Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Smackdown: Audiences Vs. Donors! (Maybe)

A report out a couple days ago from Barclay’s Bank, reported on in the Daily Telegraph and brought to my attention by You’ve Cott Mail (click on “You’ve Cott Mail” in the left menu) presents an interesting picture of what’s happening with high-end individual donors across fields. And as they say, there’s good news and there’s bad news. Click here to download the whole White Paper (PDF).

Essentially, Barclay’s surveyed 500 wealthy donors and found that 75 percent of them have not reduced their charitable giving in the past 18 months--and that more than 25 percent have actually increased their charitable giving during that time. Per the Daily Telegraph:

“Now that governments are overburdened with debt, the rich felt it more important than ever that wealthy individuals did their bit for charity, the report said. When asked where they would make cuts if the downturn continued, respondents said they would be more likely to stint on luxury goods, holidays and eating out than curb their donations to charity.”

Good news, right? Well, maybe.

The bad news is that Barclay’s also reports that “traditional recipients of charitable donations”--the arts and religious organizations--are falling out of favor with these same donors in favor of more concrete causes like health care, children and environmental causes. In the words of the report, “This trend [will] accelerate over the next decade if the causes in question [Hey that’s us!] [fail] to engage in a meaningful way with the next generation of givers.”

Suddenly, the question of relevance is no longer an esoteric debate (if it ever was)--but now it has to be argued from both the audience development side and the donor cultivation side. Recently, this blog has had items (and very insightful comments) about what relevance actually means, specifically centered around the ability to develop new audiences. That discussion has primarily been fueled by representatives from smaller, more innovative companies who are reacting against exactly the comforting long-term sameness that I would argue most major donors (yes, a grand generalization) are drawn to. And many of their arguments, I think, are going to be hard to scale up to the larger companies, many of whom, as it happens, are the cultivators of more major donors. This is not to say that the “next generation of givers” that Barclay’s references will also be drawn to the traditions that are wrapped up in theatre, but I do think news like this begs the question: How do we both engage new audiences (new segments, people who are not looking for your same old presentational theatre experience) while also revitalizing the high-end donor base that (at least in large and some midsize companies) is supposedly the steadiest source of income over the long term?

Trends during this downturn locally (via the Pulse survey and anecdote) seem to indicate that loyal donors are indeed staying loyal, at least at a higher rate than foundations, corporations and non-donor attendees. I hope that continues. But that gets me to a quandary (which I realize is at least partially based in a stereotype of who those backbone donors are and what they enjoy): how can we innovate our way as a field into the hearts and minds of a new audience (more diverse, plucked from more distractions, used to on-demand everything and less appreciative of presentational cultural modes) while also continuing to court those staider, more traditional and, yes, more loyal would-be donors? Especially when competing (a sad word in this context) with things like poverty, heart disease, cancer, global warming, AIDS, etc.?

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At July 18, 2009 at 1:29 PM , Blogger An Honest Critic said...

I think the question of relevance is far too often targeted at administrators and not at artists.

And why is art competing for funding with other community building programs, instead of working in tandem with them?

At July 22, 2009 at 2:32 PM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

Honest, here's a question back at you -- how would you/can you frame a discussion with artists that begins from a point of "relevance?" I feel like the conversation always has to incorporate both sides of the coin to be actionable and, ahem, relevant -- artistic working in tandem with marketing/admin to identify the particular goals of the company in relation to the community and audience, and then whether they're satisfying those goals. That gets to you the point where you do start doing different work -- see the Intersection/Cal Shakes co-pro of Blood in the Brain, an adaptation of Hamlet set within the community seeing the show, or Shotgun Players' Love is a Dream House in Lorin, developed in tandem with members of the community and audience base in the Berkeley neighborhood where they perform. If an artistic director is so precious about their work as to not care whether they continue to serve the constituency coming through the door (or more importantly, the constituency that the company is seeking to attract through the door) that is a problem.

At July 28, 2009 at 4:47 PM , Blogger Carl Benson said...

"Intersection/Cal Shakes co-pro of Blood in the Brain, an adaptation of Hamlet set within the community seeing the show"

Oh my god, please no. I think, Clay, this example actually disproves your point. This is the problem when admin and arts collaborate - they bring you an overdone and outdated classic with a new twist! Your description of that show makes me want to bang my head against something solid and unmoving.

"How would you/can you frame a discussion with artists that begins from a point of 'relevance?'"

Easy ... How does your work engage with the community? If you can't answer that quickly in one sentence, you should really take a look at whether your work is "relevant."

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