Brooklyn Arts Council

Creativity vs Marketability: Is the Audience Always Right?

When do we stop developing and start marketing?

This one might make you upset, but it’s come to my attention that some of you need a swift kick in the ass, so grab your blankie and put your therapist on speed dial and keep reading.

Chad M. Bauman of the venerable Arena Stage recently reported playwrights’ complaints that marketing directors “kill new work” because they can’t find new audiences. Chad makes some valid points about the mission of arts marketing being to support new work, but I fear playwrights, artistic directors, and others will construe that he means they can gift-wrap any piece of art, present it to marketing, place hand on hip, snap, turn, walk away, sit backstage with arms folded complaining that the house is half-empty.

We all need to agree that point of producing professional work is to do so with integrity to the piece, but also to its potential audience. Even the best work must be done at the right time, in the right place, with the right team – from creation to communications.

Note to marketing directors: this is not a free pass to expect your work to be done for you. Artistic directors are under no obligation to bring you a perfectly relevant piece that magically sells out the second you post it on your website (and if any of you are in possession of said piece, please email me immediately).

But.

Why is it okay in the arts to put something out just because a few people, even well-qualified people, think it’s good? I’m not saying that the point of art is mass appeal, but I am saying that a primary goal of business, even artistic business, must be to turn a profit. I will shout at every professional playwright, director, performer, artist, till I’m blue in the face: YOU DESERVE TO BE PAID FOR WHAT YOU DO.

This is the difference between running an organization and having a hobby. God bless community theatre, church choirs, drink & draws – it gives inspired people a place to honor their interest, passion, and talent. But lord knows Nike isn’t handing me a contract because I enjoy going for a jog. Do you understand where I’m going here?

If you are in business, you should be making money. If what you’re doing isn’t making money, you need to either change what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, or get out of the way of people who are doing it correctly.

If you are in an artistic business, you should also be benefitting your community. Your community is not you, your friends, and your board. Your community is anyone within driving distance of your theater. Yes, it’s marketing’s job to demographic-ize that population within an inch of its life, but how about taking a pulse before administering an antidote? The Vagina Monologues is an exemplary and important work, but I’d be foolish to produce it in a big house for a long run in an area that’s predominantly male, conservative, and closeted. It should be no surprise to any arts professional that talent does not necessarily equal success.

So no, you do not get to produce a show just because it’s good. It must be relevant, and it must be well-timed. Partner with your marketing team – as well as your fundraisers, board, creatives, education department, hell, your volunteers – and identify why it’s a worthy project not just in stand-alone merit, but also for ability to reach audiences.

And then yes, your marketing director should be experienced, creative, and resourceful enough to get on board and market the hell out of your wonderful work.