Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Making Them Ours: An Approach to Arts Advocacy

Today I received an email from Richard Simon, artistic director of the Mosaic Theatre, passing on an article about the soon to come drastic budget cuts in Broward County. Richard didn't say anything in his email, just passed on the bad news.

And it is bad news. I'm unsure why the commission is dead-set on not raising taxes, considering all the losses from the cuts so far.

I'm hoping that this bad news will be used as a rallying cry -- similar to how the Miami-Dade Arts Community rallied in support of the arts last year. These calls to action are important and vital to the continued support of the arts everywhere.

But I think that arts advocates need to think more broadly, more deeply. Instead of waiting to show how relevant, how vital we are to the communities we serve when we're in danger of cuts, we need to be doing this all the time.

At the Unitarian Universalist Florida District Assembly, Gini Courter, the Unitarian Universalist Moderator told a story about a congregation who had an influx of GBLT members after supporting GLBT rights at a protest. This congregation rented out their building to another faith community, and someone who was visiting the visiting faith community left homophobic material. This caused a major rift in the congregation -- even though this material was not sanctioned by the congregation, or the visiting faith community. Many people left the congregation -- and as Gini said, they left "because we didn't make them ours." (Her whole presentation is on YouTube. I highly recommend it.) The congregation didn't do enough to fully engage them in what it means to be a part of the congregation and make them feel completely welcome.

And as artists and as arts leaders, we need to think about how do we "make them ours." How do we make sure that we are vital centers of the community? What are we doing to make our communities a better place? How do we enrich the places where we serve? Not only should we find those stories and tell them to our commissioners, but we need to make the commissioners ours. We need to make the communities in which we live ours.

I think the question we need to ask always (and if we have a good answer, shout it to the rooftops) is: "if this theatre were to go away today, how would the community suffer?"

If you have made the community yours, then it would be a great loss. If not, then aren't we just engaging in vanity theatre?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Embracing the Larger Conversation

Over at Mission Paradox, there's a few weeks old post on the wasted power of social media. The basic sentiment of the short post is "Social media are tools for conversation, NOT SELLING."

I cannot tell you how many arts marketing workshops I've been to where professionals are encouraged to get on twitter, facebook, foursquare and the like without having the mindset on how to properly use these tools. Many theatres that I love are tweeting "BUY TICKETS NOW" as if twitter and facebook were simply advertising space.

Social media is about having a larger conversation. For arts organizations, it is more about showing our true relevance to the larger world than it is about butts in seats.

And given the precarious position arts funding is, particularly in the state of Florida, engaging in the larger discussion to prove our relevance to the larger community has never been more important.

Arts organizations could learn a lot from Unitarian Universalists. For example, on twitter, I've had insightful conversations with Melanie of TapestryUU, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Mission Viejo, CA. If she was using twitter simply as a way to advertise her congregation, I would not be a part of her target market. There's a slim chance that I'll ever get to visit, much less join her congregation. But we're had conversations about the importance and relevance of our greater religious movement. There are active social media ministries that I'm proud to be engaging with.

Another conversation that I'm excited to be listening to is the reaction of the Chicago Theatre Community to Mike Daisey's production of How Theatre Failed America at Victory Gardens Theater. While I can't participate in the conversations that are happening in person, I get to read about them on blogs, facebook, and twitter. If Daisey's point is to start a national conversation on the state of regional theatre (and I think it is one of his goals), then social media has done a great job of keeping those outside of Chicago in the loop (pun intended). These are difficult, fascinating conversations that need to be had, and I'm thankful for the theatres that are engaging. Its a lot more terrifying to use social media to engage in difficult conversations than it is to simply direct market.

But its necessary for art organizations to engage in difficult conversations. We need to treat the larger community as more than simply potential ticket buyers. As non-profit leaders, we need to return to our missions and remember why most of us got involved in this crazy art form anyway: we wanted to change the world. Social media is another way to engage in the larger world, another way we can participate in the greater cause.