Go See the Art

Sean Dorsey Dance, BOYS IN TROUBLE. Photo by: Lydia Daniller

Sean Dorsey Dance, BOYS IN TROUBLE. Photo by: Lydia Daniller

Here’s a piece of advice for consultants working with arts and culture organizations: go see their art, not just their offices.

I have worked for 5 years exclusively with cultural organizations and have found that time spent walking through their galleries, watching their plays, concerts, dance performances, attending their film festivals and programming onsite and in-community has paid great dividends.

I should make clear that my consulting practice is centered around helping clients articulate where they want to go and then helping them get there. It’s about strategy, management, organizational development and sustainable business models. I do not advise curatorial or artistic choices.

So, why does it matter if I see a show or an exhibit?

In part because it is helpful for me to have the ‘customer’ experience and learn first-hand what’s its like to be a patron of the company or participant in their program.

But, candidly, that’s not the real benefit.

When it comes to evaluating the ticket-buying experience, for example, as it relates to the overall efforts to deepen audience engagement I trust the data more than my one-off visit and I am mindful that I am almost never the ‘target demographic’ for my client’s public programming anyway. Surveys, focus groups, well-designed user-experience studies are much more useful ways to gather intelligence (and developing and deploying these tools are all things we do at Vogl Consulting).

Honestly, the value in seeing an arts organization’s work is that it connects me viscerally and emotionally to their essential purpose – whether it’s a small-budget aerial dance company or a major metropolitan art museum.

Lofty language of most mission statements, notwithstanding, it’s when you see artists, curators, producers doing what they do best that you usually come away with an understanding of why this organization matters and just what the talent they’ve assembled is really capable of.

I have found that leaders at many arts organizations (especially ones led by practicing artists) are wary of being steam-rolled by a consultant charging into an organization without an appreciation for what makes their work distinct. There are 50,000 arts nonprofits in America, there are hundreds of single-choreographer dance companies and dozens of Shakespeare Companies. And, sure, there are common characteristics among many of them. But when the curtain goes up the experiences they each create are different. And, as removed as the on-stage experience may appear to be from the companies’ fundraising plan or Board governance structure I maintain that it is to a consultant’s advantage to think about how all the parts connect to bring the arts experience to life in the most fully realized way possible.

My varied clients know that I am not as smart as them when it comes to the work they create and present.

It’s ok.

If I had a PhD in art-history, had experience as a literary manager or was a trained musician or dancer that might be handy, but that that’s not why I’ve been hired: that’s the knowledge base my clients already have and don’t need to pay me for.

What’s critical is that I am curious about the craft and the creativity that distinguishes them – whatever the medium or discipline. So much the better if, after a performance or screening or a visit to an exhibit, I can reflect on the aspects of the experience that resonated for me, or fell flat. This doesn’t require any special skill and I encourage all the consultants who work with arts organizations (looking at you book-keepers and IT professionals, fellow strategic planners and retreat facilitators) to make sure that during your next engagement you make time to see the art.