A few months ago, Erik Gensler at Capacity Interactive invited me to contribute to his podcast, and I found myself describing what I see as a “people” crisis in arts and culture. I use this strong word, “crisis” because our field is entering a time of extraordinary transition, opportunity, and challenge. I believe and see that we must have well-equipped, capable people guiding us through that transition. People who take risks and experiment. People unafraid to fail and move through failure to success, or to something different. Our communities deserve this and actually need this from arts and culture. Our country does, too.
That episode resonated with a lot of people, and as a result, I’ve been thinking and talking about these ideas with increasing frequency, on behalf of our clients and within our own firm. I’ve been thinking about the impact that people make, and how much they matter.
Our late founder and my friend, Rick Lester, believed in people, too. Before his tragic passing four years ago this week, Rick surrounded himself with the people he loved the most. He invested in people by mentoring inside of and outside TRG Arts. He “leaned in” to people by teaching at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts and through his people-focused consulting work. Yes, Rick was data-driven and believed in its power to transform, but I know he also believed what we’ve recently begun saying at TRG:
Data doesn’t do. People do.
People are also the foundation of loyalty in arts and cultural organizations. It is for people that we create art and make cultural resources open and available. It is people who, through authentic marketing and fundraising campaigns, develop a sustaining connection to the art we produce. It becomes a symbiosis between patrons and their beloved arts organizations, where each party gives and receives in a virtuous cycle, connecting people to each other, our shared humanity, creativity and so much more.
Back in the 1990s, Fred Reichheld wrote a book entitled The Loyalty Effect that became a staple of the business book canon. In it, he argues that companies will fail if they focus only on the tactics and programs to manage consumer loyalty. Reichheld, the father of today’s oft-used and buzzed about Net Promoter Score (”How likely are you to recommend…”), suggests that true, profit-driving customer loyalty is achieved only when a company develops an integrated, organizational strategy that focuses on three groups of people: customers, staff, and investors. We’re evolving our loyalty counsel around this trifecta at TRG right now.
Customer loyalty? In the arts and culture industry, we have been working to build this in one way or another for a long time now. The aim of the subscription model was this and continues to be. At TRG, instead of the word customer we use the word patron, but it all comes back to people—patrons are the people who buy tickets, memberships, subscriptions, make donations, attend events.
Investor loyalty? In arts and culture, the concept of “investor” is different but no less applicable. When I think of TRG’s Advocate, Buyer, Tryer model of patron loyalty (photo), I can see it: when a patron moves up the loyalty pyramid a bit further north into Buyer and Advocate territory, we begin to see people in communities who donate, serve on committees and boards, attend events and generally help make art and culture happen. These, I think, are the investors, as are foundations, governments, corporations and more. The loyalty of these people are critical to arts and culture in ways we see clearly, and in general terms, we have developed systems to grow and deepen that loyalty.
Staff loyalty? What does that mean in a field that often under-pays, under-develops, and fails employees (and the organizations for whom they work) by not fairly managing performance and more? There are examples of positive change, to be sure. But I observe that as a field we’re still deeply conflicted about what we expect from and are willing to invest in staff. In the business of art and culture, we often believe people should sacrifice for the art, which can mean low pay, minimal systems, little professional development, and little attention given to the realities of successfully managing an organization. Investments in the artwork, programs, and even buildings are expected and encouraged, but investment in our people that support these things does not carry the same weight or urgency. We must pivot. Investing in the people that do, benefits the art and elevates the whole organization.
I wonder what Rick would say about these realities? While I can’t know for sure, I do know that he loved the arts, especially when it was good. Great symphonic music, thrilling theatrical productions…he loved and dedicated his career to helping great art thrive. He knew that people make these things happen. He built a firm that focuses on them and the practices that would help them grow themselves as professionals and their organizations’ impact on communities. I think he’d agree that it’s time to get serious about the challenges and opportunities on the horizon for arts and culture. And to do that, we need to get serious about people.
Our field, our communities and, indeed, our country deserves it.