Category Archives: innovation

Is it Sustainable? Volunteers in arts and culture

An off-the-cuff remark during the recent SPARC Network Summit, was captured by Chad Ingram of the Minden Times:

“The idea that we’re all volunteer-run [in rural communities] . . . is that sustainable?” [Inga] Petri asked, pointing out that the arts is one of very few industries where people are expected to donate much of their time. “We would never imagine mining to work that way. We would never imagine forestry to work that way.” [Or fisheries for that matter: all industries that are also often located in rural or remote locations in the country.]

So why do we not need to have volunteers running mining companies, like they run community-based arts presenting organizations in many regions of Canada? Why do forestry companies not call for volunteers to support their operations or sales teams, as many arts organizations do? Why such a dearth of volunteers in integral oversight roles in fisheries or construction industries?

Don’t worry. I get it. The performing arts is a sector where labour productivity can’t so easily be increased (that Beethoven symphony requires the same number of musicians today as it did when it premiered), unlike what has been achieved in those other industries through automation and machinery with ever greater capacity requiring ever fewer people. Yet, at the same time labour costs in the arts have to keep pace with inflation and cost of living for artists and administrators (well, that isn’t always the case, but still costs have risen while productivity has not). One response to what has been called Baumol’s Cost Disease means that it is hard to imagine the arts and culture sector existing to the degree it does in Canada without massive volunteer involvement.

Volunteerism – doing useful things in an organized way without pay to make others’ and our own lives better – is a great attribute of being part of a vibrant community.  Yet, especially in smaller communities in Canada, worries about attracting, training and retaining  volunteers are common. People burn out from the demands of volunteering in the arts,  volunteering at the local hospital and any number of charitable and not-for-profit organizations.

We collected pertinent information underscoring the importance of volunteering – and inferred the great importance it signifies in terms of the arts for Canadians – in the Value of Presenting study (links to PDF):

“(…) Canadians who volunteer in the arts and culture sector gave on average more time (127 hours per year) than those in any other sector in 2010. This represents an increase of 21% since 2007, the largest increase of any sector examined at a time when 6 out of 12 sectors registered a decline. (…) When considered in terms of total hours, the amount of volunteer time equates to about 100 million hours. That is equivalent to more than 50,000 full-time jobs.

(…) in the Survey of Performing Arts Presenters … [more than] half of survey participants report more volunteers than staff. The average ratio of volunteers is 17 for each paid staff member. (…)

The profound reliance on volunteers is even more evident among presenters of entire programming seasons in small communities under 5,000 people. They are less likely to have any staff and instead tend to be entirely volunteer run. These rural organizations rely on a day-to-day volunteer complement of an average of 36, with half reporting the use of 12 or fewer volunteers and half reporting more than 12. This increases to an average of 167 during the height of their operations.

I wonder whether this reliance on volunteers is sustainable. And whether it is sufficient to off-set the cost disease that has been diagnosed. And whether it is makes sense and is fair that so many functions (we can look at them as potential full-time jobs) are filled by unpaid labour?

To be clear, arts organizations have also undertaken other strategies to alleviate the inevitable pressures, including:

  • Higher ticket prices
  • Advocacy for greater public support
  • Increase in private, corporate donations
  • Renegotiating union contracts to reign in costs

While they do not address the underlying structure of the sector, each of these strategies has bought time for many organizations, even if not all in Canada, by generating needed income.

So, where do we go from here?

Well, one place I will go is to the CAPACOA conference in Halifax, where I will discuss Digitizing the Performing Arts and explore whether that could be “the holy grail” to shifting the performing arts presenting sector’s structure toward a new model that suffers less from this dynamic.

SPARC – Supporting performing arts in rural communities

The successful SPARC – Symposium for Performing Arts in Rural Communities held in Haliburton, Ontario in April 2014 led to the desire to establish a network of people and organizations to strengthen performing arts in rural communities. The resulting SPARC Network Summit was held in November 2014.

To meet the Steering Committee’s ambitious goals its members focused on creating the conditions in which all participants could explore, discover and define the next action steps in creating a new kind of network.

1. The co-facilitators

SPARC engaged two expert facilitators:

  • Myself, because I know the performing arts nationally, I spoke at the first SPARC Symposium and am well-versed in design and delivery of complex facilitation requirements.
  • Jim Blake, an experienced facilitator, artist and community development consultant who has been involved in SPARC since its inception as a member of its Steering Committee.

2. Pre-summit package

We developed a pre-summit package for participants that provided a short history of SPARC and its proposed vision. I contributed a concise historic overview of performing arts in Canada; an overview of existing networks in the performing arts, their typical services and activities ;and information about four major organizational models and online platforms. SPARC shared results from two surveys related to forming a rural network and its potential activities. To help participants prepare, we shared key questions for the Summit. (Download the package here: PRESUMMIT PACKAGE_Oct28)

3. Active recruitment of participants

Recruitment communications made clear that participants would be prepared to think about all the facets of creating a network, from the big picture needs to operational priorities. Happily, most of the about 25 Summit participants had attended the Symposium and carried over the great energy from that content-rich 4-day conversation into this Network Summit.

4. Designing the Summit

Emma Lovell was the Summit's graphic recorder.

Emma Lovell was the Summit’s graphic recorder.

Jim and I designed these two and a half days of conversations using a design thinking approach that opened opportunities for exploration and creativity, analysis and synthesis, convergent and divergent thinking. There was no pre-defined destination, no right answers, but rather a general goal – strengthening the performing arts in rural communities – and deliberative processes that ensured all participants had a voice and used it.

Friday evening was devoted to rekindling connections from the April Symposium and introducing those who were new to SPARC through conversation and sharing food.

Saturday was devoted to exploration: The facilitators led participants through a series of working sessions designed to explore important questions about issues participants faced that held them back in realizing their visions in their work, what kinds of gaps currently existed, what SPARC as a network might do in response, how it might operate, who it would be for, how the network could be activated as a valued resource, what participants could contribute to a rural network and what they needed from it.SPARC Graphic recording

Through a series of structured and unstructured work in pairs and small groups participants explored, discussed and debated these questions and arrived at identifying existing gaps and key opportunities for SPARC moving forward.

This was followed by dinner conversations and sleep. Well, some also had a great time at a Harry Manx concert.

Sunday was devoted to decision-making and next steps: The co-facilitators presented outcomes from Saturday’s exploratory work for validation and feedback. Through plenary conversation and another round of small group discussion, participants came to agreement on several key decisions to move the SPARC network forward.

5. Outcomes

There was consensus to:20141116_111854

  • adopt a focused range of activities that fill existing gaps in a rural context and is centred on a well-curated online information portal and interactive tools to connect people
  • convene three working groups: 1. Online Communications; 2. Outreach and Partnerships; 3. next SPARC Symposium

Organizationally, the consensus was to:

  • keep SPARC agile, open and responsive by keeping its current structure as a collaborative partnership and build out its foundations through expanding partnerships. As a collaborative SPARC does not exist as a separate legal entity, but rather uses its partners to provide the requisite financial management, office space and infrastructure, knowledge and people.
  • keep the Network’s focus on Ontario, while sharing developments with other rural regions/networks with the intention that SPARC could become a model for a  national rural network to connect hubs across Canada.

Current implementation activities include:

  • finalizing terms of reference for the working groups
  • presenting a session at the Canadian Arts Presenting Association’s (CAPACOA) national conference in Halifax in January 2015.
  • publishing an interactive report of outcomes using the various modes of recording the proceedings (video, a graphic recorder, many flip charts and worksheets) in early 2015.
  • investigating funding for a series of regional working sessions/consultations across rural Ontario in 2015-2016.

Leadership matters: Reflecting on the Yukon Arts Summit

My mind keeps returning to the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit. I had the rare benefit of debriefing with Michele Emslie, Summit organizer and Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre, over a few days and assisting in reviewing the personal and group action plans to which participants committed.

I am struck by the leadership capabilities that underpinned the success of the summit; qualities that go beyond being adaptable or seeking to be relevant to stakeholders.

Design thinking applied

Rather than define and solve a specific problem, the organizers held themselves to a different standard based on a broad goal: strengthening the Yukon arts presenting eco-system. Making such a broad goal central meant that much effort was spent on creating the conditions in which participants could discover and define the actions that were important to them. At heart of this design thinking approach lies understanding that a combination of empathy, creativity, analysis and synthesis as well as having explicit spaces for convergent and divergent thinking are essential. In short, by taking this approach, organizers succeeded in creating a space in which a diverse group of participants could learn, reflect, be inspired, meet and talk together and arrive in new places together.

Co-creating an intentional journey

There was no pre-defined destination, no agenda in terms of specific outcomes, no boxes to check off, no need for linear progression. Rather, there was an invitation to join together on a journey of discovering common ground and action priorities.

The organizers were focused on empowering participants from the start, knowing that the summit is its participants. They asked potential participants to co-create the content through soliciting feedback on hot topics and burning issues. 60 responses came in! Organizers listened carefully and found five key themes to address. An important  effect of this open, listening approach was that the tone of the summit, its ownership was already in the hands of participants well before they could even register for it.

Deep respect and trust in each person’s wisdom

The organizers showed a deep, easy respect for each person and their knowledge and experience. This was apparent in every facet, including activities like:

  • The Friday morning networking exercise using a photo, paper and markers to answer four questions: who are you/ what do you do, what is your hope for the future, what can you contribute to the summit, what do you need from it.
  • A gift exchange: each participant was asked to bring a gift that represents something about them, their work or their community (using their imagination rather than pocket book). These gifts were randomly distributed at lunch and then everyone read the brief note that was attached by the giver and talked about what significance this gift held to them. There were all kinds of wondrous giver-receiver match ups and the exchange made for a profound sense of connection and some fun. 100+ people managed to share in plenary over lunch while staying on schedule for the entire conference.
  • Each day’s opening reflections, ranging from an elder’s prayer to Haiku to Gramma Susie.

Wisdom comes from many places and, in particular, the spaces in between.

Action-oriented

The summit schedule was action-packed, not because of featuring talking heads or experts, but because of its focus on facilitation, conversation, meeting and thinking together, and action planning. (As a speaker, I felt I was well briefed heading into the summit!) As a result this summit produced several big ideas and actions through collaboration, rather than consensus. Perhaps most important, it resulted in the ownership of these ideas residing within the community itself, owned by various champions and those who gathered around these big ideas. Conference organizers didn’t get a long task list back, but rather received a strong mandate to remain stewards of the process, facilitate the next steps and to continue leading by encouraging leadership from within the arts community.

Using Open Space methods, participants pitched these initiatives for discussion.

Using Open Space methods, participants pitched various initiatives for discussion and to see which ones were strong enough to warrant concerted action.

A network = An action community

I believe we are seeing a profoundly different kind of arts presenters network emerge in Yukon. Not one that becomes a membership-based service model over time and that might suffer the eventual difficulties that have become so well documented for many membership-based associations; but a living, breathing, creative community that gathers around common actions (which require a just large enough group to be interested in working together), that is highly responsive to emerging and changing needs, and that delegates authority to all participants while benefiting from unhurried and effective stewardship provided by the Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre (YAC). Finally, YAC is ideally positioned for this role as it is a territorially created arts centre whose mandate includes strengthening arts as an important cultural, social and economic force in the Yukon Territory as a whole.

This close-knit, open network grounded in shared leadership and personal commitments, will show us how big ideas can be realized through concerted actions – unfettered from needing to establish narrow service priorities or delegating authority to a few (like a board of directors) – and thus able to grow and shift as the situation warrants.

Northern arts has some great leaders

What’s Up Yukon published this pre-Summit profile on Michele Emslie, Yukon Arts Presenters Summit organizer and Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre. It’s great to see colleagues and friends acknowledged for their work, in this case over 25 years, and clear vision for their community.

Also fun is this line: “conference will include presentations by several heavy hitters in the Canadian arts and culture sector.” That one appears to refer to me and my fellow Canadian presenters who were invited to speak at the summit. I’m not sure exactly how one becomes a heavy hitter, but I for one do do a lot of talking about realizing a vision of “vibrant communities fueled by the performing arts and its community-engaged partnerships” that has grown out of the Value of Presenting study, and train more and more on contemporary marketing, research and more.

What’s the matter with numbers?

With thanks to CAPACOA for commissioning my response to the Culture Shock debate entitled  “Hard Facts VS. Proverbial Truths: The Impact of Arts & Culture on Canadian Citizens & Communities” held on November 20, 2014 at the Community Knowledge Exchange Summit.  Moderated by Canada Council for the Arts CEO Simon Brault you can watch the archived livestream here

Billed as #CultureShock, Alain Dubuc, a journalist and economist, and Shawn van Sluys, who heads up a philanthropic foundation that works to make the arts more central to our lives, debated whether “For arts and culture to be fully valued by society, their impact must be demonstrated with hard facts” or whether proverbial truth are sufficient.

The case for telling the stories of transformation and understanding through art was made eloquently. Yet, I was more struck by the economist’s assertion that hard facts are “the best way” rather than “the only way” to ensure we fully value arts and culture.

This debate brought to my mind Daniel Kahneman’s observation in Thinking, Fast and Slow  that humans  have a propensity to believe that “what you see is all there is.”  He cautions us that we can easily miss important parts of a situation because there may be more going on than meets the eye.

And that reminded me of the old adage that what we count is what matters.  By inference that suggests that we actually count what truly matters, and that those things left uncounted do not matter.  In the arts much of what gets counted are ticket sales or attendance as a percentage of capacity. Until recently, little attention has been paid to collecting the stories, let alone data points, of impact and benefits of the arts. In my view, just because some things are (relatively) easy to measure, like attendance or GDP or employment figures, that does not mean that they tell the whole story – or the most important parts of the story. Conversely, just because some things are harder to measure that doesn’t necessarily make them any less important or, for that matter, immeasurable.

Indeed, I think we gain the deepest insights through a purposeful combination of numbers and stories. For numbers are not meaningful by themselves. Numbers require context and an understanding of the intrinsic dynamics at play. In my work as a researcher and strategist, my task is not merely to produce tables and analysis, but to interpret findings and create meaning. It is this highly creative process of meaning creation and collaboration with all the decision-makers that can lead to new insight. And in creating meaning we bring the numbers to life through examples: the stories.

Some in the arts do not wish to speak the language of numbers which they equate with the language of business. From my experience working with corporations I know that yes, numbers are important, but many invest heavily in innovation and creativity in order to solve significant problems and improve quality of life through new products and services. The divide is not so great. Rather, we may well be just lacking translators or mediators; people who are proficient in both languages and who can help us understand each other better.

Watch the debate. 

Marketing Trends: New Media as The Media

Marketing has changed irrevocably over the last 10 to 15 years. While the harbingers of consumer power were evident in the late 1990s, with the advent of the Internet and mobile and then smart phones, the changes have now solidified and they continue to accelerate.

The web is no longer a new media. The body of knowledge and practice of integrated marketing has grown up.

Integration of websites with social networks and mobile apps

Youtube was launched in 2005, Facebook and Twitter came into the public view in 2006. Barely approaching a decade old they have an unprecedented reach ranging from 500 million to 1+ billion users.

Recently, smart phones with touch screens, tablets and e-readers with web access have become ubiquitous.

Great websites have evolved from early “brochure-sites”, UseNet groups and List Serves to well functioning hubs of branded transactions with considerable social media integration and mobile connectivity.

Seemingly limitless access to information, easy consumption of entertainment, and creation and sharing of content and experiences have transformed how we behave, what we expect and what we want.

Contemporary marketing more than ever is about compelling stories, co-creating meaning, and making research and purchases easy and immediate. The increasing integration of services like Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and many more – with both desktops and mobile devices and within websites – creates new dynamics between organizations and their customers.

Today, website pages can be shared with a push of a button to a user’s social media universe. They can be used to amplify a use’s own brand and they can be used to ridicule or support an organization or a product. It can raise awareness, start conversations or elicit sales through these wider social networks. Similarly, organizations are cross-linking their web sites and social media presence to provide a seamless user experience, going where users are.

Do-it-yourself

Websites used to be expensive custom installations, with the best requiring substantial user research and expert programmers.

Today, WordPress and similar services have become robust DIY web tools that work well, have extensive plug-in options for customization and keep costs low.

Many of these off-the-shelf options also have an embedded option to create a mobile-friendly version of a websites. This is important as more and more users visit websites using their mobile devices and their much smaller screens.

Mobile applications

The ‘appification’ of the online experience has advanced rapidly in the last five years to the point, where man of us retain little awareness that apps use online content, i.e. content that resides on a server elsewhere. The best apps are content and feature rich, while super simply to use.

Festivals have embraced them to deliver a variety of information and on-site experiences. Here again, there is a build it once and sell it many times philosophy, enabling affordable, ready-made solutions to almost any size event.

Today, apps live on non-standard operating systems, i.e. apps are developed for the various platforms of smart phones. That means, if resources require development for just one platform, considerable thought has to go into who the target market is and the dominant platforms in use.

The power of accessing rich content through tiny devices that one carries everywhere creates a brand new dynamic of relationship to and expectation of brands.

New marketing mind set in performing arts

Here are three vital elements to performing arts marketing and by extension a thriving arts scene:

1. Arts and cultural research has confirmed time and again that the performing arts sector is not a zero-sum field. Rather, Canadians become ever more likely to attend based on prior attendance at cultural events and performances. These behaviours are strong predictors of attendance while basic demographic factors are much weaker. That means, competition in the performing arts is not other performing arts organizations but rather all the other ways people spent their leisure and entertainment funds. Community-wide, true partnerships should become the rule not the exception in the performing arts.

2. I have a growing body of work that recognizes that performing arts are not only a show on a stage, but that all surrounding aspects contribute to the audience experience either positively or negatively. It is about full experience design.

This graphic represents key elements of the audience’s arts experience that can and should be fully designed. All have the power to make or break the audience experience, put up barriers to it or enhance it.

It means applying end-to-end design thinking including all the ways in which audience members can amplify the arts organization’s message and reach among their own networks.

Pricing and packaging are aspects that are often taken for granted due to a persistent belief that the arts do not suffer from sticker shock; that if someone really wants to see a show they make it happen. Well, price elasticity is real in the arts, too. The higher the price the fewer people will consider attending. Therefore, considerations should be given to how to price shows that are not expected to sell out at a given price point or that are not selling out despite seemingly well-founded expectations of that. Each of these aspects merits full consideration in your planning and in your evaluations afterwards.

3. Another important idea is that marketing materials are designed for specific purposes to address where a member of the target audience is at in the purchase decision process. Arts marketers need to use the full array of tools in research and evaluation to see how their marketing programs are creating the desired response or not.

An arts marketer’s job is not merely to sell the workhorses of the performing arts – anything by Beethoven and Mozart, Nutcracker and Swan Lake, Shakespeare –  but indeed to lead larger and larger audiences to contemporary, current live professional performing arts experiences that they don’t already know.

To do this requires the integrated use of contemporary marketing strategies and tactics. It is about compelling storytelling, co-creating meaning, and making research on events and purchase of tickets easy and immediate. The increasing integration of services like Youtube, Facebook, Twitter with both desktops and mobile devices and within websites creates new dynamics between organizations and their audiences. this is a good thing.

Today, website pages can be shared with a push of a single button to a user’s social media universe and it can raise awareness, start conversations or solicit sales through their social networks. Similarly, organizations are cross-linking their web sites and social media presence to provide a seamless user experience, going where users are.

This mind-set approach makes clear that an organization’s brand is more than a logo applied consistently. It is how it behaves and interacts with current and potential customers. Or perhaps it reaches even further: it is an entire eco-system’s way of being and interacting in the world – and how the sector (and the communities it inhabits) thrives will depend on this concerted action.