Are you a college student or a young professional?
If so, when was the last time you attended a classical music concert, an opera, a ballet, or a symphony? Not recently I bet.
How about a museum, gallery, or theatre production? Maybe a different answer here.
Did you attend on your own accord? Or instead, were you influenced or forced (either by necessity or social pressure) by a parent, professor, or co-worker?
At some point in time while you were dressing in your Sunday church attire, did a smug grin come across your face when either you or someone else uttered “Oooh, how cultured!?” in a cringeworthy highfalutin tone?
That smirk, while fun and lighthearted to you, is a problem of nightmarish proportions for arts administrators across the country. To them it means that certainly now, and likely in the future, it is not a typical activity or purchase decision from your wallet. The fact of the matter is, all arts organizations — fine, traditional, mainstreamed, and avant-garde — not only want, but fiscally need the youth demographic. Whether through special outreach programs, additional programming, or subsidized ticket pricing, organizations see less naturally colored hair everyday. They’re slowly drowning in a sea of gray and blue hair. While many may be getting by at the present moment, all are concerned about their futures, fearing no one will replace your grandparents; few young people in attendance today do so on their own volition. Instead, they’ve looked to alternative outlets more accessible, trading in the mezzanine for a Macbook.
Prominent former New York Times business and culture columnist Judith Dobrzynski disagrees in a recent article from ArtsJournal. “Many people,” she believes, “don’t have the time for art or the inclination for it until they reach a certain age, which — anecdotally — seems to be somewhere in the 40s, give or take, after most people’s children have developed some independence.” Dobrzynski goes on to cite a recent Euro RSCG study which suggests that 63% of consumers around the world believe society’s obsession with youth has gotten out of hand. An article from MarketingCharts appears to support her conclusion, indicating 6/10 Millennials themselves believe too much marketing value is placed on them and their purchasing habits.
A bet you there are a good few marketers, like myself, who disagree with this thinking, citing brand and product loyalty studies. Many will cite exposure and experience with a product while young to be vital in purchasing decisions as people grow into their consumerism. In the age of today’s Millenials with more productions than ever before and technological alerts of offerings outside of a once-restricted sphere-of-knowing, tapping consumers while young is even more important. Building an affinity early is key, especially given this apparent advantage. Unfortunately, arts have consistently struggled capturing youth in the new long-tail landscape. The landscape has changed.
With the shift of arts and entertainment from experiential to digital, this becomes an even more pivotal and time-sensitive concern. With less and less young people provided with primary exposure of live arts every year, the target has already begun to shrink. Today, the emphasis is instead on a digital equivalent, largely due to cost, convenience to attain, and ease of continued, repeated use. While the digital arts and entertainment revolution has changed the experience from stage to screen, it has also largely impacted the economics behind it. In today’s economy, businesses based on technology continue to become more affordable every year with increased innovation, while those associated with labor only become more expensive (due to inflation and inability to increase efficient production), known as Baumol Cost Disease.
In fact, there is reason to think the situation could soon get worse. As the cost of admission climbs ever higher, the advent of supply-and-demand-based “dynamic pricing’’ ensures that tickets to hot shows [insert: the only shows these “casual viewers” are interested in seeing] are as expensive as the market will bear. On Broadway, there’s the additional scourge of “premium seats,’’ which for “Death of a Salesman’’ and “The Book of Mormon’’ have commanded nearly $500 apiece. Theater, an inherently expensive art form to make at the professional level, is in danger of becoming a boutique business. – Don Aucoin, Boston Globe
With a generation of Millenials suffering from student loans and postgraduate expenses, those without exposure or a cultivated interest in arts will not be motivated to spend the little leftover from each paycheck on expensive arts. When those tickets can be afforded ten to fifteen years in the future, a lack of interest and motivation will steer many away to spend elsewhere, likely on the more economical digital entertainment. To those who say there is too much focus spent on shifting demographics, I say look to fine and traditional arts over the next decade. Those sad negative outlooks you see year after year will spread across across the industry unless a major pivot is made.
Interning in the arts can be simultaneously the best and worst thing for you. While no one (in any industry) doubts the value of “real world” internship experience alongside academic coursework, the question of financial compensation for that work is often more uncertain. In almost all pre-professional college tracks, graduating without a few semesters or summers of related, professional work experience can be detrimental to one’s competitiveness for post-grad employment. In many industries even getting a first call from HR for an entry-level job requires a resume long enough to require leaving experiences off. Many companies will tell you working for them provides top-notch networking opportunities, a wealth of great minds, and a peak firsthand into how the industry works. I get that. What trips me up, however, is the next statement — “the experience will be your payment.”
I’m inclined to suggest they [prospective interns] refuse on principle — the practice is certainly unethical and may even be illegal – but if the only other option is to take an unrelated minimum wage position and the internship in question does, in fact, offer useful experience or the possibility of turning into a paying job, then perhaps it makes sense to accept it. There are internships for credit, but in some cases those are worse. Not only does a student work for free, she has to pay tuition for the privilege of doing so. The real solution is for any company offering internships to pay and then figure out how to recover the costs. - Edward Boches, CIO Mullen
Luckily, many top companies agree with Boches’ argument, a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers concluded that an ”unpaid internship offers no advantage to the job-seeking student.” A bold claim, I know, but interpret it this way: a company that pays values its interns for their minds, not just their bodies. While there are exceptions (startups, certain unfunded rights organizations, etc) this rule often holds true. If an intern will be in the thick of things with regular employees, they will be treated as one and compensated/stipend accordingly. If interns are off in silos doing “projects” or manning telephones, they (and their labor) can be forgotten. If a company can’t generate enough revenue to cover an intern’s minimum wage salary, the department should reassess their organization, structure, and hiring practices. Lately, unpaid internships have turned into a way for large, successful companies to get around reduced departmental budgets by establishing an “education” program for the next workforce. With students fighting one another to remain competitive, the wheel, unfortunately, continues to spin. Students lucky enough to secure paid internships, secure better internships and fare much better in the long run. If this were a question for the business sector, the answer would be cut and dry — unpaid internships are unfair and unethical.With the arts, however, it becomes a much more interesting discussion: often times, the money simply isn’t there.
Full disclosure: From my sophomore spring to the end of my senior year of college, I held four internships in the arts. Working for commercial theatre, non-profit theatre, and museum companies I held a position in every facet of the arts industry. Over the course of those four semesters, I clocked in over a thousand hours on the job, paid almost a thousand dollars in internship costs (unreimbursed errands, city travel expenses, etc), and was not paid a cent for my work. While a first unpaid position or two can be attributed to working your way up the ladder and gaining experience, it becomes more difficult with each subsequent semester when an intern has directly-related marketable skills.
Interning in the arts is a hustle. As friends interning (paid) at financial brokerages or with large production companies try to Gchat you to grab lunch at the local gourmet food truck, you pull your pockets inside out to find only the 3cents change from replacing the swinging lightbulb above your work station. You’re often not even seated at your computer. Often because you don’t have a computer. Or a desk. Often times arts orgs don’t even have enough physical locations for their army of interns to work. Bring your own laptop. Connect to wifi of the coffee shop downstairs. And whenever somebody’s about to open the door, get off the floor and step away or else your liable to get hit.
Unpaid work has become the accepted route into the creative professions. Theaters and arts companies have become over-reliant on free student labor and couldn’t run without it — these companies bank of young people’s passion to put in several months…or even years (there’s always one 26 year old intern) of tireless work without financial compensation or even promise of one in the future. Effectively it has become institutionalized. Arts internships are infamous for long hours and taking over the responsibilities of once salaried positions; without secretarial or support staffs, newest interns to the team often must start here to prove themselves before moving on. There is no graduation from unpaid internship to paid internship, simply because no paid positions exist. Arts interns often move between major companies doing the same work, hoping for that big break.
The unpaid internship can provide precious opportunities to learn and gain practical knowledge, or it can exploit the enthusiasm and inexperience of interns hoping to break into a highly competitive field. The model may need some refurbishing, but there is still value in an internship that mentors and educates interns. It is for the art world to think about how to nurture the new generation of arts professionals, so that (in the words of Arts and Labor), “pursuing one’s passion and affiliating oneself with a culturally prestigious entity [does not become] a socially sanctioned rationalization for highly precarious working conditions.” - Ariel Greenberg of the Center for Art Law
The point of it, is that without an “experience as payment” quotient, the core concept of an internship becomes null and void. Arts interns are often doing the work of a temp agency employee with a company that just happens to make/curate art — there is little direct involvement. While many of these companies are located in the major cities across the country, summer arts internships (the most prestigious) are only attainable to those who have familial support, eliminating a major population from even qualifying. In my research, few arts interns feel they get enough out of their experience, wishing for more hands-on work related to the craft. Instead, they are the support. Over and over again. It raises the question as to where the cut-off truly lies for the benefit of arts internships. A young, motivated arts administrator learns through their own experiences — maybe it’s time they embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and set out on their own models and projects.
What if your business model was based simply on what people were willing to pay for your service?
What if your arts organization, where profit margins are usually slim, left financial choices up to the consumer — admission charge or price per seat was whatever cash someone had on hand?
“Pay-what-you-can performances” and “suggested donations” are nothing new. Used both in the for-profit and non-profit business models, entrance price is not set, but rather is left up to the consumer to pay what they feel the performance or entrance is worth. Employed by museums, dance companies, and theatre organizations, pay-what-you-can performances are often used as a promotional tactic to stir buzz, drum up ticket sales, or draw in the elusive “youth demographic.”
From a college student’s perspective, nothing beats the the pay-what-you-can method. On a few specified, mid-week performances, theatres allow students to pay whatever they’re willing to (or can afford) to catch a show during the first few weeks of its run. While Boston’s arts scene is more affordable than New York, it’s still not “budget friendly.” The Museum of Fine Arts, located on Huntington Avenue, charges $22 for regular admission, but only offers a $2 discount to college students, less than a 10% discount. Many theatre companies also only offer these types of student discounts day-of-show in a standing room section or via a limited, competitive student rush system.
Pricing strategy is one of the most vastly variable equations in arts admin. In the for-profit arena, it’s analyzed to n-th degree, crunching numbers with complex formulas and spreadsheets. However, in the non-profit sector, things couldn’t be more different. These pricing strategies come up last minute as a response to ticket sales in the moment. Often times they come through suggestion from interns, or even from audience member feedback.
Studying in London this past fall, I was able to see the suggested donations approach implemented wide scale in the city’s museums. Now, I understand Arts Council England‘s subsidy of these organizations, but work with me here for a minute. Most museums in London had no posted entry fee, but were instead free for all to enjoy. Take the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, for example, one of the most impressive fine art museums I’ve had the experience of wandering through — totally gratis. This made it easy to pop in for a for an hour or two whenever I was in the area. I was never overwhelmed or exhausted by the art, but was able to comprehend and compact it in smaller sittings, something I would not be able to do in the States without a costly patron membership. By every entrance or exit they’d have a large glass container accepting suggested donations in any currency (approx. $5 USD). Often filled, I would always toss any loose change I had (dangerous with British pounds!) any time I wandered in.
Subsidy or not, this suggested donation approach is easier for museums to employ than theatres. With a finite number of seats, theatres need to mathematically make a certain dollar figure for each to turn a profit, or break even. Museums see this problem less often, as generally their facilities seldom reach the point when they are at capacity and forced to turn patrons away. Also, with the cost of acquiring art pieces and costly curation, museum admissions make up an infantismal piece of their revenues, often times ranging from 1-3%. Claire Rudd, of Glasstire, believes museums hesitate to increase prices to alter this ratio as the focus is on philanthropic giving which makes up a larger percentage of their contributions. A spike in admission costs could alienate this audience and negatively downturn these numbers, significantly outweighing the benefit.
Even with this pay-what-you-can approach, arts administrators still need to provide a baseline to their customers on what is an appropriate and acceptable donation. Whether this is done through mind games or clever copy in pamphlets and signage, it’s important to convey this number to their customers. While museum admittance may not effect a their bottom line and break-even point, the source of income cannot be entirely thrown away. As theatres have a specific and finite number of seats in the house, often times they’ll enforce minimum for a pay-what-you-can-performance (regionals: $14 with a $1 restoration levy). This, essentially, creates a $15 pricepoint that all pay; a blanket discounted rate for every seat in the theatre. Does it help make payments and generate buzz during a production’s critical period? Maybe. Is it sustainable? No.
But would theatres continue to push this strategy if it wasn’t in their long term interest? Beside providing a full house for actors to feed off (a convoluted side argument I won’t bring in at this point), does a heavily discounted house provide anything to theatres? One could argue coat checks, concession sales, and increased impressions on paid programme adverts, but I believe in most cases the cost of additional house staff would counterbalance that. The only positive I could see comes from a Development Dept and grant perspective; a non-profit with a lower average ticket price can apply for more and larger grants, the opposite step in becoming more self-sufficient, even for a non-profit. It only sets up a false reality for consumers on the actual and sustaining cost of fine arts.
In 2007, British rock band Radiohead tried a similar model for release of their record In Rainbows, releasing it a) separate from their record label (EMI) and b) without a price. The album was available only via digital download on Radiohead’s website and after that everything was up to the consumer:
Drop In Rainbows’ 15 songs into the online checkout basket and a question mark pops up where the price would normally be. Click it, and the prompt “It’s Up To You” appears. Click again and it refreshes with the words “It’s Really Up To You” — and really, it is. It’s the first major album whose price is determined by what individual consumers want to pay for it. And it’s perfectly acceptable to pay nothing at all. (via Time)
I think, unless the performance is total garbage and you feel the company has a nerve charging anything for such incompetent dreck, a fair “pay-what-you-can” payment is half the usual ticket price. Once the theater-goer has paid that, he or she should consider a tax-deductible contribution to make up the difference, or even exceed it. This might allow the company to keep its ticket prices out of the stratosphere, so live theater doesn’t join ballet, opera and polo as pastimes only the wealthy can afford. – EthicsAlarms