“Has anyone figured this out?”
So goes a popular conversation starter, often heard when theatre people come together at a conference, informal gathering, or over a spontaneous phone call.
Peer-to-peer learning has always been at the foundation of our field and is one of the key ways Theatre Communications Group fulfills its mission and purpose, with research such as Theatre Facts, conferences, webinars, teleconferences, travel grants, and mentorships. Building a body of knowledge over the decades has helped strengthen our theatre movement, while fostering camaraderie and trust among colleagues. This generous exchange is one of our field’s core strengths, and American Theatre helps disseminate this knowledge through its Strategies column, expanded to a whole issue on “best practices.” It is especially nourishing to hear from behind-the-scenes practitioners whose work is the lifeblood of our theatres. Their commitment to the success of theatre has produced some beautiful philosophies and practices, as well as mastery of new technologies to get the job done well.
At TCG we track nationwide and global trends, and we are contacted frequently—by boards, funders, reporters, and theatre practitioners—for information on who is doing a particular thing exceptionally well. Among the topics raised most often are successful practices toward audience building and engagement, strategies to cultivate inclusive organizational cultures, and new ways of engaging new generations in arts philanthropy. These complex problems defy a single elegant solution and require consistent attention over time.
With respect to audience engagement, support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Wallace Foundation has enabled TCG to codify practices from theatres across the U.S. For some the solution is lower ticket prices, combined with programming that speaks to a wide range of community members. For others it is the careful analysis of data to ensure that audience members who come once return—that their presence is meaningfully acknowledged with further invitations. Some theatres are using technology well, creating content to entice people to learn about the work before the show and stay engaged after.
Still, it is the rare theatre that sees steady growth year after year. Often the reasons for audience stagnation or decline don’t make sense when one looks at the quality of the work, stellar reviews, or the affordability of tickets. Since the beginning of our theatre movement in the 1960s, it has been an ongoing part of our work to observe, test, and implement new ways of keeping the public engaged and participating. The recent study from the National Endowment for the Arts on Public Participation in the Arts sees slight increases in theatre attendance over five years, and the Americans for the Arts study “Americans Speak Out About the Arts in 2018” shows the number of people who say art helps them understand other cultures has grown by 11 percent since 2015.
Another hot topic, which helped shape our 2018 Fall Forum on Governance theme “CultureMakers,” is how boards foster inclusive cultures at all levels of an organization. For many nonprofit boards, governance is equated with money—both the capacity for board members to give and the tendency to center boardroom discussions on financial performance. But while boards are the fiduciaries, with accountability for the fiscal health of their institutions, they also have a duty to uphold the mission. Many theatres name diversity and “serving the diverse community we live in” as core to their missions, but truly inclusive cultures that welcome a range of community members as part of the governance structure are still rare.
As one popular adage goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It can be difficult to disrupt even the most casual group culture without starting afresh, breaking some of the rules and traditions that perpetuate exclusion. Whether it’s board composition, ticket price, or equitable pay, it’s hard to undo ingrained assumptions that are (or are perceived to be) fundamental to an organization’s economic order.
An urgent third item on the playlist: What can be done about changing mindsets around philanthropy, as new generations identify giving priorities? The 2018 CCS Philanthropic Landscape report incorporates data from the U.S. Trust Insights on Wealth and Worth, Chronicle of The Philanthropy’s “Big Charitable Gifts,” et al. It shows arts, culture, and humanities at the lower end of the scale of all forms or philanthropic giving—and at the higher end of sectors receiving single gifts over $1 million. High-net-worth millennials name access and status as more important than did any previous generation of donors, while “expressing personal values/desire to make an impact” ranks lower for them than previous generations. Increasingly, practices that generate large numbers of smaller gifts are what sustain a culture of philanthropic engagement, as witnessed in recent political campaigns, GoFundMe appeals, and Kickstarter projects.
Ultimately the urge to solve problems and disseminate effective practices comes from a belief in the value of our art form, along with our collective responsibility for keeping it healthy and accessible to artists and communities for years to come. Of course, there’s also the desire to relieve some of the day-to-day stress of keeping theatres both vibrant and stable. Either way, thanks to all who help others figure things out. And thank you for sharing!