As I listen to Colin Dabkowski speak with Lorraine O’Donnell on WECK1230 (disclosure: WECK is a partner of my client WNYMedia), more thoughts are running through my head regarding the Collins culture cuts.
This is sort of stream-of-concious, seat-of-my-pants blogging, so bear with me.
This debacle makes it absolutely clear why audience analytics are so important. If you can’t pull out – at the drop of a hat – clear and concise statistics about your audience (where they are, who they are, what they’re spending) then why should you deserve funding? The GBCA (more on them in a sec) has thrown around a “2.5 million” number quite a bit this week, but what the heck is it based on? And 2.5 million who? Where are they from? What percent of that 2.5mil are the “cultural tourists” that Collins is so bent on attracting?
Complaining further about that 2.5million number, that only accounts for GBCA member organizations. And who are those organizations? I certainly have no idea. There’s no website with an easy list. And speaking of the GBCA, who’s in charge? I want a face to go with the acronym. I want someone to seize control of this issue and become the public representative of the arts in the fight.
In the interview I linked to above, Lorraine asked Colin what we should do to show our support or to help the cause. It seems like the only option now is write letters, call Collins’ office, etc. But with no central authority (like the GBCA) giving direction and organizing the cultural community, this situation is fraught.
The Buffalo News reported today that Erie County commissioner Chris Collins is planning to slash funding for culturals in next year’s budget, specifically noting:
[…] his budget would end county dollars for, among others, the Alleyway Theater, the Irish Classical Theatre Company and Shakespeare in Delaware Park, one of the nation’s largest free outdoor Shakespeare festivals. In fact, no theater companies are among Collins’ 10 recipients.
There are few excuses for this action (Jennifer Smith is right to call the cuts “unacceptable” Edit: well, she did call them unacceptable, looks like she’s password-protected the post) but it needs to serve as a cautionary tale for other companies in Buffalo and elsewhere…
These cuts are just the beginning.
Either do a better job of educating the public about the impact your organization has, making a case for the public money (the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance is quoted in the News article to this effect, but doesn’t have a website with stats, numbers, etc.) or change your business model to a self-sufficient one that can separate you from the need for public money.
Any other path will inevitably lead to disaster.
I’ve recently started reading Danny Newman’s seminal “Subscribe Now”, the book that essentially defined the business model for non-profit culturals in the back half of the 20th century. Newman is sort of like a revivalist preacher proclaiming the wonders of “DSP”, aka “Dynamic Subscription Promotion”, advocating loudly and forcefully for the power of subscription in the American cultural.
He has the numbers to justify his excitement for subscription, at one point (I believe in the foreword) it’s noted that he sold several thousand subscriptions for a theatre company that hadn’t even opened its doors yet. Impressive.
But my initial impressions of Newman’s DSP technique (not necessarily of subscription in general, though I’ll get to that) is that it’s nothing surprising or earth-shattering. The stories he’s telling are of companies who had subscription plans (or didn’t) and just had no concept of how to properly promote them. What a surprise then, that when he came in and appropriately marketed for these groups, their subscription sales substantially increased.
He clearly states that the problem was not in the subscriptions, but in the marketing (and administration). And certainly he was proven right. As I mentioned previously, his methods were the most important cornerstone in a theatre’s business model as regional/resident theatres began appearing in the late 50s and 60s.
But is it relevant today? Are subscriptions as important to theatre today as they have been over the past 50 years? According to the TCG’s 2009 Theatre Facts publication (PDF link) subscription sales are at a five year low, and it seems to me that the trend is likely to continue.
Why? The same reasons Newman encountered, I suspect, form the base of the problem. Old patrons who grew up with the resident theatres are aging rapidly, dying, and leaving behind subscriptions. It’s morbid, yes – but I suspect it’s the prime cause of subscription drops. But that generation is giving way to a new generation (mine) which is severely different. The subscription model doesn’t work for “us” because we have different expectations – we are the on-demand generation.
[OOH CLIFFHANGER! I’ll continue the rest at some other point in my life. Stay tuned…]
Does the not-for-profit model subsidize mediocrity in theatre?