Arts Managers: Are They Too Focused On The Numbers?

Image Source:

I’ve been starting to get back into reading arts management blogs and articles over the last few weeks, which is always thought-provoking. And occasionally just provoking. Like this article. Colin Dabkowski is asking the question: Are we getting too focused on business metrics in the arts, when there is a sense in which the arts can’t be quantified? He says:

The most important functions of arts organizations – to educate, inspire and foster empathy across cultures and experiences – have been and always will be unquantifiable.

This actually reminds me of a similar sentiment (only expressed in a much more entertaining way) by Ralph Myers, the former Artistic Director of Belvoir theatre. Myers was invited to deliver the 2014 Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture and in that speech, he got stuck into the amount of arts companies that are replacing artistic leaders with managerial types. (For instance, he cites the example of Melbourne Festival deciding to employ a “creative director” with experience running previous festivals, rather than an artistic director who would presumably come from the background of actually being an artist.)

You can see that what Dabkowski and Myers are getting at is a simple thing: are we, in this day and age when the arts are expected to be financially sound, remain accountable (in the case of the major performing arts) to the government bodies that are supporting them, plus obviously get bums on seats – are we at risk of losing the focus on the art itself?

The reality is, this is really just scratching the surface of an age-old tension that has existed between artists and the administration required to mount that art. The reality is that the artists want and need the licence to be able to create things, regardless of whether they turn out to be financial goldmines. But by the same token, the theatre managers and the publishers are concerned with how to actually pay for this art that is being presented.

Which is where the dreaded numbers come in. In the race to sell tickets, we now have numbers to tell us everything – from how many people came last year, how many came this year, how many subscribed, what was the renewal rate on subscriptions, what age are they, where do they live, what do they rate our show out of 10, how many people are we reaching in disadvantaged areas, what is the average ticket price, number of men, number of women, number of children, number of schools, number of likes on Facebook, number of views on YouTube, and that’s just what we look at on Mondays.

But aren’t there some things that just can’t be quantified by numbers? And what do you do if the numbers aren’t good? Just because your audience is low for Symphony A, Play B or Exhibition C, does that really take away from their artistic merit?

Here’s an idea: what if we agreed, first off, that we would like to see our art-forms thriving? So it’s not a case of ticket revenue vs artistic integrity. Let’s assume we’re all on the same page.

Because sometimes we can veer towards an unhelpful dichotomy in our discussion and act as if there are really only two Approaches to this problem. (Please note: no arts company I know of is ever completely Approach 1 or 2, but you always feel like they are two ends of a scale and you can feel the push one way or the other.) Approach 1 is that it’s all about the money; the arts is just a commodity that has to be sold, and high-brow ideas of what constitutes “art” should just face up to economic reality. As mentioned above, this does not make for a thriving arts company.

Approach 2 says that it’s it’s all about the art and financial concerns should be secondary. But this is also a bit concerning. The bottom line is – to mount any sort of artistic production requires financing and somebody has to answer the question: “Where is the money coming from?”

So what I suggest is a third way – why don’t we use the numbers to help us measure the public appreciation for the particular piece of artThat way, if the numbers come out a little low, instead of immediately jumping to find marketing or fundraising solutions (“Quick – let’s have a 2-for-1 sale!” or “Quick! Let’s throw another fundraising gala!”) – thought don’t hear me saying that we shouldn’t do those as well – why don’t we start making some plans to see if we can grow appreciation for the art form?

As an example from my corner of the arts world, the classical music industry, most orchestra marketers the world over will understand that an all-Beethoven concert is much more of a cash cow than, say, an all-Bartók concert. But rather than just simply saying, “Oh well, we’ll probably have to do some creative pricing to get the audiences for the Bartók”, why not also brainstorm some ways as a company to build some public buzz and awareness around Bartók, who he is, and why his music is so awesome that you should drop some cash to go hear his stuff live?

Here’s another idea – why not enlist the Artistic Directors in spreading the word? After all, more than anyone else, they would be the greatest advocate for the art form that is being presented. They’ve helped select the things that are going to make it to the stage and be seen by an audience – I bet they have a large numbers of reasons in their head as to why people would want to spend time with a particular art form.

I believe there is a great opportunity in the future for arts organisations to move from being arts presenters – simply putting the arts out there in public for an audience that is already sold on that sort of thing – to being arts advocates: companies that believe in an art form so strongly that they want to grab you by the arm and say, “Hey! Have a look at this! It’s awesome!”

And all those numbers out there? They may not be perfect, but they can certainly give us a strong indication of how good a job we are doing at getting that public to stop, notice our arm-tugging and say, “It’s awesome? Really? Can I have a look?”