Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Strategy in the Performing Arts

The metaphor of Strategic Planning as a "tribal ritual" in The Real Value of Strategic Planning struck close to home for me. In the Performing Arts in particular, I think it can be so easy to get focused on producing just the next season or even just the next show. More often than not big picture strategic thought ends up by the wayside.

Strategic planning, however, is something that most every arts organization goes through. As a board member for a small educational theatre company, I was a part of the numerous meetings, reevaluations of the mission and ambitious talk about the long term aspirations of the organization. We had a good sense of what we excelled at – theatre camps and classes, but a much fuzzier picture of the competitive landscape or the actual strategy which would help enable our long-term success. In the end we came out with a plan which the organization is dutifully enacting as it can, but to a large degree it seems aspirational more than practical, simply habit rather than an enhanced focus through reflection.

Your Strategy Needs a Strategy really helped me think about the ways in which we might have better approached the process. Many arts organizations seem to still be planning in the “Classical” or “Visionary” styles, taking our larger environment to be predictable. For many years this may have been the right choice. Audiences were consistent, donors were loyal, and competition for entertainment was limited or inferior. Like for so many other industries, technology has radically changed this calculus for the performing arts, it’s just that many organizations seem not to have realized it. Nevertheless since the 90’s our audiences have been shrinking (at variable rates by art form) and have become increasingly unreliable. Faced with a cornucopia of on-demand entertainment in their homes, many subscribers have become individual ticket buyers or want additional flexibility in control when and how they engage with our products.

I think we have lost some predictability, though certainly the ripples of change are still being felt and it’s hard to say where things will settle. The arts market is certainly malleable, at least to some degree, with new forms and styles transforming audience preferences over time. This suggests that there may be opportunities in pursuing a shaping strategy.

I think visionary strategies, exemplified by truly unique art are the aspiration for many organizations. In many cases this is a pipe dream, and I would be very curious see a shaping strategy in the arts in practice. If we have been taking our environment as predictable, when in fact it is experiencing flux we are not properly accounting for, then new possibilities arise. Perhaps if arts organizations set out with a strategy of rolling with this change, looking the broader possibilities outside our industry, there could be untapped opportunities to shape the arts audience of the future and make the work of the strategic plan feel real and relevant again.

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