I was a keynote speaker last week as part of the Tennessee Presenters Arts Conversation 18 Conference. Tennessee Presenters is a professional association of performing arts presenting organizations throughout the state. They work together to strengthen the quality and scope of performing arts; to cultivate business relationships and develop cooperative ventures to achieve goals. While many of the attendees were presenters, there also were quite a few talent agents there. I had many conversations with both presenters and agents, and I came to the realization that agents can be important allies in support of creating access to the arts.
Presenters are inundated with pressure, especially the fiscal responsibility of selling every show. Consequently, presenting organizations choose shows based on what is both “familiar,” “safe,” and “salable” to their traditional audiences. Unfortunately, that mindset not only stifles the development of the next generation of artists, it most often excludes the mounting of works by artists of color, women or members of the LGBTQ community at venues where the audiences aren’t diverse. That’s why it’s so important that presenters join forces with agents, artists and community leaders so that community engagement outreach efforts are a standard part of the contract. Why is this important? Community engagement opens the doors for new audiences, new sources of revenue, and the opportunity to build a foundation for the future.
How would it work? I believe agents should urge their clients to include community engagement opportunities as part of every artist’s contract. That could mean answering questions after a performance; speaking at a local school; engaging in dialogues or critiques with local theater students or building upon the theme of the presentation and creating events around it. This also could include the artists’ social media postings. Most important is the artist’s willingness to reach beyond his/her comfort zone to engage more people with the work to support the presenting organization paying the salary and the community filling the seats.
I believe agents can help their clients understand on a deeper level that making art also includes building and cultivating audiences in whatever way possible. There is no set formula; however, there are many potential opportunities for supporting the work, beyond the traditional media interviews.
Many presenting organizations have a small marketing team, at best. It is challenging to devote the time to get to know the target market and develop a strategy for outreach. But if they potentially have willing artists already committed to the process, that’s half the battle. Incorporating feedback from the target audience will also be an asset for the marketing team, to help the presenting organization make deeper connections.
At the conference, I had a conversation with one agent who had a project that she felt deeply about. However, she believed it would take several months for a presenter to figure out the target audience and develop an audience-building strategy. With a community engagement template that is already supported by the artists, more presenters likely would be more willing to take on this type of project because they would not be starting with a blank slate and the fear of empty seats.
As I spoke with the presenters, they also were seeking ideas for engaging with diverse audiences. They were unsure of how to approach communities of color when they are not familiar with the culture or cultural traditions. I spent time responding to their questions, but clearly a more thorough discussion is required in order to provide the tools for success.
Ultimately, this is an opportunity for everyone—a potential “win-win” for all. I am encouraging agents to take the lead with their artists to help build a bridge of access to the arts for diverse audiences. Presenters can be more aggressive to embrace a new work even if it’s one per season. Once the bridge is built, I promise you audiences will excitedly cross it. Let’s meet them in the middle of the bridge and welcome them through our doors.