In the past decade, the U.S. has undergone rapid changes and experienced tremendous tumult: the devastating impact of the Great Recession, the dangerous acceleration of climate change, meddling in our elections by foreign governments, the rise of a reactionary president who riles up his base via Twitter, the birth of the #MeToo movement.
Many of these shifts—the economic turmoil, the explosive growth of social media, the attention paid to sexual abuse, the dramatic alterations in domestic policy—have also had a tremendous impact on arts organizations. There are other pressing factors as well, from the dwindling of subscriptions at the expense of single-ticket sales to the growth of data analytics.
“Arts and culture are facing pretty serious headwinds,” concedes Zannie Giraud Voss, director of the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University. “More than half of arts organizations in the country have more constrained working capital than they did four years ago, and half of the arts and cultural centers are seeing attendance decline. Arts and cultural organizations are not really well prepared to weather another recession or economic downturn.” On top of that, adds Voss, “There’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen to contributions with changes in the tax laws and the constant cuts in federal funding and changes in consumer preferences.”
Voss suggests that the key to survival is gathering information and understanding what it means and how to best deploy it. “Arming arts and cultural leaders with more facts and knowledge can give their organizations more long-term stability,” she says.
It also means equipping a new generation of arts administrators with these tools. To that end American Theatre convened a virtual round table of leaders from a half-dozen graduate programs around the country to discuss these changing times and what they mean for the future of the field. The participants in the conversation are Jessica Bathurst, interim head of the Performing Arts Management Program at Brooklyn College; Joan Channick, chair of the Theater Management Program at Yale University; Kathryn Heidemann, assistant dean of Heinz College and the College of Fine Arts and director of the Master of Arts Management Program at Carnegie Mellon University; Cameron Jackson, executive director, producing artistic director, and director of the theatre management program at Florida State University; Thomas Karr, head of theatre management graduate studies at Wayne State University; Alex Turrini, chair of the Meadows Division of Arts Management and Arts Entrepreneurship at Southern Methodist University; and the aforementioned Zannie Giraud Voss.
STUART MILLER: How has the field of arts management changed over the past 10 years?
ALEX TURRINI: It is more professionalized—you cannot improvise as a manager any longer! The manager should know more about management techniques and tools than in the past. You have to be faster and faster, coping with all the information available.
ZANNIE Giraud VOSS: There’s a growing interest in and appetite for more knowledge about data and what it can do for the field. It’s not field-wide yet, but we’re trying to build a national culture for data-driven decision-making.
KATHRYN HEIDEMANN: Arts didn’t used to exist in the space of Big Data like our corporate colleagues, but it is being integrated everywhere now. There are now repositories of central data for larger field-wide trends, which we haven’t had before. There are more tools available and more consulting companies, and a lot of it has become less expensive. And the field is getting better at telling the story of what’s behind the data.
CAMERON JACKSON: Social media has become such a big player—the question is, how do you analyze it and mine it for things that might help?
THOMAS KARR: The biggest change is in the technology we use to make our decisions. What I learned in school 20 years ago, in that aspect, is largely obsolete. We have the ability to get deep dives into data and to personalize messaging. It’s so important now; you can forget we didn’t have these tools in the same robust sense even a decade ago. We are able to make smarter decisions. Once we were throwing a really wide net out there and hoping a couple of fish would be caught. Now we’re casting individualized hooks.
JACKSON: Another change is that people want to have a different experience, one that isn’t necessarily as passive, facing in one direction along with everyone else in a dark room, waiting to be entertained.
HEIDEMANN: I’ve never seen as much cross-sector movement within the arts—there’s arts and community development, arts and business, arts and tech. You need to think outside the box. There has also been a lot of cross-pollination and “de-siloing” overall, which informs managerial practices. For instance, there are more collaborations with museums presenting theatre or music or dance. And there’s the “de-siloing” of marketing and development. The ability to collaborate and experiment—and to learn from any mistake—is vital. That willingness to be innovative can build new audiences.
KARR: When I started, marketing had its list, and development had its list, and ne’er the two mixed. There’s still some residue, but we really have seen those barriers come down.
JESSICA BATHURST: One big change is the push for better communication skills and better teamwork—there’s less of a top-down management approach. Another change is the new emphasis on diversity, inclusion, and equity, which is starting to be implemented across the field, though it might be a few years until those programs are fully in place, in terms of hiring and board recruitment and who’s not in the room and who needs to be represented.
Do these changes translate into a difference in what the audience sees, or just how the organizations are run?
BATHURST: In terms of diversity, inclusion, and equity, it will change what you see on the stage, because the people making the decisions will have a broader outlook.
TURRINI: What is changing are not the artistic decisions but the ancillary services, the space in arts venues devoted to different types of experience around the performance, including even those not connected to the show. It’s about delivering an overall experience to the audience.
HEIDEMANN: There are so many ways audience members can develop a relationship with the company; the artistic process is now part of audience consumption before, during, and well after the performance, so the process is no longer mysterious. Artists have warmed up to that.
Joan CHANNICK: As theatres become more participatory and more responsive, we think about our physical spaces and about the audience and how they connect with you. We are thinking much more holistically about the relationship, which is a catalyst for discussions within the communities, as theatres make a real effort to become more central to community.
JACKSON: Part of that engagement in the community has meant that devised theatre has started to be a little less fringe, a little more mainstream.
What tools does someone in arts management need to thrive in this era?
CHANNICK: We are training people to be leaders, so the curriculum is not unlike curriculum in business school, albeit through the lens of theatre—you must be able to plan and execute those plans, and that means you need communication skills and political skills. You need to be flexible and adaptable.
BATHURST: You must have the ability to talk to people, to make a plan, and work together as a team.
KARR: You must be able to adapt, to make decisions based on new information on almost an hourly basis.
VOSS: It’s not that everyone who works in arts and culture should be a data analyst—just like not everyone should be a lighting designer—but even people who are not into doing analysis themselves must know what stories the numbers are telling. That’s how you understand your current situation and make better decisions. It’s not about numbers for numbers’ sake, and you should not base all of your decisions only on data; there are qualitative issues and expertise and intangibles. But data should be an important element that helps you understand what is going on.
HEIDEMANN: You need a passion for the arts and for the mission. You have to love it, but that alone won’t enable you to run an arts organization. Even a phenomenal visionary must at end of day raise money and market programs and balance books. So strong business acumen and quantitative management skills are important tools now. But then emotional intelligence—empathy, asking questions, being humble, being curious—is also critical, especially in leadership. You can have those other skills, but you may not get things done (or even get the job) if you have shortcomings in emotional intelligence.
JACKSON: The umbrella that all these things fit under would be nimbleness—everything is going to change, and once you learn these rules, tomorrow’s rules might be different.
How has your program evolved to keep up with the changing times?
CHANNICK: We’re trying to get away from the old-fashioned anecdotal style of teaching and into something more structured, more disciplined, and more intellectually challenging. War stories are helpful to illustrate a point, but our teaching has become more rigorous. In the last decade we have largely adopted the case-study method of teaching—looking at complex real-life examples as a way to acquire lot of experience in a brief period of time. It’s not passive learning, so you’re not just sitting and listening to lectures. But we found a dearth of cases specifically about the arts and nonprofits, so we have been generating our own case studies—every student here researches and writes their own case study. We now even license these cases to other universities.
VOSS: Data analytics is increasingly part of the curriculum—looking at box-office data and patron data to see how you can better understand your audiences, your pricing, and customer behavior. So increasingly the next generation of arts leaders has these capabilities and is bringing them into arts organizations.
TURRINI: We are focusing attention on reading the data, then making decisions on the basis of evidence you can gather from different sources. Data arts is a major initiative.
KARR: We now have a course on data-driven decision-making for the arts, where students learn how to extract and analyze data. Those tools are also used in the other classes to help them make hard decisions.
HEIDEMANN: We started doing data back when “data” was a bad word. Now we also like them to do cross-disciplinary learning, not just taking theatre classes but also taking, say, one in museum management, to make you think differently. We pay a lot of attention to what our alumni are doing, and we are seeing job titles that we’ve never seen—“visitor experience manager,” or “audience engagement manager.”
JACKSON: What used to be soft skills have also been foregrounded.
BATHURST: We are working with professors to figure out how to be more intentional about it, to emphasize how to collaborate. Sometimes it is using more team projects, sometimes it’s having students working through improvisation—not straight-up acting, but using those techniques to work through role-playing situations.
KARR: I restructured students’ practical work so when they are working on teams, they are now constantly switching out partners. We want them to have that experience of working with somebody new who may have a very different opinion. It has proven to be really powerful. Students say, “I thought I had the answer, but I realized I had an answer.” There are other ways to do things and ours aren’t always the smartest.
JACKSON: We want to improve our understanding, our own blind spots and prejudices, not just in terms of #MeToo and sexual harassment but gender, not being binary, and all these issues you now need a sensitivity to. This is threaded throughout courses, not compartmentalized.
KARR: We are redeveloping curriculum for 2020 with some courses to better serve the students on topics like legal and ethical issues in the arts.
CHANNICK: We’re trying to introduce a greater multiplicity of voices on the faculty—the changing demographics of our field demands that. We have a very diverse student body, but our faculty has been less diverse, so that is one of my big priorities. Some courses now have multiple teachers so students are not just hearing one person’s perspective. We have also built beyond full-semester courses with an extensive array of half-day workshops that can be a single session or series of up to four. These mini-courses allow us to teach subject matter that maybe doesn’t warrant a full semester yet needs to be in the curriculum. It is also a way to bring in lots of additional faculty members to diversify our department.
Since social media is so vital now, has your program adapted to incorporate it into the curriculum?
BATHURST: Social media marks the biggest change in marketing. It didn’t exist not that long ago, then it did exist but was totally free. Now there are things you have to pay for. So in our marketing class we now teach how you maximize it, but also we teach that it is a tool with all the other marketing strategies you have—it’s not a replacement for, it’s an add on to.
HEIDEMANN: I’m learning from our students. It’s interesting to watch how they interact with arts organizations. Social media continues to evolve: Four years ago we talked a lot about Twitter, now we are not talking about Twitter quite as much. Facebook is still relevant, but now it’s Instagram and Snapchat. The trends are constantly changing.
KARR: What social media has allowed us to do is become better listeners—we are getting immediate feedback about our work, so we can make decisions quickly on the fly that we couldn’t before. Our students are also using it as a tool to network among their peers, having conversations with graduate students or young professionals in other states, asking advice when they find people who may be facing the same issues.
JACKSON: These topics absolutely must be part of their education and their experience in hands-on training. It could be looking at building an app for an organization and learning how to keep up with it—the technology itself becomes part of the education. As more things are consumed on the phone, our students must adjust: They might shoot a trailer to promote an upcoming show, because people like that (they relate it to the movies), but they must learn what will look best on the mobile device in their hand rather than on the giant monitors we have when we’re editing it, in terms of colors, cinematography. Arts managers didn’t used to have to worry about things like that.
What about the role data analytics plays in your program and how that is changing?
JACKSON: It has been foregrounded in the marketing classes—it’s not just an add-on. It’s not only a bigger part of marketing but also of community engagement. We teach how you might mine data for free and what more you get if you can pay for it. But the bigger part of it is: Now that you have it, what do you make of it? What does it mean for the show or organization? They need to learn to make it into a tool rather than just a report. You might have a segment of your audience that wants to be marketed to a certain way, so you can really customize it—if there are 500 people and we know how each one would prefer things, then we can group them together to disseminate information and engage with them on their preferred platform.
BATHURST: But we are also making the need for communication of the ideas explicit. Ideally what you want is someone who has as much facility talking to a person as dealing with all that data, but people are going to have their strengths and weaknesses, so you have to emphasize both.
HEIDEMANN: At Carnegie Mellon we always had core courses of statistical methods and advanced data analytics, but what has changed is that we’ve integrated the data more in our marketing and development classes. Still, human interaction is really important. We teach that not only in our negotiation course but by taking students to conferences and networking events and by holding mock interviews and mock solicitations. Today’s students need more guidance about talking to strangers and learning to find common ground in a way that’s authentic. You can’t just send a text and hope people will donate.
CHANNICK: That is a weakness for us. I don’t think we do enough to emphasize quantitative skills and data analytics. We need to be writing more case studies that require data analytics. Our workshops are a good way to test this, and maybe then we will develop something into a full course. We’re not sure yet.
There has been a lot of attention focused on #MeToo, gender identity, and equity, diversity, and inclusion. It has started to change the field. Are you addressing those issues in your program in a way that you weren’t three or four years ago?
BATHURST: These issues do get addressed in the classroom, and we are looking at how organizations can and should handle them, but we are going to have to think about how to have them put more explicitly into the curriculum.
JACKSON: These issues must be inextricably bound in all the things we’re talking about in courses—season selection, marketing, engagement. If we’re doing Taming of the Shrew, is it seen as misogynistic? We’ve had people say you couldn’t do South Pacific because it’s teaching racism. We must prepare for the conversations to start to take place, so you’re not having a reactionary response.
KARR: Students understand the conflicts and the concern, but the marketing person may have a different viewpoint from the artistic side, and they need to learn to say, “There’s going to be backlash if you’re not prepared for it!” The students have to be prepared to address the questions the public is going to have.
CHANNICK: We’ve been trying to raise awareness of and to prevent sexual misconduct more in recent years, to create an environment where it’s reported more often so people know where to go and what kind of help is available. We’ve also been offering bystander intervention training for several years, so people can defuse situations in a low-key way. #MeToo has certainly been a wake-up to our field. Our students feel angry and betrayed by institutions that turn out to be condoning bad behavior. They are determined to do better when they are in charge.
On equity, diversity, and inclusion, we’ve been working for three years to provide training for our students, faculty, and staff, including three lengthy workshops. It’s part of the fundamental training. We are trying to create a truly inclusive environment here. If our students bring these practices out with them, they can influence the field. So we are trying to equip them to create more equitable and safe institutions, and we hope to make our training and our environment here a model.
New York City-based journalist Stuart Miller writes regularly for this magazine.