In the past few months, New York City Ballet's new workout video made the
number-one spot on Amazon.com, and they have followed it up with a second "Ballerina
movie. While such deals are sure to draw sighs from dance aficionados, they may
also be the new reality. Public funding for ballet and other cultural activities
dropped off, and many nonprofits can no longer afford to hold themselves aloof
from the marketplace.
Cultural groups now have to work extra hard to keep audiences
coming back. Subscriptions to dance or theater seasons and memberships to
museums have not returned to pre-9/11 numbers, and many speculate that they
never will. Whether audiences are too busy or too broke, they are no longer
making long-term commitments to the arts. This means that cultural groups
need to work harder to make a lasting impression -- to be sure that, if
people enjoy one event, they will come back for more.
"Nonprofits are very open to change now," says D. K. Holland, a
communications consultant that works with nonprofits, primarily
on developing brand strategy. "Because of the funding situation, and the
increased competition for time and attention, leaders of nonprofits are
starting to realize that branding is extremely important."
Many arts groups
are taking various steps to establish their "niche," and
market their "product."
Promoting The Brand
Over the past decade, the lines between for-profit
and nonprofit sectors have been blurring. Museums, theaters, and art
galleries have increasingly turned to money-making enterprises, such as
stores, cafeÂ©s, and rentals.
Many nonprofits have become entrepreneurial
in their approach to corporate
sponsorship as well. With businesses becoming choosier about what they fund,
arts groups are offering tailored opportunities for corporations to reach
coveted markets: the young and hip, the well-heeled and leisure-minded.
Motors' recent donation of $10 million to the "America on
the Move" exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American
History, the largest single donation ever made to a cultural group, won the
car company naming rights, and a prominent place in all promotions. But
while museum curators insist that the car company has had no influence on
content, there have been accusations that the exhibit is a commercial for
GM. The Guggenheim's Armani exhibit drew similar criticism.
In the marketplace, the worst thing to
do is to imply that your product is a generic, and thus replaceable,
Branding helps to distinguish one product from another, and is just
important if you're marketing shampoo, a political candidate, or the latest
opera. Amid the many different entertainment options, arts groups are
struggling to communicate who they are, and what they are offering.
York Times reported last month that the one-year-old Museum of Sex
has had trouble attracting visitors even though its subject should,
theoretically, sell itself. But most of the press coverage has been
superficial because the museum has failed to communicate its mission-- to
history, evolution, and cultural significance of human sexuality through
exhibits on prostitution, erotica, burlesque, sexual freedom, and other
Importance of Design
With higher standards of design permeating every
aspect of culture (toasters, cars, even La-Z-Boy recliners), arts groups are
producing higher-quality publicity and marketing materials. Many graphic
designers work pro bono or at reduced rates for cultural groups.
is important is clear at place like the Brooklyn Academy of Music,
which was branded under Harvey Lichtenstein
as BAM. With the rechristening of
the institution, the venerable institution set aside
the baggage of the past (and confusion over its mission). BAM's
graphical logo and typeface; color-washed photography; trademarking (the
Next Wave Festival; BAMcafe; BAMcinatek; even the
BAMbus); and sleek
website create a coherent
sense of the organization's modern, forward-looking ambition.
value" to its brand by offering seminars,
discussions, and special events that deepen its audiences' ties to the
With the graying of audiences for culture,
producers have been working to cultivate the next generation of patrons.
Like niche marketers, many producers seek out "early adopters" individuals
already tuned in to their work, or willing to take risks and
rely on them to
Gen Art, an organization that showcases the work of up-and-coming
filmmakers, fashion designers, DJs, and visual artists, has built a business
out of niche marketing. The company was founded 10 years ago by two
young people who noticed that their artist-friends were having trouble
getting noticed by their peers. By cultivating contacts with friends and
acquaintances, Gen Art has built a list of more than 100,000 people who want
to hear about cultural events in their cities, New York, Los Angeles, Miami,
San Francisco, and Chicago. Corporations sponsor screenings, gallery
openings, and music events for the privilege of tapping into this young, hip
"You have to know where you are in your life cycle," Gen Art president,
Walden, says of this kind of niche marketing. "We started in the early
by putting up signs for events in SoHo and Chelsea. Putting up posters
wouldn't make sense for us now; we're focusing on getting to the press and
promoting what we do to the right people. We want to grow organically, and
keep the core audience happy."
Limits of Branding
In theory, effective branding can help arts groups to communicate
audiences and generate sustainable sources of financial support. But going
too far with corporate-style marketing risks backlash. Many people are drawn
to culture because it seems to be at least one degree removed from the
marketplace. Those who consider themselves outside a demographic box will
be turned off by too-blunt tactics. Corporate partnerships such as the one
between the Smithsonian and GM will be scrutinized closely by public and
private funders as well as audiences. And, in the current financial climate,
arts groups will continue to look for that elusive balance between the
commercial and the creative sides of art.
Martha Hostetter has written about the arts for the Village Voice, American Theater and Empire New York.
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