AJ Newsletter Tweaks

This week you may have noticed we’re doing tweaks on the design of the ArtsJournal newsletter. I’m trying to make it easier to read and we’ve eliminated the split column. To skip down below the classified ads, click the link at the top of the newsletter and it will take you directly down to the news sections. We’ve also recently added a daily feature that takes one story a day and contextualizes it.

I’d love to know what you think. There’s still time to change things. Send me an email at mclennan@artsjournal.com and let me know. Also would love to hear any suggestions, both for the newsletters and the website. Our newsletters have 30,000 subscribers, and have a significantly higher than industry average open and clickthrough rates. We hate to tamper with something that works, but we’d also like to see if we can do better.

Thanks for reading!

– Douglas McLennan, Editor, ArtsJournal

Study: Fewer Of Us Suffer Information Overload – Does This Mean We’re Tuning Out More?

It’s been almost a given for decades that increasing noise and distraction of the modern world has more people feeling like they’re on information overload. In the age of the ubiquitous smartphone it’s only seemed to get worse. For artists, floods of distraction have proved difficult to cut through. But a new survey from Pew delivers some surprising results: 

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that, for the most part, the large majority of Americans do not feel that information overload is a problem for them. Some 20% say they feel overloaded by information, a decline from the 27% figure from a decade ago, while 77% say they like having so much information at their fingertips. Two-thirds (67%) say that having more information at their disposals actually helps to simplify their lives.

While these are the overall findings, the study did find some correlations between information access and anxiety about managing information; and in situations where institutions have high expectations for information management.

These findings suggest that information overload may not be the right way to frame anxieties about the volume of information in people’s lives. Rather, information overload is more situational: Specific situations may arise, such as when institutions impose high information demands on people for transactions, which create a sense of information burden for some Americans.

The silo-ization of our information consumption (as suggested by the recent election) suggests that people may be coping with the deluge of information by cutting off more and more of the world they don’t believe has credibility (or relevance) while burrowing deeper into the websites or sources they know and trust. While the entire web is at our fingers, it’s getting tougher to get people to explore much beyond the places they know. For artists this might require a rethink in how they get in front of people as general sources like newspapers see their audiences narrow.

Finally – A Law Against Ticket Bots. But Will It Do Much Good?

Ticket bots are the scourge of the live performance business. For popular shows, automated ticket purchasing programs buy up all the tickets within moments of them becoming available, then scalp them for a profit. For really popular shows, the scalping prices (er…secondary market prices) can be several multiples higher than the face value. This all but ensures that only the wealthy can afford to buy. Since the shows themselves don’t make any extra from the scalper sales, the scalpers take the profits. The only ones who benefit are rich ticket-buyers who can afford the higher prices. Lin Manuel-Miranda says the bots will ruin Broadway and has been campaigning for legislation to outlaw bots.

Now he’s got it, as the US Congress has passed legislation to ban bots from circumventing

…the security measures of ticketing websites, which bots often do, and would give enforcement authority to the Federal Trade Commission… Ticketmaster has estimated that bots have been used to buy 60 percent of the most desirable tickets to many shows.

But in a fight between legislation and technology, you can usually bet on technology finding ways around the rules.

The world of bots is shadowy and little understood, with much of the software being developed and even operated overseas, complicating enforcement. And there is an enormous incentive for scalping, which is legal and now largely integrated into the mainstream concert business through sites like StubHub and even Ticketmaster.

So what’s the solution? Aside from banning scalping altogether, there will be abuses, and that’s not likely.

While few spoke against the BOTS Act — the National Association of Ticket Brokers, which bars bots among its members, welcomed the bill — ticket scalping has become a standard part of the entertainment economy, and services like StubHub are often welcomed by fans for their convenience. Economists frequently endorse secondary markets as a true demonstration of supply and demand.

Where Risk Lives – Increasingly Not In Big Institutions But In The Small Nimble Startups

Just as Hollywood studios have abandoned making movies that don’t promise blockbuster potential, so have major publishers narrowed their interests to “big” books. Increasingly, risks in new authors are taken by small, nimble presses with small staffs. They invest in these writers, and, when they become successful, bigger publishers snap them up.

Increasingly, “risky” authors, those who’ve been rejected over and over again by traditional publishers or dozens of agents, are being picked up by small presses whose modus operandi is to take risks on literature that is exciting, innovative, or that they deem important either stylistically or politically. Then the big publishers swoop in and profit from the hard work and risk-taking of the small presses.

That is a good thing, in a way, because it means everyone makes more money from the art and a wider audience is reached. But it does seem like big publishers are hedging their bets more and more often, operating as if they are not too big to fail. It is a shame that the heavy lifting is being left to those who are only big in ambition.

As our creative industries are being de-institutionalized, large institutions are less and less able to be nimble and experiment than are smaller startups without legacy costs.

Study Puts Some Numbers On How Silo-ized Theatre-Goers Are

We like to talk about an “arts community” as if it’s really a thing, but in fact, art is a very personal experience, and people tend to be fans of who they like rather than the art form generally. They go to specific artists or plays or museums. New music fans aren’t necessarily interested in baroque music or opera or Mozart. The audience that shows up for the ballet is completely different from the one that goes to fringe theatre.

A study by TRG Arts of Washington DC theatre puts some numbers to the silo-ization of the city’s theatre audience. Though the number of people going to theatre generally in DC is up significantly over a decade…

The results pointed to a 13 percent increase in theatergoing households and a 25 percent increase in households buying single tickets. It even showed that D.C. theater outpaces the national rate of getting audiences to buy subscriptions — the companies realized a 20 percent increase during the decade in question.

… about 85 percent of the theatre audience goes only to a single theatre. In other words, they’re loyal to the place or company they like rather than the art form writ general. Each of the seven theatres TRG tracked has a specific profile:

Even beyond the core seven troupes that TRG studied, Washington theaters make it their business to be different — in style, in size and in price. Finding the portals to smoothly propel audiences from one stage to another is the ongoing challenge.

So when we talk about “the arts community” what is it we actually mean?

So What Would A Positive Federal Arts Policy Look Like In The Trump Era?

Economist Tyler Cowen has some suggestions for how he thinks national arts policy in the United States could improve under a Trump Republican Congress. A futile hope? Here were Cowen’s criteria:

First, they must save the federal government money, to appeal to the Republican Congress. Second, they should stand a chance of appealing to Trump, given his stances on other issues. Third, they should offer a reasonable chance of improving the quality of the arts in the U.S., and fourth, the arts community should not hate every aspect of the changes.

You’ve got to admire the effort to find the positive. Others have argued the arts could be a natural target since artists aren’t exactly in the sweet spot of Trump’s constituency. Federal arts funding has never recovered since the culture wars of the 1990s and it’s highly unlikely that the Republican Congress will increase that funding, no matter how small it is. But at a policy level, Cowen does have some interesting suggestions, basically proposing restoring restrictions put on the NEA at the time the budget was cut. He suggests restoring the NEA’s ability to fund individual artists, a punitive action meant to restrict funding controversial art. And he suggests killing the requirement that the NEA send 40 percent of its budget to state arts agencies so they can “regrant” it. This, he reasons, would give the feds more control of the money.

Restoring individual grants would be hugely popular in the arts community. But it’s difficult to tell if there would be support for removing the 40 percent state allocation. On the one hand, it would give the NEA more bang for its bucks, and the NEA is much more sophisticated in its operations than many state arts agencies. On the other hand, with so much emphasis in recent years on artists being more responsive to their communities, one could make the case that local agencies have a better sense of what their communities need.

ArtsJournal blogger Michael Rushton argues that:

“Whether you agree with his advice or not, he does raise an important issue: arts policy in the US at the federal and state level lack clear goals, and as such rigorous evaluation of the success, or failure, of their policies is near impossible. That in turn explains why the academic literature on arts policy in the US is so uncritical. What is there to criticize? What is the NEA, and in turn the state arts councils it helps to fund, trying to achieve? Without knowing that, it is not possible to evaluate whether transferring such a high percentage of federal arts funding to the states is actually a good use of funds.”

We may be at the beginning of a critical debate about what constitutes essential infrastructure in this country – what are the things that are public goods but aren’t viable as private capitalist enterprises. Trump says he’ll spend a trillion dollars on public infrastructure, but there are signs his idea is not so much to finance construction and modernization but to privatize and create tax incentives. Are the arts a public good? If even our bridges and roads are about to be privatized to pay for their rebuilding, it’s difficult to imagine the case Trump and the Republicans would make that they are.

Misleading Headlines About Orchestras

The headline in this morning’s ArtsJournal touted the “bombshell” report by the Toronto Symphony that it had avoided what looked like a likely $4-6 million deficit to instead post an $831,000 surplus AND reduce its long term accumulated debt of almost $12 million by about $5 million. Great news, right?

But read down into the Musical Toronto story and the news is more sobering. In fact, it looks like the “surplus” barely masks yet another shaky financial year for the orchestra, which has been carrying accumulated deficits for decades. How long? The orchestra has carried debt continuously since… 1979.

To put this year’s results in the black, the orchestra drew a hefty $4.9 million on its ~$33 million endowment. And then this curious notation:

The rest of the $5M reduction in accumulated debt comes from the historical musical instrument collection, which the orchestra valued at $4.2M and is unlikely to depreciate, due to its historical classification.

Since presumably the orchestra wouldn’t sell its valuable instruments(?) how did the instruments help reduce the accumulated deficit?

While the overall financial picture doesn’t seem really to have improved, the orchestra does seem to have adroitly avoided what was looming as a financial crisis after former CEO Jeff Melanson left last year. And the TSO did report that individual contributions to the orchestra were up impressively by more than 20% over the previous year, and the number of donors was up 15%.

The TSO’s books showed fundraising hitting an all-time high at 37.7%. Tickets contributed 27.5%, Government grants at 17.3%, Foundation contributions at 15.5%  and an additional 4.9% from other sources such as parking and concession sales.

Still – there are an awful lot of unfilled seats in Roy Thomson Hall these days. For whatever his faults as an administrator, Melanson had a big vision for the orchestra. With the TSO looking for a new CEO and a new music director, some compelling idea about what the orchestra should be will be a high priority.

  • Douglas McLennan

Why Would A Performing Arts Center Raise Millions Of Dollars to Fund Other People’s Work?

Ottawa’s National Arts Center has spent the past eight years raising $23 million so it could give the money away. Why? The NAC is a performing arts center, a presenter and home to several of the Canadian capital’s biggest arts groups. But it hasn’t been a traditional funder. At a time when arts groups are scrambling to support their own operations, why raise money to fund other artists’ work, particularly when it might never see your own stages?

It’s a brilliant move, actually. There are many ways to have impact in your field. Certainly producing or presenting great work is one of them. But there’s also tremendous power in being a convener of ideas and people, a connector of resources or an investor in work that you like. Engaging in artistic conversations with other artists and institutions outside your own walls broadens and challenges your own work.

How do you build constituency for your aesthetic? The aesthetic you produce on your own stages might not travel much beyond your building, even if it gets critical acclaim. But funding artists and work beyond your own fingertips extends your influence and promotes your ideas. It’s a bold bid for artistic leadership that extends NAC’s reach well beyond Ottawa.

We’re looking for bold, compelling works that have a strong artistic team, a strong producing partner and ambitions to be national or international,” said Heather Moore, the veteran NAC artistic producer who will run the NAC’s new National Creation Fund. “This is not about the germ of an idea that doesn’t yet have a potential life. We’re talking about filling in that mid-development stage of a project that’s brewing, and that already has somebody intent on putting it on the stage.”

The main idea,NAC president and CEO Peter Herrndorf said, is to put enough cash into the hands of artists to make an exponential difference in artistic outcomes. “We want to get as much of that money into artists’ hands as possible, as quickly as possible,” he said.

– Douglas McLennan