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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Spektrix

At Spektrix’s annual conference Vikki Heywood explored the mindsets and mythologies that influence the performing arts today.


'The Bubble Man' Garry Knight (CC BY 2.0)

First, some disclaimers. I refer to ‘you’ but really I think of myself as belonging to a ‘we’. Second, I am quoting many views as if they are my own, but I am a cypher for others. Third, the views I express are not necessarily those of the RSA.

So it might be helpful if we all explode some closely held but outdated mindsets and mythologies and walk away from this conference feeling like they are over.

1. The performing arts are fundamentally a left wing, anarchic, elitist and exclusive club.

These are some common thoughts:

  • The club only wants audiences and artists that share the same ideology and won’t challenge other members.
  • The club is dominated by people from the same middle class, predominantly white background.
  • Arts organisations are fundamentally anti-establishmentarians and get pleasure out of being anti everything.

Similar views are repeated frequently, for example, by former Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey just recently at the RSA and it is the subtext to many conversations about the performing arts. So what’s the beef?

If you look like a club and behave like a club, chances are that you are a club

It’s true arts organisations have not welcomed each new next secretary of state at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) with a rousing cheer – or taken them to their hearts – but this is true of secretaries of state of all political persuasions. And there are many artists and arts leaders who have criticised governments – of all colours – and supported both parties at election time.

It is equally true that arts organisations and artists are remarkable tardy at thanking governments when they do good, although there has been significant improvement in this over the past few years.

But the accusation is that arts programming is fundamentally left wing. Is this in fact true? Since Ed Vaizey’s speech at the RSA I have concluded that it requires some serious consideration. It’s not reasonable to simply sit back and deny it or blame the artists or indeed the audiences. You hold a mirror up to all the world, not just shining a light on the folks you don’t like in order to amuse those you actually like.

But then again liberalism, the humanities and the creative environment tends to move you away from embracing what might traditionally be seen as more centrist or indeed right wing values. But what exactly is a “right wing” play anyway?

Munira Murza says it would support fox hunting, but it’s an activity supported by people from both the left and right. I don’t think ‘The Queen’ or ‘Matilda’ would be seen as left wing. And indeed opposites attract. Bankers flocked to Caryl Churchill’s ‘Serious Money’ while Mormons love ‘The Book of Mormon’. It’s complicated.

And that in itself begs a question: Why don’t right wing audience members want right wing theatre? And it gets a whole lot more complicated when you think about trying to actively manipulate the political beliefs of your audiences.

I knew my audience at the RSC and at the Royal Court very well. Were they libertarians? Yes, but exclusively left wing? Absolutely not. And out of my six chairman, three were Tory and three were Labour. Did it matter or make a difference? Not one bit. And when I think about my staff, the board and the development board – exclusively left wing? No way. So it’s hardly an exclusive club.

And in truth this is because when it comes to arts policy and practice (neatly side-stepping educational policy), there really isn’t that much between the left and the right.

So if those who run the arts organisations, work in them, support and watch them are not politically exclusive, what is the beef?

Ed Vaizey has a hard kick to the legs. “Everyone in the arts community reinforces each other’s thinking and cold-shoulders people with different points of view.”

You do have to consider why this view is so widely held. There are sections of society which feel excluded from your work and this is both a big and small ‘P’ political point. Imagine this being reversed and coming as an accusation from the left. You  know your audiences and your organisations do not reflect the make-up of society in many ways – and this ‘left wing’ thing is another slice of the pie.

I suspect it relates to your other audience challenges of class and race. If you look like a club and behave like a club, chances are that you are a club. So if you want to be a ‘broad church’ as an organisation (not all do, not all should), you have to challenge the status quo of your programming, your commissioning and the make-up of your board, staff and audiences.

The arts do not thrive in an exclusive ideological bubble. And if that isn’t true, prove it.

2. Our programmes are created for our audiences – not because they want it but because I want to make it and they need to watch it.

These thoughts no doubt sound familiar:

  • Popularity is a happy bi-product of creativity – not a deliberate act. If we programme our work according to what our audiences want, we will be dumbed down in an instant.
  • Creative people are driven by a need to create a work of art. The minute you pressure them to deliver success they will lose the essence of their creative spirit and their inner voice will die.
  • It is not reasonable or acceptable to approach creativity in any other way than with absolute freedom of the will of the artist.

Who said this stuff was going to be easy? I don’t think there are many arts organisations that exist without some people inside and some people outside this bubble. It is the tension between the board and the artistic director, the artist director and the executive, the literary department and marketing, the writer of the next show and the development department, the director and the box office.

In the past I have been told that a decision about putting on a play cannot be made with me in the room lest I debase the purity of the thinking

The desire to form the bubble comes from a belief which grew in the 1960s and 1970s and solidified in the 1980s – that there are a group of ‘good’ people who strive for purity of thought and deed who make art. And a group of ‘bad’ people (or let’s say those who are regrettably necessary) who promote it and raise the money.

And the bubble is formed so that those who sell it can’t be allowed to influence (infect the minds) of those who make it. I have been told that a decision about putting on a play cannot be made with me in the room lest I debase the purity of the thinking. I have been told that the rise of development, marketing and sales departments, PR and data analysis is a curse and a waste of money. It was all so much better in the olden days before all this new-fangled stuff came along.

How many creative decisions are openly made with the box office or the audience for it specifically in mind apart from the Christmas show? How many of you analyse the data you have in order to influence programming decisions before you make them, rather than using them to deliver an audience for a decision you have already made? How many of you have programming focus groups made up of your audiences? What terrible thing would happen if you all did?

Here’s an interesting example. You have always understood that new work is harder to sell, yet audiences tell you they actually prefer to see new stuff. But you know there is a risk in new work as you’ve seen the sales figures. So what’s the real issue?

You can count on one hand the actors, writers and directors that guarantee sales – and they are always busy. So what is the magic mixture that makes a smasher? I described ‘Hamilton’ to my then 22-year-old son just after it opened in New York. “It’s very new, it’s fresh, it’s so risky and exciting – and it’s a smash hit – it’s rap, it’s black and it’s about a guy no one has heard of because he didn’t become president, performed by people no one has heard of. It’s incredible that it’s such a hit!”

And he replied: “What’s so incredible really? It’s in rap, an extremely popular form of music, it’s about the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers, so mass brand awareness and interest there. It’s in a musical form so really accessible and popular and it directly appeals to a very broad range of audience from both black and white communities. So what’s so risky about that?”

A degree of tension, and mutual respect on all sides, is healthy and it’s real and important. But there is one thing that should not be tolerated: the existence of a bubble of exclusivity with some folks in it and some outside it.

3. We market our work in a range of ways, both traditional and digital. We capture data when we can and we upsell to our audiences. We simply can’t offer them anything more than we already do in exchange without going bust.

The only problem with this is that you are spending far too much time in a bubble of self-satisfaction and circularity. I have spoken to people who are frustrated at the lack of imagination in arts organisations on how to sell their wonderful work to as wide an audience as possible. They say your methods are outdated and worst of all you are extremely risk-averse at trying out new methods, assessing their value and modifying your approaches.

There is plenty of evidence that people do respond well to encouragement to return, spend more money on things they didn’t know they wanted until you told them, if you can find inducements for them to do so. And a returning customer makes for a happy business and artist.

You now have every incentive. You just need to be braver with the ideas, find out who the audiences are and what it is they want, or might want. No one said this was easy, but the arts organisations that crack this will be the ones that survive best.

Because as we know it all links up. Engaged and high-attending audiences create exciting performances that attract the best talent and enable you to raise more money through fundraising, box office, fees and membership schemes. And if you own a building there’ll be even more income through the bar, restaurant and merchandise.

There’s lots of good news: People are living longer so get them young and they come back when they’re old. They want the live experience, shared with others. We are surrounded by highly talented artists creating stunning work.

People are wandering round with high-performance devices in their pockets through which you could choose to engage with them far more before they come – and after they leave. People are happy with a fair trade. Facebook is a brilliant example – I give you my data because what you give me for free is something I value.

What you need to work out is what your audiences would like to trade for giving you their data. People don’t want to share data if there isn’t a trade-off. Is it:

  • additional content the day before they come – or after they leave?
  • a money-off code on the next ticket bought?
  • something that saves them time?
  • something that gives them bragging rights they can flaunt to their friends?
  • digital Christmas cards they can send to their family?

These ideas are probably stupid – but the arts organisations that crack it will be the richer for it. So the bubble that needs to be burst here is one that protects the audience (and critically the potential audience) from keeping their data to themselves.

4. The methodologies enshrined in segmentation, propensity analyses, targeted offers and airline pricing is antipathetic to what our company creates – which is affordable, high-quality entertainment and cultural enrichment, with associated educational programmes.

You may have heard yourself saying this:

  • We are not a supermarket, a car manufacturer, a political party, nor an airline.
  • We have a familial relationship with our audience – they love us and we love them. We are not selling them toothpaste – we are selling them humanity and community.
  • It’s dangerous and tacky and basically just not us.

Pretty much everyone in your organisation wants to be in this bubble. It’s culturally really hard to be outside it. There’s a bit of a problem here in that you’re doomed if you don’t burst it. Though you think you have, you haven’t yet. The world is smaller, lives are busier, pressures are greater and other people are cleverer than you. Competition is building and subsidies are reducing so the costs of enjoying what you offer are rising. And if costs are rising, then the risks of investment in what you create are getting higher for you and for your audiences.

From the audience’s perspective, they don’t have a familial relationship with you – they plan to come, show up, watch, enjoy it or not, and then leave. Perhaps you should consider how you sell your work in the first place. If other people’s tools look tacky, how could you make them feel more like your own?

Start informing in a far more personalised way your existing and, most crucial of all, your potential audience. If 5,000 people who looked like this profile came to show X, then find me 10,000 people with that profile to tell them about the next show that’s like it. It’s all about capturing far broader and deeper data information than you currently have and then deciding what you do with the data. If you are marketing without segmented data you are not actually marketing – you are randomly broadcasting without any context.

And the very good news here is: People don’t seem to mind being sorted, segmented and primed to be informed. Look at Amazon, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, iTunes, Flickr, newspaper websites and Google. And the best news of all is you have the kit and you’ve collected the data. Now use it.

5. Our organisations function as high-performance, interlocking teams and everyone feels empowered and involved.

You may believe this about yourself:

  • Creative organisations are naturally democratic and transparent. They are places of free thought and have a thirst for the new and generosity to share ideas.
  • We have departments but we don’t have silos, we have hierarchies of decision-making – but not of status – because we are all working to a common goal.
  • And although the pay is poor to dire, we are all geniuses at what we do, perform miracles with tiny budgets and work far harder than anyone else in any other vocation.

This all sounds terrific. It’s a bit of a shame about the reality. The problem is that people tend not to move on much, retrain much or spend enough time in worlds other than their own learning new approaches. Ironically, arts institutions tend to fear change, especially when it comes to marketing or selling tickets for fear of it going wrong.

Embrace the change that is needed to succeed, skill up, diversify and get out there

This is big change stuff and big changes can go wrong, especially if the way you are changing is altering your culture and requiring new skills. You all tend to recruit in your own image, you don’t value the skills, or the cultural perspectives you don’t have, and worse still you don’t understand. The leaders of your organisations tend to be older and moving to the end of their career, so suffer more from all of the above disproportionately to their younger staff.

This is a significant problem. The only way to solve it is to embrace the change that is needed to succeed, create new jobs and end old ones, skill up, diversify and get out there. The world is changing so fast and you have to keep up with the programme. This is tough, unfair and unkind – no one likes to burst anyone else’s bubble. But how many people in your organisation know how to cut data, do code?

6. And finally…

I hope you can all sign up to this last bubble and do the following:

  • Step out of your place of safety.
  • Lower your natural and understandable defences.
  • Admit things are not quite as good as they might be.
  • Find just one interesting solution to one intractable problem.
  • Be prepared to give away a good idea – in the hope and expectation of being given another in return.

Bursting a few bubbles is, in the end, always a good idea.

Vikki Heywood CBE is Chairman of the RSA.

This article is part of a series, sponsored and contributed by Spektrix, aiming to provoke new thinking in how we use ticketing and CRM systems to maximise revenue and grow audiences.

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Photo of Vikki Heywood