Vermont Arts Council

The (Arts Marketing) Lowe Down

The following commentary was written by Jim Lowe, Arts Editor of the Rutland Herald and The Times Argus, for the Sunday, April 12, 2015 issue.

The Lowe Down: Why isn’t our arts marketing working?

Marketing has always been a challenge for the performing arts, particularly those with a more highbrow flavor. Still, the bigger organizations had imaginative staff members who plugged away, and usually succeeded.

But the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, which is playing the best it has in its history, is now having trouble filling Burlington’s Flynn Center, to say nothing of Rutland’s Paramount Theatre. And Weston Playhouse, delivering the highest level of theater productions in the state, is seeing decreasing ticket sales.

Both organizations have able marketing directors, a strong web presence, wonderful brochures, good media presence and other marketing tools. And largely these methods work — but not well enough.

The problem can be summed up in one sentence: They don’t know what they’re missing!

Fewer and fewer people these days have benefited from a liberal arts education that includes theater, classical music and jazz, dance or visual arts. It’s not that folks don’t like the aforementioned; they simply don’t have any real knowledge as to what it is.

When the VSO added pops concerts and dumbed down programming — which it mercifully stopped doing — it only brought in a new crowd of old folks. Theaters focusing on big musicals and silly superficial comedies ended up bringing in even older audiences. (Is this what the arts are all about, anyway?)

Today’s arts marketing simply tells potential audiences that the performance is what it is and how good they think it is. Most Vermonters know about the VSO, and that it is good. And plenty know that Weston, Dorset, Northern Stage, Vermont Stage, St. Mike’s, Oldcastle and Lost Nation produce good theater.

But what most Vermonters don’t know is why it should matter to them.

Over and over, social media is the mantra of those hoping to attract a younger audience. Important to be certain, but it does pretty much the same as traditional media — only to a new audience.

The answer is hardly simple. Long term, education is the only marketing that really works. Here many organizations, such as Weston and the VSO, are taking their art into the schools — which sadly don’t often teach these subjects — creating the audiences of tomorrow.

But we need audiences today — so that is our challenge.

It’s time for arts organizations and marketing directors to get out of their comfort zones. It takes the imagination of an artist to convey the music, theater and art experience to those who don’t partake. Let the challenge begin.

And it’s time for the Vermont Arts Council to step up to the plate — as the problem is universal to Vermont arts organizations and artists. Perhaps brainstorming forums, modeled after the current and laudable Vermont Creative Networks meetings, could begin the process of relaying the arts experience to the uninitiated.

After all, artists and arts organizations are the most imaginative people in Vermont. Who else could have survived — and even thrived — in our recent economy.

As we know in Vermont, the problem is not the product.