What’s the point of marketing the arts?

Posted by Amelia Northrup-Simpson, Oct 09, 2014 1 comment

Amelia Northrup-Simpson Amelia Northrup-Simpson

I recently started teaching a graduate-level arts marketing course. When I was first handed the materials from the last time the course was offered, I immediately began sorting through to determine what would be useful to students learning the basics of arts marketing.

Something was missing, though. The only time the previous class had addressed money was toward the end of the course to discuss budgeting.

While managing a budget is an important skill, the role of revenue is a much larger part of an arts marketer’s job.

The way I see it, an arts marketer has two basic objectives:

Objective #1: Bring the arts and audiences together

Objective #2: Take responsibility for marketing revenue goals

Objective #1 isn’t controversial. It’s the fun part of our job, the reason a lot of arts marketers want this job in the first place. It’s the inspiration behind some of the most creative, most engaging, and overall best marketing campaigns I’ve taken part in or have seen others do. Audiences should be at the center of everything marketers do; this type of focus is critical to an organization’s success.

And, when done well, it contributes to and fulfills the second objective.

Photo by  Rob Jewitt via flickr. Photo by Rob Jewitt via Flickr.

Objective #2 rubs some people the wrong way, though. In the nonprofit sector, we’re afraid to talk about revenue. Why is it that even fundraisers and marketers, whose job it is to meet donation and ticket revenue goals, shy away from talking about making money? I’ve talked to several extremely talented marketing directors who think it sounds bad to say that we get money from our audiences.

Yes, arts marketers get money from our audiences; it’s money that makes our mission possible. It’s money that brings musical instruments to kids, that supports the great artists of our time, and funds art that starts conversations about issues that affect our communities. The fact is, in order to create art, somebody somewhere needs to value it enough to support it financially. For many non-profit arts organizations these days, our audiences and most loyal patrons provide the majority of our income when compared to government, foundation, and corporate sources. So why not embrace that?

When arts marketers focus on engaging and developing audiences, we can’t ignore that what they pay allows our organization to be, to produce art, and to inspire our communities. As marketers, it’s our job to encourage that. That doesn’t mean that we’re “used car salesmen” types who will do anything for a buck. It doesn’t mean we’re tainting the artistic process with the vulgarities of finance. We are advocates for our audience and for the arts in our communities. And, to that end, we must also be stewards of our organization’s financial well-being.

We must be comfortable with that fact, comfortable to market with revenue in mind. We can’t continue to talk about audience engagement without acknowledging that while we want them to connect, we also need them to buy. On the other hand, we can’t just sell without offering the audience something to connect to. The goal is both, not one or the other. We have to earn their engagement and, when they’re ready, their financial investment.

To deny this disconnects arts marketers from the reality of running a non-profit business that depends on audiences. (And yes, arts organizations are businesses.) As I tell my class, a business model without income streams is no business model at all.

I have no qualms about teaching the next generation of arts leaders to think about, talk about, and base marketing plans around money from patrons. By acknowledging what audiences give us, both in terms of time and money, we honor and confirm their decision to support us. And we validate that art has value in our society.

Join Amelia, Eric Winick of JCC Manhattan, Khady Kamara of Arena Stage, and Molly Riddle Wink of Denver Art Museum at the NAMP Conference for “Diversifying the Portfolio: Creating Holistic Campaigns in a Brave New World” on Saturday, Nov. 8 at 2:15 p.m.

The Arts Marketing Blog Salon is generously sponsored by Patron Technology.

1 responses for What’s the point of marketing the arts?


Lee Anne says
October 09, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Well said!

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