It’s About The Audience

Okay folks, I’m finally weighing in here. This is part humble op-ed, part venting, but all based on my observations of good (but mostly bad) practices in arts management during my 25+ years in “the business”.

I went into the field of arts administration because of my passion for orchestral music and everything that it embodies for audiences and players alike – the power of collaboration, living

life in real time, channeling something so extraordinary and potentially life-changing that it’s impossible to name. While it’s incredibly demoralizing to see what has been happening in the American orchestra world over the past decade or so, I can’t help but think that these organizations have never truly addressed the REAL issue, which is the need for constant, tireless, open-minded, and creative audience development – or more specifically, EDUCATION – and the need to make it a top priority in any organization.

As a former orchestra administrator myself, I’d like my musician friends to know that it isn’t easy, or black-and-white, to have the responsibility of running a complex non-profit organization that meets its budgets, satisfies multiple constituencies, and upholds the highest possible standard. It’s HARD. True, there are a lot of unscrupulous practices out there, and that is unforgivable. But there are also a lot of hard-working, well-meaning, and terribly underpaid managers, as well, just trying to do the best job they possibly can under challenging circumstances.

And as a former musician, and spouse of a musician, I’d like my management colleagues to understand that musicians can and MUST be an integral part of the problem-solving, instead of hired guns that need to be “managed.” These are among the most creative people in your organization, and you need to TRUST them enough to be transparent in your struggles, questions, and worries. They’re also – dare I say it? – the “product”…you can manage the hell out of a budget, but if the musical experience isn’t compelling in some way, it won’t matter.

But at the end of the day, these two “sides” are getting so caught up in their point of view that they’ve all but forgotten the third partner here, and that is the audience. Audiences – and potential audiences – aren’t passive, faceless numbers on a spreadsheet. They’re real people, who are looking for something relevant to THEM in the concert experience. And every community is different, with different needs, so every orchestra will serve a different role depending on your audience. Because of this, despite what some consultants may tell you, there’s no one magic bullet, no single strategy that’s going to save “THE” American orchestra. Orchestras are, or at least should be, in a RELATIONSHIP with their community; and anyone who has the incredibly important responsibility of keeping their orchestra alive needs to remember that, like any good relationship, this one requires good communication, patience, the humility to admit when you’re wrong, flexibility, and honesty.

Audience development, education, cultivation – whatever you want to call it, you need to LISTEN to your audience. If you treat them like an equal partner, instead of a mail-order bride, then they’ll by definition have some skin in the game, some reason to invest in the relationship. I know it’s hard – INCREDIBLY hard – to get into this mind-set when the doors are about to close, and everyone is in a terrible, and justified, panic. But things aren’t going to get any better if we continue to operate from a place of desperation, with cute “butts in seats” marketing ploys and defensive, pandering programming. Everyone needs to take a deep breath, and instead of using that breath to scream at each other, try using it to start TALKING to each other, to ask questions, and take the time to really listen. The way forward is buried in there somewhere, but you have to give it some room to be recognized and heard.

Okay, hopping off my soapbox, going to scramble some eggs. 🙂

Lesley Foley-Executive Director and Dean, NEC Prep and Continuing Education.

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