital to de-inscribe the violence that is now naturalized against our brothers and sisters’ bodies.

I encourage you to read Jameson’s article and consider your own vulnerability and how it relates to your sense of happiness or content.

Power Point versus Interesting Visual Aids

Is power point evil or just used poorly? While I find that the Business Insider “Universities Should Ban Power Point” makes a strong argument as to why power point fails as a teaching aid. The presumption is that teachers use power point to echo or literally write out their lectures.  However, power point — as a visual anchor — can inform and enhance teaching, but the key is integrating active learning to enhance student learning.  The problem is students aren’t always aware of how they learn and ” Universities measure student satisfaction but they do not measure learning.”  Thus, if a course seems organized because of a lot of power point lectures students may, indeed, rate the course higher than one that challenges them to apply readings in active learning processes.

As someone who has taught in the classroom or in workshops across a 20 year career, I can attest to my experience pre and post power point. I will take power point over a transparency any day.  BUT I miss chalk boards and the need to slow down the process to really work through problems on a board (versus on a screen).  I believe visuals are necessary for teaching but they are not the end.  They are a means for sharing ideas and data but they do not constitute the end of learning for the student.  They are the beginning that has to include interplay with active learning, discussion and problem solving.

So, is  power point, student evaluations, or a habit of passive  learning(talk-listen) teaching styles to blame for a lack of learning?  All technology is only as good as its user.  It is not power point’s fault that teachers use it in a particular way.  But it is a university’s evaluation system that encourages continuing bad practices. And a teacher’s for not ethically focusing on learning first.



Yes, Pokémon, Again

As someone who worked from 1999 – 2012 in a theatre that included a robust arts education program and an Equity Theatre for Young Audiences, I can say that I have witnessed a lot of Pokémon obsession.  Then the obsession waned.  I admit, I was a little happy.  But today Pokémon is back to entertain many and torture some.  Pokémon GO has exploded over the last month (fun fact: It started as an April Fools joke in 2014 at Google. Niantic spun off to become an independent company). Screenshot 2016-07-14 14.18.38

As an augmented reality game, Pokémon GO is noted as actually getting generation Z out of their houses using the geo-location feature on their digital devices to play the game.  The game is also heralded as the first “nostalgia” product for millenials.  It seems to be almost everywhere. Just today I have en 5 Pokémon GO articles, 2 of which address the arts.

According to an article in the Washington Post, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC asked Pokémon GO to please remove the museum as a pokéstop.  Yet other organizations are taking advantage of traveling packs of Pokémon hunters.  According to an article in Nonprofit Quarterly, several museums are highlighting their pokéstops in their social media and a Food Bank is mobilizing volunteers by offering by linking to a pokégym location to a volunteer recruitment incentive. In Sydney, Australia, a Facebook event was created to walk “together through the Royal Botanic Gardens and around the exterior of the Opera House. This event attracted over one thousand people under the hashtag #PokeGoWalk.”  Yet it was not coordinated by the Botanic Gardens.

This makes one wonder what opportunities exist for intersecting Pokémon GO with arts and cultural institutions and how to ensure these opportunities will actually engage the visitors with the content of the arts and cultural institution. Bringing them in means nothing if it is ancillary to the mission.


What Data Tells Us About The Future of Nonprofit Arts Institutions

I tend to read broadly and voraciously.  This frequently offers opportunities for cross-sector observations.  While I know that life = change and that the world is changing faster than it has before, insights into how and why it is changing can be gleaned through thoughtful analysis of dispersed data.  I offer four unique articles that provide perspectives on the mindset and values that drive some of the changes we, as a society and the nonprofits serving it are facing.  These articles reveal that organizations need to become fun, relevant and social while recognizing their theory of change and emphasizing their social impact. Furthermore, these shifts must occur against a technology backdrop enmeshed in the institution’s culture not just relegated to marketing.

1. It has to be perceived as fun, relevant and social if it is going to register with those under 40 and I would argue those of any age with a similar mindset (Generation Y is living out the dreams of the baby boomer hippies) 

Offerings in the artistic marketplace can have curatorial and artistic integrity yet are still interesting and passionately pursued by the public.  The article identifies some unique markers that any arts institution can do. For example, organizations should get rid of security guards that make the institution feel like a prison.  Accomplish the same work with individuals dressed in every day clothes who want to talk about the art increasing the meaning making and relevancy to the viewer. While the Broad has contemporary art, the same could be done with historical works. Education can be fun, why do we always want to make it dry?  At the Broad they make waiting in line fun and social not tedious. Yes, people are waiting in line to get into a museum. This statistic is noteworthy in a time when national museum attendance is flat to falling.  The Whitney Museum in NYC they stays open late for those interested in an after-work, after-dinner artistic experience thereby becoming a part of the social fabric of New Yorkers’ lives.  Hamilton has Ham4Ham (Hamming it up for Hamilton).  The show is sold out with tickets selling at over $800 so this is not a marketing ploy. The producers don’t need to do it, but it has become an ethos of the company.  Have fun and be part of not extraneous to everyday experience.

2. Technology is a part of almost every individual’s values, lifestyle, and identity that cannot be ignored.

While the SXSW article focuses on a perhaps over-the-top aspect of how the tech set is making tech part of everyday life from food to clothing it is critical to note that the tech set is the same market that the arts used to serve (well-educated with leisure time and money to spend).  While the tech elite may be beyond the scope of almost any organization aside from the MET and SFMOMA, the recognition that technology permeates every aspect of people’s lives must be embraced by organizations or those markets will move elsewhere. This is not a push for tweet seats and art-works that allow for tech engagement but rather a call for organizations to work with their mobile audiences. Over 65% of US citizens have a smart phone and the demographic aligns even more directly with the arts-going public.  Thus institutions  must maintain or create websites with responsive design (don’t just make another app to sell a ticket), use social media as a space for conversation not advertising, and, when necessary, respect and educate audiences and support their ‘turning off’ for the 2 hours to enjoy a performance.

3. The workplace  and marketplace are increasingly driven by values, fulfillment and social impact.

The magic words for both the workplaces environment and artistic offerings seem to be collaboration, transparency, and impact. Working is no longer about bringing home a paycheck and moving up the ladder but “making a difference”.  Whether in fundraising or investing (time or dollars) impact on society is also the them. 64% of those under 35 want to work to make the world a better place.

When trying to attract donors, organization must know their theory of change then identify and report their social impact. “. . . the area nonprofits can improve the most is identifying and reporting outcomes. Identifying and reporting outcomes was most important to Gen Xers, 61 and 29 percent, followed by Baby Boomers, 47 and 27 percent, matures 44 and 30 percent, and Millennials 41 and 10 percent.”  While these numbers are reported from a survey of high net worth individuals, HNWs are not alone in their values, they just have the money to give.

The arts change lives every day.  It’s time to demonstrate that transformation bluntly, in numbers and stories, and share the good times we all have creating it.


Mega-Cities and the Arts

A recent article from QUARTZ notes that the creative, economic, and social power of the globe is centered on 20 urban connected hubs.  As someone who spent 25 years in the Easter Corridor, I recognize the dynamics the author notes.  What isn’t noted is the quality of life disparity between the 1% and those that keep the motor running. Nor does it note that these corridors are increasingly un-affordable to those who serve as the bedrock for the creative sector — the artists.  Even silicon valley mega-giants are investing across the USA in smaller urban centers where cost of doing business is lower and life has greater bandwidth for experimentation.

Yet, there is a direct connection between the mega-cities and the mega-art institutions.  This is essentially the driving force behind what Michael Kaiser notes as the split in the sector.  As global and local economic forces at play for the arts follow the money and the people, where will the arts be in 20 years? Being a “Creative” does not make you and artist but artistry and innovation are indelibly linked.  If emerging artists can’t live in the global connective hubs, will the economic power begin to fueled from the outside? Will there be a new model of connectivity with new modes of transportation or technological connectivity? We are witnessing the beginning of a shift that will have intense impact on the arts.  It will likely feel like a g-force roller coaster at times.