Monday 13 December 2010

A blue (or any other colour) hug to the crisis

Two years ago I went to buy tickets for a play at the Almada Municipal Theatre (AMT). The employee at the ticket desk informed me that for the price of the tickets I wanted to buy (or a bit more, I don´t remember exactly) I could become a member of the Friends Club. Thus, for a year I could have free tickets to all AMT productions, substantial discounts for other productions, as well as free tickets or discounts for all my companions (regardless of the number). It wasn´t difficult to calculate that for the price of four tickets (two adults and two children) for one play I could practically have free access to the whole AMT season. I remember thinking at the time that the AMT didn´t seem to worry much about generating revenue; and that it would have better admitted that entry to its plays was free, rather than giving the idea that the subscription price was wrongly calculated or that there was no ‘higher’ cause behind promoting the Friends Club.

Institutions that promote subscriptions normally do it because they guarantee benefits both for the institution and for its publics (building loyalty among existing and potential ‘clients’). A big part of the book
Standing Room Only: Strategies for Marketing the Performing Arts, by Philip Kotler and Joanne Scheff, is dedicated to pricing policies and strategies that aim to build loyalty. Among the benefits for the institution, the two authors highlight: guaranteeing a source of income; the possibility to reduce the costs of promoting the shows (the costs of attracting and renewing subscribers are lower that the costs of attracting single-ticket buyers to each production); more space for the artistic director to experiment; a larger audience for more ‘alternative’ or experimental productions or projects that do not involve known or popular artists, since it´s all included in the ‘pack’. On the other hand, subscribers get discounts; they get priority seating; they have the right to change tickets; they have access to a number of other services (parking, discounts at the restaurant, special events, educational programmes, meetings with the artists, etc.); they are given the possibility and the opportunity to ‘train’ their taste, since, once again, the ‘pack’ also includes experimental, new or less known projects.

Thus, I was left thinking what could have been the objectives of AMT when creating the Friends Club, since the subscription price did not seem to be able (or even wish to) guarantee the above mentioned benefits. I didn´t renew my subscription: a personal choice, of course, related to my way of life, my need to have more freedom and flexibility in choosing the productions I want to see, that form part of the (large) offer in the Lisbon area; a proof that, if people don´t really invest in the subscription, they don´t think they have got anything to lose by not attending more shows and thus lose the incentive to renew; a proof, as well, that extremely low prices or free tickets are not able by themselves to build loyalty, even among those who attend many performances. (Regarding the issue of complimentary tickets, a subject that has also been discussed in this blog
here and here, a recent post in the blog Arts Marketing is an excellent summary of the points that need to be considered.)

I thought again about the AMT Friends Club last week, when I received a letter by express mail, signed by AMT director Joaquim Benite, inviting me to a general meeting (although I am not a member anymore). Last Sunday I also received a phone call asking to confirm if I would be attending the meeting. The reason for the meeting was a €150,000 cut imposed by the Ministry of Culture, the equivalent of 10% of the theatre´s budget. In the letter we could read the following statements, among others: “(…) a crisis that furthers the development of confusion and the strengthening of those powers that don´t give up on pushing Arts and Culture towards the ‘laws of the market’ (…); “(…) revivification of the old and persistent struggle against the subventions of the Public Powers to the Theatres, aiming at making Culture and the Arts become part of a mercantile system and the subversion of the constitutional precept that guarantees everyone the right to cultural and artistic fruition.”; “At the AMT we are not willing to simply watch, in a conformist and passive way, the advancement of the Ministry of Culture .” (Joaquim Benite is also the author of
this text on the AMT site – in portuguese only).

I was left thinking if the way AMT itself is reacting to the crisis and the specific situation created by the cuts in Portugal is not also revealing a certain conformism and passivity. This does not only apply to AMT, but to many other institutions as well. Many countries have gone or are going through a similar crisis. In all of them there are voices, more or less official, that consider the crisis to be an opportunity to look, honestly and realistically, at the sector and at the way it functions. Instead of clinging to ‘vested’ rights, to our dependency from the State, to a rhetoric that aims to equate the healthy and efficient management of our institutions to the commercialization of our offer, isn´t this the moment to try and establish new, different relationships, that would allow for a bolder vision and the pursuit of a more stable and sustainable future? Isn´t this the moment to evaluate our resources (financial and human) and to try to optimize them and manage them more wisely, efficiently and imaginatively? Including money spent on stamps and phone calls?

Isn´t this also the moment to gain courage and make difficult decisions? When there is a need to make cuts, the most obvious choice seems to be to cut in the programming budget, maintaining fixed expenses, mainly related to personnel. Aren´t we forgetting, though, that the raison-d´-être of our institutions is programming? Shouldn´t this be the last item in the budget where we should cut? In the cultural and other sectors, in this and other countries, analysts of the crisis are pointing towards an inflation in the number of employees in many public institutions, that seem to exist, after all, in order to employ people. Are they all necessary? Are they all competent? Have they all got appropriate training for carrying out their duties and tasks? The analysts say no. My experience also says no.

Let´s look at the crisis as an opportunity, yes. The opportunity to develop new management models, to adapt to a new reality, to be creative and imaginative in solving the problems; the opportunity to grow, away from the State patronage; the opportunity to become more demanding, more rigorous, more efficient. Let´s also create a space for new voices to be heard, the voices of a new generation of culture professionals, that may contribute together with the personalities that are widely known and respected in the field (for example, I suggest reading the post
Crises que vêm por bem: Contribuições para um sector cultural diferente - in portuguese only – published by Miguel Magalhães in the blog Cost Disease Diaries on December 8). Let´s also try and put the right professionals at the right place, involving in the field people whose training and know-how may contribute in transforming it. In other words, let´s join our efforts against conformism and passivity. This is an opportunity.

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