I wish I knew then…

08.25.10 | 9 Comments

CATEGORIES facts + figures, funding and support, ideas, marketing, producers, theatrical ecosystem

This past weekend at the Chicago Theatre anti-Conference (#ctac, if you feel like swimming up the Twitter stream), erstwhile arts-administrators-turned-funders Christy Uchida, Boeing Chicago’s Community Investor, and Paul Botts, from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation, gave conference attendees the gift of some hard-won insights through a discussion entitled, “If I knew then what I know now.”  They said several deeply groovy and insightful things about arts administration, and I am here to share them with the 2am community.

They each started with three bullet points, which quickly intersected, split and fissioned into a multi-dimensional Venn diagram of funding, administration, management, and premise-checking.

Christy said:

1.)  Leadership matters.

If funders don’t have faith in the abilities of the artistic and managerial leadership of an organization, regardless of the mission, they are not going to fund the company.  Which leads to …

2.)  Infrastructure (meaning a company’s administrative staff) matters.

It can be tempting in a small company to have actors and designers tag-teaming on administrative tasks, but it is important to remember that passion for the mission of the company does not necessarily translate into administrative acumen (although it sometimes does).  If a particular individual within your company is not up to the administrative task before him or her — even though it is awkward, even though it is hard – it is in the enlightened best interest of the company to see if that person can better serve in another way, or to delegate the responsibility elsewhere.  It can be painful to send an artist packing from his or her administrative rounds, but it becomes a question of what is more important: not bruising those feelings or cultivating the company.  In the long run, and often in the short run, it is hurting the company to have an eager, enthusiastic but ill-equipped individual doing the job.

3.)  The context of an organization matters.

Christy asked “Does what we’re doing matter? Is it really distinctive within the community?” She said it is important to get the “30,000 foot view” of the community, to understand where one’s organization fits into that community and to consider whether it is where one wants to be.  Funders will look at this, and therefore so should we as individual artists and arts organizations.

Paul said:

1.)  A lot of what you think you know about fundraising is wrong.

“You’re operating from an old premise if you think an education outreach program is going to get you grants,” Paul said.  He went on to say that funders are now often suspicious of education programs if they suspect that the initiative is being created solely or principally because it will win grant money.  “Hard experience has taught those foundations that this is a big warning sign of organizational sloppiness, lack of focus, or desperation.”  If the program is integral to a company’s mission, that is one thing, but if it feels tacked on with a sticky agenda, it is not likely to serve the company or attract the funding.

Paul reminded us, too, that something on the order of 81% of donations come from individual donors, not from institutional funders, so we might want to tailor our funding strategies accordingly.  While also remembering that strategies and tactics vary for each type of donor, so don’t woo a foundation the way you might an individual giver of large gifts.

He advised reviewing his article on ChicagoArtistResource.org, here.

2.)  Theatre people often accept myths, folklore as truth.

Paul talked about how we have a tendency in the theatre (and I would add, in the world) to do things the way we do them “because that is how we’ve always done them.”  He exhorted us to get data.  “Is your marketing strategy working? What part? What works? How do we know?”  Jeremy Wechsler chimed in with an anecdote about sampling his way through the components of his marketing strategy, dropping one element for one show, dropping a second one another time around, as a way to explore what was effective and what was simply expensive.  He learned that “a [Chicago] Tribune display ad gets you no more results than one little box ad.” That mighty little box ad is a whole lot cheaper than the display ad, but it is received wisdom that we need the display ad, because … because … because … wait, why is that again?

3.)  Open your eyes.

This felt like an important corollary to item #2 on Paul’s list: challenge your received ideas and cultivate a clear understanding of your organization’s strengths and weaknesses.  Review the way you market, manage, lead, and rehearse “with polite skepticism,” Paul said.  I particularly like the polite part, but the idea of checking one’s premises and thoughtfully checking the premises of one’s collaborators, partners and organization seems like a very good idea.  One might come back to doing some aspects of the work in the same way, but at a minimum, one is likely to gain a richer understanding, perhaps some nuanced revisions to approach.  And it is just possible that logic-based, fact-based reexamination will yield surprisingly effective new ideas.

Again, Jeremy Wechsler provided an example: Theatre Wit conducted a cost-benefit analysis on maintaining costumes, props, set pieces in storage for later use vs. building / shopping afresh and discovered that for them, it would be much less expensive to stop paying to store materials on the off chance that they would use them again in a few seasons.  So now they don’t.  When a show closes, everything goes (to charity, to whomever wants it, to the curb), and they save enough money to fill a small wheelbarrow (which they don’t have because they don’t store props anymore).  They save money by building and shopping anew.  I wondered about the environmental impact of this strategy, but that’s my issue, not necessarily Theatre Wit’s:  they may well post on craigslist or freecycle so that their discards can be reclaimed.

As an Artistic or Managing Director, Paul and Christy agreed, it is your responsibility to educate your Board about truth versus mythologies within our industry because the Board is not generally comprised of theatre practitioners, and may be even more susceptible to theatrical folk wisdom.

Finally, Paul put in a word for the Cultural Data Project, a “groundbreaking project [that] gathers reliable, longitudinal data” for the arts.  It is also his baby.  In keeping with Paul’s exhortation to ‘”get data”, the CDP will help arts organizations do just that.  “Surveys are a mushy basis for decision making,” he said, and the CDP will give theatres a lift in attaining that 30,000 foot view.

I am grateful to Christy and Paul for making the time to share their insights with those of us at CT(a)C over the weekend as well as for their demonstrated devotion to the theatrical community; I hope that the 2am community finds their thoughts helpful / useful / inspiring as well.

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Kate Powers

Shakespeare girl, teller of good stories, fan of social justice, prison reform, mindfulness and all that is righteous on E Street

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  • Amazing recap Kate. Thank you.

  • I wish I ran a theater company. You would have just made me a smarter administrator.

  • Anonymous

    Love this. I wasn’t able to be there for this session so, thank you, Kate, for posting a recap. Polite Skepticism. That’s perfect.

  • Anonymous

    To get rid of things, we’re posting a note to the local theatre community (email, facebook, twitter) about what platforms, set pieces, costume items, etc. are available. They need to come pick them up on the morning of strike (first furniture/costumes, then set). If they want platforms, they have to extract them from the set before our strike crew arrives at 11am. The last show, we tried to reserve items for folks, but it was too complicated, so I think we’re going to move to first-come, first-served where people can show up at the theater, sign up for the items they want and then cart them away.

    We then make remaining furniture pieces/useful props available on craigs list for three days. Remaining Props/Costumes go to Goodwill/Salvation Army/etc. or are junked.

    I did try freecycle, but was told that only individuals can post, so didn’t use them. It is possible that they have changed this rule from a few years ago, so I will try them again.

    The obvious goal is to give away everything, and I also considered the landfill issue. What I found however, was that we were just delaying the landfill because we would periodically fill up our storage space, then spend an extra $800 cleaning it out and throwing it all away and then starting the process again.

  • Keith Beck

    Ditto Kate Great Recap!! although I am not a fan of don’t request the company members to do things …

    “It can be painful to send an artist packing from his or her administrative rounds, but it becomes a question of what is more important: not bruising those feelings or cultivating the company.”

    Bruise the ego and full speed ahead! all hands on deck or you may find yourself tossed overboard just when the company is hitting a big wave.

  • Anonymous

    That’s great to hear, Jeremy; I appreciate your efforts to find homes for the discards, and was impressed over and over again during the conference by your way of thinking, your insights and your theatre business acumen.

  • Anonymous

    I didn’t mean to suggest ‘don’t ask company members to help’, Keith; the idea is to make sure that they have the skills to do the task (and also the will). For instance, an artist might get staffed into, say, marketing, express enthusiasm for it, but be too timid to pursue opportunities in that realm. Even though we love the artist and he’s very talented, he stinks at marketing. So, yes, boot him gently, kindly out of marketing, and find something else for him to do while you find someone who is a better fit for the endeavor.

  • Keith Beck

    Kate I agree with the “boot him” but often I find many people (not just artists) hiding behind the perspective of if I say I can’t do this or that someone else will do it. Those people work on my last nerve. So sometimes myself or members of the team could do a fantastic job at marketing but I need them taking on fundraising or negotiating space. Does it mean I will have a less then perfect marketing campaign but often the person that was once a weak marketer the first time around learns how it works and does way better then second time. I could boot absolutely but I would like to think he or she can learn something new and provide value added to the purpose.

  • Anonymous

    I wish you ran a theatre company, too!