Selling Out With … Joe Patti

joe headshotEveryone wants “Butts in the Seats,” which makes that phrase such as a fitting title for Joe Patti’s blog. Patti, currently the Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts at Shawnee State University, presents his musings on practical solutions for arts management. He covers a wide range of topics, from contract law, marketing and human resources to grant writing and the philosophy behind ticket pricing. Here, we asked Patti to share his thoughts on the three biggest issues facing performing arts organizations, the effectiveness of social media to put butts in seats and any recent marketing campaigns that impressed him.

Selling Out: You’ve been writing your blog “Butts in the Seats” for a very, very long time. How and why did you get it started? What topics are you surprised to be writing about today?
Joe Patti: I started writing on February 24, 2004. I got into doing it because there were a number of people like Terry Teachout and Andrew Taylor writing about the arts. What they were writing got a lot of ideas bouncing around my head that I felt like I needed to express. I think my first three entries were posted on a platform my internet service provider offered, but it was pretty apparent that wouldn’t work so I moved to an independent provider that used Movable Type. Now I am using WordPress.

In addition to writing “Butts in the Seats,” for the last year I have been contributing articles to, which is designed to help answer the zillions of questions and problems arts professionals are faced with each day.

I don’t think there is anything I am particularly surprised to be writing about today. The subtitle of “Butts in the Seats” from day one has been “Musings on Practical Solutions for Arts Management.” The basic problems faced by arts entities haven’t significantly changed in the last 12 years. There are some issues that have moved to the fore and received more (social) media attention, but the problems themselves weren’t unknown.

Selling Out: What do you see as the three biggest issues facing performing arts organizations? Which issue would you like to see disappear completely?
JP: Equity seems to be a big topic these days, encompassing everything from properly compensating interns, orchestra musicians, playwrights and actors, to ethnicity in casting decisions. Recently, the latter has included a conversation about honoring a playwright’s wishes when it comes to casting.

I am old enough to remember the questioning of the casting of a Caucasian Jonathan Pryce in a Eurasian role in Miss Saigon. The issue eventually lost momentum, but just in the last few months questions about yellow face and how other cultures are represented stopped production plans for The Mikado over the course of a few days.

These are substantive issues that probably won’t be solved easily. I actually wonder if there might be a silver lining to this because we often hear audiences are shrinking because people don’t see themselves and their stories on stage. I think it would be great if, in the end, a debate that has been primarily internal to the field didn’t end up making theater and the arts in general more attractive to a wider audience.

While I would like the issue of insufficient pay to disappear completely, I think starving artist is the world’s third oldest profession. If the current environment can progress to a point where arts practitioners can achieve more equitable opportunities for employment and recognition of their ownership of intellectual and cultural identities, it would go a long way toward solving the equity issue. And I don’t mean this just as something that needs to be solved internally in the arts sector, but by society in general. Compensation of arts professionals would likely improve if the arts were generally accorded more respect.

ButtsInTheSeatsBanner2014Second issue sort of segues from the first. As I am pretty sure we all long secretly suspected, recent research by Arts Midwest is confirming that the terms “arts” and “culture” have negative connotations for people in the United States. The good news is that according to the same Arts Midwest study, along with findings from the National Endowment for the Arts, the concept of creative expression as something in which everyone can participate has a more positive association. Even as people won’t initially describe themselves as creative, once they get talking about it they will admit they actually engage in creative activity.

Arts Midwest and their partners are developing a long-range plan for building public will for arts and culture. I don’t know if it is the definitive solution, but they base their plan on lessons of the past. They make honest assessments of mistakes that were made and identify the point at which past efforts in areas like smoking cessation transitioned to effectiveness thanks to a shift in public will.

Even absent this effort, it has already been shown that general expectations of what an arts attendance/participation experience entails is shifting away from the practices of the past. The challenge for arts organizations who are more oriented toward spectating is how to retool to accommodate the interests of their community.

Third trend I am seeing, at least among arts and other organizations with nonprofit status, is a push back against the idea that arts need to be run more like business. There have been a number of articles and blog posts written talking about how that criteria is unfair to nonprofit organizations. I have also seen people at conferences ask how to respond to that statement.

One of the ways the push back is manifesting is the joint effort by a number of charity evaluation services like Guidestar and Charity Navigator to eliminate overhead ratio as a primary measure of a nonprofit’s effectiveness. Overhead ratio was turning into the nonprofit equivalent of debt to equity ratios that business analysts use to make investment decisions. I think people were looking for a similarly simple measure to make donation decisions. The fact is even investors know they have to dig deeper than debt ratio to understand the health of a company.

I think arts organizations are realizing that they need to do a better job talking about the distinctions between themselves and other industries in order to manage the expectations people have of them. At the same time, there is a recognition from top to bottom that arts organizations need to demonstrate greater discipline and efficiency. One of the ongoing conversations right now is about the need for artists to embrace more entrepreneurial practices. This does not necessarily mean they have to be creating their own artistic business empires, but do need to take greater responsibility in managing and directing their careers.

Over the next 10 years, I suspect we will see a shift in the relationship and power dynamics between creators, management/agents and venue/gallery owners as this gains traction.

Selling Out: What issue facing the arts isn’t being discussed enough?
JP: Work environment isn’t being discussed enough. Decisions are made in arts organizations which determine whether the work environment will be relatively nurturing and productive or whether it will be stressful and traumatizing. Probably the most fundamental choice relates to finances. Are staffs being asked to do more with less, or are ambitions being altered to reflect what is reasonable to expect with available resources? If steps are not taken to dispel it, tough economic times can easily result in a bunker mentality developing with everyone looking to defend their program rather than working for the good of the entire organization.

Staff interactions can also get tense. Every six months or so I see an article talking about the need to address hostile workplaces and bullying in the arts sector of the United Kingdom. It makes me wonder if the U.K. has a different situation than in the U.S. or is the problem in the U.S. not really being addressed?

Selling Out: Does social media put butts in seats?
JP: In my experience, social media has only been really successful when there is already a community built around an artist. We will get lot of expressions of interest and intrigue when we post about an upcoming performance, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. In one case, we had a lot of social media chatter about a show and a nearly empty theater. There was a lot of good content available online that they responded to, but I think people were still unsure about whether the format would be interesting live.

However, there are artists that we will have on sale for months where sales will be respectable, but once our dates hit their webpage and social media feeds, ticket sales will pick up and the chatter will be incessant and only taper off a week after the show when people are done posting their pictures.

Photo Credit: Fitton Center for Creative Arts

Photo Credit: Fitton Center for Creative Arts

Selling Out: Since we’re in the swing of the holidays, is your organization using any creative marketing strategies to get butts in the seats, or have you seen any creative holiday campaigns that impressed you?
JP: I haven’t really seen any creative marketing strategies this holiday season. There was one non-holiday approach I heard about yesterday that made me chuckle. The Fitton Center, which has some really artistically decorated restrooms, apparently printed their brochure this year with a cover that said “Expect the Unexpected.” When you opened it, there was a picture of three guys at the urinals, with one guy turning around and looking shocked.

Sometimes performing arts brochures are accused of being staid and formulaic. That certainly wasn’t, and it caused the type of conversation in the community everyone says arts organizations are supposed to be sparking. The executive director says ticket sales were up, which doesn’t hurt either.

Selling Out: Do you foresee any major arts marketing trends in 2016?
JP: Ah, I am afraid not. The only trend I can envision is that arts entities will continue to struggle to find an effective way to reach audiences. For some it may just be the struggle to overcome the inertia of their own organizational history. Surmounting that might constitute a major personal victory. I don’t know that any new unified theory will emerge over the next year.

Selling Out: And finally, just a few fun questions: Favorite show in 2015?
JP: I don’t know that there was any show that bowled me over and inspired me personally. The shows I really appreciated this year were the ones that my audiences kept talking about long after they were over.

This year, people were amazed that Garrison Keillor talked for two hours straight fueled by a single mouthful of water. Nine months later, the folks at our local coffee shop still talk about how friendly the Annie Moses Band was when they got stuck in town during a snow storm. Every time he passes the building, the three-year-old grandson of our museum director keeps asking to come in and see Alash, a Tuvan throat singing group that performed here, because he was fascinated by the sounds they were able to make.

Selling Out: What are you reading?
JP: I am a voracious reader, but I don’t pretend to read anything with gravitas. I read enough arts and cultural industry stuff for my job and blog. I am a fantasy literature guy, and this week I am reading David Anthony Durham’s Acacia. I will probably grab the next book in the series, plus a couple others from my library this weekend in preparation for holiday travels. (Support your local library!!!)

Selling Out: Who plays you in the musical version of your life story?
JP: Robbie Coltrane, even though he has about 20 years on me. I am not sure if he can sing, but he would probably still acquit himself better than I could.

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