Takeaways from the National Arts Marketing Conference

Last fall I spent three days in Salt Lake City at the National Arts Marketing Project Conference, which attracts arts marketing professionals of all backgrounds, from small organizations like ours — where just one or two staff members handle everything from programming to fundraising to marketing — to large, well-known theaters and museums, local and regional arts councils, plus artists of all stripes on their own.

The Arts Alliance doesn’t have much of a budget for professional development for its employees, but in this case, that didn’t really matter. Americans for the Arts, the organization that puts on this conference (and does incredible work on arts advocacy, communication and much more throughout the year) makes it a priority to offer scholarships, including some full rides, to arts professionals that need them. I submitted an application, just in case I qualified for a full ride – and I was chosen! This particular scholarship was given for individuals who work with underserved populations, including the rural, isolated communities that we represent throughout northern New Hampshire.

Since my return I’ve continued to think about all I learned there, and before I leave (I’m stepping down on May 27th), I wanted to reflect back on my experience. Here’s what I came up with as three major takeaways from the conference.

First: the importance of finding your authenticity. This was a prominent theme, beginning with Jad Abumrad’s brilliant opening keynote and continuing in smaller sessions on branding, audience engagement and marketing. Having an authentic voice is what makes people trust you, is what makes your emails and your promotional materials compelling, and it is also what tells you if a program is right for your mission. It informs your website and makes your social media interactions feel genuine and real. I think it is especially beneficial for a diverse organization like the Arts Alliance, with many branches of programming and many members to represent, to distill its authenticity, whether from the existing mission statement or through future work, and use that as the benchmark moving forward. It’s equally important for all of our member organizations and really any community organization. And for me as an individual, my work as an arts leader and maker should always come from my own genuine, honest self.

My second takeaway: the importance of taking calculated risks. When we are caught up in the day to day responsibilities of our work – and there are a lot of them! — it can be hard to do this.

Just staying one step ahead is a challenge, but building in the time to not only research options, but to actually take risks is really important. I can especially see this in my email campaigns -rather than doing the same old thing, why not build in riskier new ways of promoting? Some will work, some won’t, but we should make space for experimenting, and then follow it up with tracking. The same is true for programming risks. We need acknowledge that some of our programs are risks –  and we need to accommodate that fact in our planning, perhaps pricing higher to cover ourselves when we don’t break even. This approach can strengthen programming for the long term and give us room to try new things that might not lead directly to success. It’s hard for me to think of an artist or arts organization that this message wouldn’t apply to!

My final takeaway is a bit broader: it’s about the importance of putting the audience, and audience engagement, at the center of everything we do. I was very familiar with Audience Engagement as a topic, and in my theater work it was always on my mind. But I hadn’t realized that an entire organization or major project could be driven from this perspective, even in more complex nonprofits with disparate audiences. As I sat in on sessions on this subject, I realized how it connects to our efforts to broaden our audience base, focus on inclusion, and demystify the arts we’re presenting. All of these efforts are related. Being audience-centric doesn’t mean dumbing down programming. It means making sure we are genuinely reaching out to and connecting with people. And if we can use this concept to frame all our thinking, it clarifies our mission and the purpose of all our work: the point of supporting, promoting and sustaining arts programming in a region is to build, hold and communicate with the current – and potential – audience in that region.

So there you have it – authenticity, calculated risks and audience engagement. How do you think these concepts relate to you, whether in your work for an organization or as an individual artist? I’d love to hear your thoughts! And if you’d like more details from my notes on branding, marketing on a small budget, surveying and more, let me know about your interests and I’ll be glad to share my notes on specific topics.

Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll share your thoughts!

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