Monday, 20 September 2010

Michael Kaiser in Lisbon

The prevailing feeling after attending on the 14th September Michael Kaiser´s seminar on arts management was not one of amazement or enthusiasm or surprise or excitement. It was a feeling of pleasure. The simple, sheer pleasure of listening to someone who 1) knows what he´s talking about; and 2) has put his knowledge and ideas into practice.

Michael Kaiser talked about the difficulties of working in the arts field, about artistic planning, programmatic and institutional marketing and fundraising. I had already read his book,
The Art of the Turnaround, in which he shares his experience in managing different arts organizations in the USA and the UK, and it was particularly interesting and rewarding to see how he brought all that experience into the seminar, answering almost every question with a concrete example.

As I had said in a
previous post, I was particularly interested in his relationship with the artists. Michael Kaiser is an arts manager who clearly values marketing and fundraising. So I was wondering how supportive artists had been in what concerned his efforts to turn certain arts organizations into financially healthy institutions. And yes, he did take me by surprise with his answer. He didn´t start by saying how difficult it is to get artists to collaborate or understand or value the efforts of marketeers and fundraisers (I am sure that at some point, somewhere, he must have felt that too…). He said: if an artist feels that marketing or fundraising are worthless, it´s because we haven´t worked on our relationship with them, we haven´t been able to convince them that they can trust us, that we are on their side.

I confess that my main concern has been different. My concern it to take the art to the public, to keep them informed, to try and identify physical, financial and intellectual barriers and manage to improve access. How can we do that when an artist isn´t available to talk about his work? When he doesn´t feel he needs to explain anything? When concepts may not be ‘translated’ into simple, common words or posters created not as an extension of the performance but as a useful tool for promoting it? When availability to talk to the media diminishes, at the same time that stress because of the approaching premiere increases? When marketing and communications are clearly seen as an accessory, but the main sector to be held accountable for when a performance is not selling? These are not, obviously, situations that occur with great frequency, nor do they concern all artists, but they are real and they keep happening.

But, despite all this, I did like Michael Kaiser´s answer. Because it reminded me that there are still many people to be ‘conquered’, that I shouldn´t be taking my relationship with the artists for granted. But mainly because it is consistent with his philosophy. Which is that our main product is excellent art and we should be marketing it well. “The mission of arts organizations is art and education, not financial health. We need to get artists what they need and, in order to do so, we need to raise money. And we should do it without ever compromising the art. My artists know that I´m doing everything I can to get them what they need. And should I need to cut in the budget, the last thing to cut would be from the art.” Considering the tension that usually exists in the relationship between artists and managers – a relation Michael Kaiser describes as that of a child that keeps saying “I want...I want...I want...” and of a parent who always answers “we can´t aford it...we can´t aford it...” -, I find this to be a great approach when attempting to define each one´s role and expectations.

When discussing programmatic and institutional marketing, Michael Kaiser mainly concentrated on the latter, although most institutions invest (well or bad) on the former. Successful organizations are those that have a clear mission, they know who they are, why they exist, where they want to get, what makes them unique in the market. Life is easier for those institutions that are well-known, that have a plan in order to be on people´s minds, and eventually in their hearts, all the time. Institutional marketing is also a crucial pre-requisite for successful fundraising. And in what concerns dealing with donors, Mickael Kaiser was kind enough to share his ten rules with us:
1. The key to fundraising it to listen;
2. Have a ‘menu’ of projects to propose, in order to better match a potential donor´s interests or needs;
3. Admit it when you have nothing of interest to the donor to propose. This guarantees good hearing the next time;
4. Donors respond to positive information, not threats of bankruptcy;
5. Find the right solicitor for every donor;
6. Implement institutional marketing before starting fundraising;
7. Cultivate the relationship with a potential donor before asking for something;
8. Don´t waste time writing cold-call letters. Get to know the people;
9. Do your research, get to know what your potential donors want or need;
10. Fundraising in the USA is called ‘development’. It is about developing a relationship.

The artist-manager relationship, the fundamental role of marketing in the life of a cultural institution, the distinction between programmatic and institutional marketing, the way to nurture a relationship with potential donors... Michael Kaiser talked about things that are not widely discussed in Portugal. Maybe that´s why the audience did not ‘hit back’, even when certain issues would be slightly controversial or unfeasible here. It´s high time though we started discussing them at all levels. Arts and marketing are not incompatible, incapable of talking the same language, of sharing objectives.

Can we put Michael Kaiser´s recommendations into practice? Maybe, considering a different scale. Maybe not. But who cares, really. Let´s dream a bit. Just like he does.

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