Arts groups aim to increase access

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

DURHAM, N.C. — Art of Cool Project, a Durham nonprofit formed in 2011 to provide jazz and build an audience for it, wants a physical home and a way to expand its audience, build its donor base and find corporate sponsors.

American Dance Festival, which also is in Durham and is celebrating its 82nd season this summer, wants to establish a year-long presence and know more about its audience.

Artsplosure, a Raleigh nonprofit that for nearly four decades has produced big arts festivals each year and worked to promote the arts, also wants to know more about its audience, and to host first-time events and performances.

And 14-year-old Deep Dish Theater Company, which stages four shows a year in a storefront at University Mall in Chapel Hill that seats 70 people, wants new space that can handle constantly-changing programs and will attract a steady flow of visitors.

Key to making the arts and culture more accessible in the Triangle, representatives of all four groups told the Triangle Donors Forum on April 14, are capacity-building and technical support for small and mid-sized arts organizations, as well as collaboration among them.

Economic driver

The arts are big business and big contributors to the economy and the health of local communities, Lori O’Keefe, president of Triangle Community Foundation and moderator of the panel, told several dozen guests at the Donors Forum, which was hosted Foundation and held at the Carolina Theater in Durham.

Sixty percent of employees in North Carolina work in the arts or creative industries, which generated $22 billion in revenue for the state in 2014, O’Keefe said.

“This is real work for our region and for our state, with real people working real jobs in the arts, and the majority of those jobs are in the nonprofit sector,” she said.

Arts offerings contribute to the health of downtowns and communities, and can have a big impact on the way children learn, O’Keefe said.

“Immersion in art has such a ripple effect on how a child can be set up for success later in life,” she said.

Arts and culture represent an important focus of grantmaking at the foundation, which last year granted nearly $2 million to organizations that support arts and culture in the region and beyond, O’Keefe said.

Providing leadership in building the cultural identity of the Triangle also is a focus — along with building the capacity of groups that address youth literacy and community development, and supporting environmental conservation programs — of a “People and Places” program the Foundation launched last year.

Yet while larger arts institutions in the region may seem to find it easier to sustain themselves, O’Keefe said, smaller arts organizations faces challenges, including a lack of “ready-made venues,” lack of knowledge about how to use technology to attract audiences, and a business model that will sustain them.

Providing access

Adequate and appropriate space to perform and show art, and the accessibility of that space to a regional audience, are big challenges for smaller arts groups, members of the panel told the Donors Forum.

The Triangle, for example, lacks a “home” for jazz, a single space to house jazz performance, teaching, rehearsing and related activities, said Cicely Mitchell, president and co-founder of Art of Cool Project.

The idea that led to the founding of Art of Cool was to “provide space where we could help expand the audience for jazz,” she said. “It’s all about accessibility.”

Paul Frellick, artistic director of Deep Dish Theater Company, said that while ticket sales generate only about half of the funds it needs to operate, its capacity of only 70 seats makes it tough to attract corporate advertisers for its printed programs or corporate sponsors.

After operating in two locations at University Mall, he said, the troupe aims to find new space and move over the course of its next season.

Maintaining momentum

Arts groups like Artsplosure, Art of Cool and American Dance Festival that concentrate many of their activities into a few events or times during the year face the challenge of maintaining a presence or momentum throughout the year, panelists said.

Multiplying that challenge for an arts group can be a lack of data about its audience, a hurdle that many arts groups face.

Michael Lowder, executive director of Artsplosure, said venues in themselves can carry a brand that can “trump whoever the presenter is.”

The Artsplosure festival this year was moving to Fayetteville Street from Moore Square, he said.

Yet because Fayetteville Street has attracted both “great events and not-so-great events” and has only a “so-so brand,” he said, the move carried some risk.

“Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd,” he said.

To help promote and market itself throughout the year, he said, Artsplosure has made aggressive use of social media such as Instagram and Facebook.

“We really try to maintain a relationship with our audience,” he said. Yet at Artsplosure, he said, “we really don’t know our audience.”

While 30,000 to 50,000 people attend the organization’s First Night activities, and 60,000 to 80,000 attend Artsplosure, less than one thousand attending those festivals actually fill out surveys about who they are, he said.

Artsplosure tries to communicate with the arts community through arts agencies, and through roughly 25 media outlets.

Still, Lowder said, maintaining a year-long presence and momentum “with who you perceive your audience to be” can be challenging.

Sarah Kondu, director of communications and marketing at American Dance Festival, said it performs at venues such as Durham Arts Center yet, because of a policy by intermediaries that sell tickets online, it can not get information on the people who buy tickets to its performances.

So knowing and communicating with its audiences is a “real struggle for us,” she said.

Mitchell, who suggested that venues do not share information on ticket buyers to protect their privacy, said that while Art of Cool has built an email list of people who attend its events, its marketing budget is small and so it relies on social media to reach its audience.

Showing value

O’Keefe, who worked as a fundraiser and arts administrator at performing arts institutions in California and New York City before joining Triangle Community Foundation in 2005, asked the panelists whether the new residents who have swelled the Triangle’s population recognize the value the arts add to the region’s quality of life and are “opening their pockets and engaging in ways other than just buying tickets.”

Mitchell said Art of Cool launched its festival last year entirely through a Kickstarter social-media campaign.

Tondu said modern dance is a “hard sell, even in larger cities,” and that American Dance Festival is “still trying to educate, to get people to give it a try.”

Frellick said that because tickets sales generate only about half the income Deep Dish Theater needs to operate, and because its limited seating capacity has made it tough to attract corporate sponsors, the company depends on individual donors and patrons to sustain it.

On the other hand, he said, when corporate giving fell after the economy crashed in 2008, Deep Dish was not as hard hit as some other organizations because it already lacked corporate support.

Lowder said Artsplosure six years ago saw a 60 percent spike in ticket sales for First Night, and asked a statistician to try to find out why.

The only correlation the statistician could find after looking at a broad range of indicators was that “the more we spend on art, the more tickets we sold,” Lowder said.

“We want to be perceived as an entry point, the gateway, to what others are doing,” he said. “It’s about the art we’re presenting, and presenting in an accessible way to encourage people to learn more and get involved.”

Making the arts accessible is important, he said, because of the “influx of people from all over the country with expectations about what sorts of art they’re going to find here.”

Capacity and collaboration

A big challenge for smaller and mid-sized arts groups is building their organizational “capacity,” panelists said.

Mitchell at Art of Cool said finding corporate support has been tough.

The group participated in a training program at the Durham Chamber of Commerce to learn how to ask companies for money, and was the only nonprofit in the program, she said.

“A lot of younger organizations would jump over the opportunity to have mentorship and camaraderie,” she said.

O’Keefe said a “big push” in the nonprofit sector is for greater collaboration, and “the arts tend to be on the forefront of this, using statistics, data, having a revenue producing model.”

Through tickets and products, “the arts have always had,” she said. “The arts, particularly in the Triangle, are constantly thinking about ways to work together to raise each other up.”

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