It’s a Brave New World for the Arts in Columbus

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the symbiotic nature of arts, commerce and government. Words like ecosystem, narrative, and collaboration have been floating around like little thought bubbles above my head.

I wish I could say these thoughts are original or groundbreaking, but they’re not. They are the result of a cultural shift that has been gradually taking place, and I’m not alone in writing about it. As a matter of fact I recently went back and re-read a wonderful post in Art Works by Jennifer Cole, executive director of the Metro Nashville Arts commission, which covered this very subject. Cole contends: “Artists can’t thrive if the city doesn’t thrive. The city can’t thrive if the artists aren’t engaged and safe—safe to live and safe to create.” She’s preaching to the choir, but I would add that no one thrives if the public isn’t also engaged.

In her article Cole focuses on connecting all of the players (artists, nonprofits, for-profits, government, and city leadership) and helping them understand each other. This is vital work and a role that the Greater Columbus Arts Council embraces daily. Rather than rehash the points that Cole has already laid out so clearly, I want to look at another thread that is part of this complicated web—the public.

The biggest part of the ecosystem known as “the city” is the public, and if they aren’t engaged in what’s happening in the arts then we have a problem.

One of the challenges that the arts community faces is the enormous amount of competition for a person’s time and attention—leisure time is finite, but the choices in how to spend it are practically infinite in a way that wasn’t true even 10 years ago.

Technology has created a million new distractions and a culture of instant gratification. People no longer feel tethered to carefully organized plans. With a tweet one friend can rally five others to a destination—preempting an organization’s carefully crafted marketing message.

The next round of connection that needs to happen is between artists and arts organizations and their audience. There’s a lot of talk in arts leadership circles about reaching the elusive millennial, but unfortunately the approach too often seems to be about trying to figure out how to change their behavior rather than changing ours.

More than ever, audiences need a narrative that creates an emotional connection in order to invest their time and/or money. This can be a good thing. That emotional connection, once made, pulls the audience into the arts community in a substantial way that extends well beyond a single event or purchase.

But to bring them in, we need to be agile. We need to worry less about marketing events and more about creating personal connections with the human beings behind the curtain. We need adjust to the fact that  today’s audience may not commit the way we want them to and their plans may be last minute. We should be sensitive to the notion that they want to feel like part of the gang even when their friends can’t come; and we have to embrace the reality that once they decide to act, they expect it (whether it’s getting directions or tickets) to be effortless and intuitive no matter what platform they use.

As an Arts Council we have an opportunity to help our constituents transition through this cultural shift. Through partnerships we can share resources from research to technology. More importantly we can help connect the dots and then implement strategies, like the Art Makes Columbus/Columbus Makes Art marketing campaign.

The campaign offers one example of how we are shifting tactics. The website ColumbusMakesArt.com is putting stories first. By providing personal behind-the-scenes narratives we create a more intimate connection between artist and audience.

This campaign has the potential to be a powerful tool for connecting to the public in meaningful and emotionally invested ways, but only if we all collaborate to leverage it. We are an ecosystem and it is by working together that we thrive and evolve.

— Tom Katzenmeyer Keep up with Tom’s adventures on Twitter: @tomkatzenmeyer