Berkshire Forum 2010

The Commerce of Culture

By: - Sep 18, 2010

Forum Forum Forum Forum Forum Forum Forum Forum

During the three days of lectures, panels, screenings and performances of the first annual Berkshire Forum the arts were relegated to a single panel. The theme of The Commerce of Culture: Artful Renovation & Effectiveness in the Non Profit Sector was scheduled from 10:45 am to noon. It was chaired by Helena Fruscio, the director of Berkshire Creative, and included the panelists Stuart Chase, Executive Director, of the neighboring Berkshire Museum, just steps from the Colonial Theatre where the event was staged. David Fleming, the now resigned Executive Director of the Colonial, a development that has evoked much speculation, was joined by Laurie Norton Moffat, Director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, Stephen Perkins, Executive Director of the Bennington Museum and Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

It is puzzling that the organizers, Tina Chase and Mary Collins George, opted to limit and downplay a focus on the arts and the essential creative economy. During the event there were repeated remarks about the quality of life and branding of the Berkshires. The primary reason why some many of us have settled in the region is the combination of natural beauty, a rural environment with its laid back lifestyle, and, most essentially, a formidable range of world class cultural institutions. The foremost of which is the Tanglewood Festival in Lenox, which in slightly more than two months averages 300,000 visitors.

If Tanglewood is the matrix for Southern Berkshire County, and its satellite arts organizations, Mass MoCA and the Clark Art Institute, coupled with the Williamstown Theatre Festival, serve as the primary attraction for Northern Berkshire County. Over twelve months, particularly during the summer season, the number of visitors to those cultural institutions compare to and may exceed the audience for Tanglewood.

The summer season of 2010 was a great success for the Northern Berkshires. The Clark was mobbed for its special exhibition Picasso Looks at Degas. The Williamstown Theatre Festival, during the final season for artistic director, Nicholas Martin, was back on track with several sold out shows. Mass MoCA continues to be a destination for its Sol LeWitt building which opened last year during the museum’s 10th season. This summer it made a bold and risky move to stage the Wilco Rock Festival which sold 5,000 weekend passes.

As we have reported Joe Thompson, the director of Mass MoCA, was included in another panel which focused on the pitfalls and challenges of starting new ventures. He primarily discussed the ten years of fund raising and development that led to opening the museum eleven years ago. It was more a jaunt down memory lane than an opportunity to emote on the real and sustained challenges for arts organizations.

The primary strength and interest of the Forum appeared to be the business and entrepreneurial community. It is perhaps the milieu in which Chase and George feel most comfortable. But it pushed to the periphery the fragile nature of the arts community. Two major institutions, The Mount and Shakespeare & Company, have struggled to survive and work their way out from under overwhelming debt. They have made considerable progress but it is curious that their challenges, as well as those of other arts organizations, were not a part of the mix of the three day think tank.

It is mind boggling that none of the four major theatre companies, S&Co, Barrington Stage Company, Williamstown Theatre Festival, or Berkshire Theatre Festival, were represented on any of the panels.

There were other major issues and agendas that were just left off the table. On many occasions, during questions to other panels, there were references to efforts toward creating more of a year round climate through arts and cultural tourism. A major issue is the branding and marketing of the Berkshires as a destination for nature, leisure, and cultural resources. Another is the aging and obsolescence of audiences. During our time in the Shed, or in the audience at the theatre, the median age appears to be 65. With its commitment to sustaining traditions just what is Tanglewood doing to develop new and younger audiences? By comparison the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival is remarkable for its risk taking. Which draws enthusiastic audiences. Other than an average of five to six non classical evenings in its season, and the Labor Day Jazz Festival,  Tanglewood appears to be reluctant to take chances. 

This season Mass MoCA gave us an indication of the direction of its second decade of programming with the Wilco Festival. Thompson stated that the performing arts represent half of the museum’s annual budget. This is a far cry from the original model, formed by Tom Krens 21 years ago, to create a static permanent installation of minimal art. That rather precisely describes the strategy of Dia Beacon to which Mass MoCA is most often compared. Or the Chinati and Judd Foundations in Marfa, Texas which we visited and reported on in May. Compared to which, MoCA is far more vibrant and inventive.
Thompson recalled that when they were developing Mass MoCA the question was constantly raised as to whether visitors would return? For many people one day with minimal art, rather like a concert of tuba music, goes a long way.

During Thompson’s session I asked him to discuss the importance of the Wilco Festival. While the numbers, just 5,000, were less than expected the event attracted visitors who have never been to the Berkshires. Picking up on that point Thompson asked rhetorically if the audience might guess just how many were Berkshire residents. It was stunning to learn that they were just over 500 or ten percent of the overall audience. Of course there is good and bad news about that. The good news was bringing visitors from all over the country and several foreign nations to the Berkshires. The bad news is why so many locals shunned the event.

As is so often the case The Berkshire Eagle sent a mixed message warning people to stay home and bar the doors against the great unwashed invasion. There were horror stories about traffic, parking, hopped up kids, and a mess of trouble. None of which happened. We were able to park down town with a ten minute walk to the campus. Yes, there were glitches but overall it was a wonderful event for all who attended.

Regarding the Wilco event Thompson revealed interesting statistics like how many strollers there were. It was a true family event with lots of fun to share with the kids. Also those 5,000 rockers thoroughly explored the galleries and LeWitt building. The band commented on this from the stage stating what a great setting it was compared to most such festivals that are sited on corn fields in rural America. Usually there is nothing else to do but hear rock music.

As he has stated before Thompson said “I can’t see any real reason why we won’t do it again.” Previously he told me and I reported that there is no five year contract with Wilco. Others have doubted that assertion. Just why would an institution take on such risk and start up costs without a contract?

In a follow up question I asked if there were figures for the economic impact of the event on North Adams and Williamstown. He responded “$1.5 million which is just about as much as we lost.” Oops.

All of the arts organizations focus on strategies to attract new and younger audiences.

Jacob’s Pillow has succeeded in raising $150,000 to be matched with its own funds to renovate the stage for its Inside/ Out program of free performances. They occur in the late afternoon in a wooded setting. Families bring their kids and picnic baskets. This program exposes kids to the vitality of dance. Pillow is a world class and accessible resource.

There have been many efforts to provide affordable tickets for local audiences. Recently it was announced that there is an initiative to join with the organization Arts Boston which specializes in selling reduced price tickets. Tanglewood sells cheaper seasonal lawn passes to Berkshire residents.
Barrington Stage has just launched Barrington Stage 2.0 a technology initiative combining video, blogging and an on line forum. It is targeting younger audiences in the manner in which they communicate. Very savvy. To develop this program Barrington is one of five national theatre companies to be funded. It will receive $51,600 over two years in matching funds from the 2010 New Generation Program for Future Audiences administered by the Theatre Communications Group.

This is just the kind of dialogue missing from the Berkshire Forum. Perhaps next time. What follows are minutes from that single arts session.

Helena Fruscio How is the recession  changing your outlook?

Laurie Norton Moffatt It is as you have experienced it in your personal lives and families. The focus is on what is the core to your mission with a reduction of the revenue stream and its impact on reserve funds, through a reduction of visitors and sales in the shop. That said it has been the best fund raising season ever.  People have stepped forward with that much needed extra support. There has been a rebound of attendance up 15% this year over last year. The recession is stabilizing with rebalancing. The new economy is not as good as the good old days. But it is always a good time to make a case to people who care about you.

Stuart Chase We are off 30% but the school tours at 14, 000 visitors are up 7%. We work with the curriculum  of the public schools because of the diversity of the collections. There has been no compromise in what we offer like what is shown in the Little Cinema.We didn’t stop the programming but we have tightened the belt. We have been reduced from 32 to 26 full time employees. There has been an impact on the staff. But from public’s point of view it is not different. There is no doubt that this is a difficult time but we have a long history of serving the community. People don’t see us as that much different.

Stephen Perkins I echo what Stuart has said. We have similar issues of reducing staff but not reducing program. There was a highway built around Bennington in 2004. It resulted in a 32 % drop off in attendance. We have initiated a strategic planning mission on how we relate to your community as an aside of a capital campaign.

Mark Volpe We have lost $100 million in endowment.  In terms of what the public is experiencing it is reassuring that attendance is incrementally up across the county.  James Taylor and Carole King were most successful.  Through the year we employ 1,100 which is now down by 80. We had three years of frozen salaries and cut the players by 20%.  They understood the challenges. We are mission driven. The trustees and board weathered short falls in endowment draw as well as the pension fund. We raised $12 million to bridge that gap. We are going forward but` have to be more flexible and responsible. It is just a fact of life. We plan our programs two to three years out. I just spent a week in New York at the Metropolitan Opera.  They plan five to six years in advance. They have people who can give them $25 million to get through rough patches.

David Fleming We are constantly readjusting and balancing as we wax and wane. In terms of business we are in entertainment and education. A lot has changed through the  past decade of ups and downs of economics change in how people spend spare time. The idea of spending 5, 6, or 7 hours a day on a computer was not something we had to compete with in the past. There were options of TV and  Movies instead of coming to an  institution like ours. The world has changed and how we deliver services has changed in tough economic times.

MV The challenge is how to monetize a successful season of 300,000 visitors. People visit our web site in large numbers but we haven’t found a way to monetize that in live real time. The challenge is how to see a Tanglewood performance in Malaysia. We have to figure out issues of advertising and subscriptions. How to drive people to the experience. The next generation may see it differently. The sports people have done it successfully with television. For most people there is nothing better for sports than media. So the question is how to exploit the internet to drive people to events? How to get people out? But what you see on the screen (like the Met Live in HD) is nothing like experiencing a live performance.

LNM There is a balance of on site experiences.  We are a community based museum but also the home of illustration art. In the order of scale we have 150,000 visitors at our site while another 300,000 a year see our traveling exhibitions. Some 650,000 visit the website. There is a plan for digitizing the collection. You are seeing two very different museums; a community based one, and a museum with an iconic collection, visible world wide on line. Access to the content is something we all have to figure out. The internet people have an expectation to visit on line for free. We have to expect that. We have to be players.

MV Nobody has figured how to monetize the internet. It’s a huge investment. Regarding visual down loads have museums figured it out?

LNM Unlike the Met’s digital Live in HD we can’t monetize our digital content. We don’t own the intellectual property rights to our collection. We do well with our educational curricula that goes into digital text books. You need to own the content. We need to explore new streams of revenue with an entrepreneurial approach. Our industry was more staid in past generations.

SC Regarding curriculum based on line opportunities, to see and visualize new things, we get more and more requests for our material on line.

SP We are using our web platform for branding and, again, to sell curriculum within the scope of our budget. It must be a small part of my rhetoric with the folks who hold  copyrights. (The museum owns extensive works by Grandma Moses) That are protected, that aside, it is a job persuading people that it (Moses collection) is not the cash cow of all cash cows.

MV It’s about branding  and cutting through noise content. People with resources and research and development can’t monetize the net. The people in journalism are an excellent example. People are not reading newspapers. The ad revenue on websites is just 10% of what it is for print.

LNM There is a non monetary aspect of the web that is transformative in the world today. The digital divide represents a generation gap. Young people live on the internet. I have a  teenager. They expect to access all of their information on the net for school papers, social networking, and jobs. It is the first place they go. If we are not present in that space we are off the radar. We don’t known where it is going but you have to stay present.

SP Regarding staying current. We don’t want with our Grandma Moses collection to have an adversarial relationship.  But with on line communities people are thinking about it. If the conversations work out well it helps us to build a donor base.

DF Through print media we want people to come and see and enjoy it. How to say that in a print ad? But to access us through links we are able to do amazing things with new media which we are exploring.

HF How is it different between being an entrepreneur and running a non profit?

MV I reject that. We are not entrepreneurs. That was not the motive when Koussevitzky founded Tanglewood or when the Crane family decided to found  a museum (Berkshire Museum). It is happening more quickly now. It is amazing how strong the instinct for survival is. We all adjust and a lot faster. We were always entrepreneurial. It is not like we have just discovered religion.

LNM Organizations that survive have to be entrepreneurial. There are customer based sales that are not different than those for profit. We need to have experience for people to vote by coming and giving. You have to be inventive to present that. A museum is part of the social enterprise community. It provides a good many services you might not have to pay for in other more socialist countries.  We are built into social services and other resources like health care. If we don’t make a profit doing it we can’t continue to provide that service. The for profit/ not for profit lingo just doesn’t work.

SC Most of us are into Yankee ingenuity. In a multi media exhibition like Wrapped we have so many objects that have been sitting forever in storage. There is risk taking involved in how we organize exhibitions.

DF Every program is a new product. The Colonial has 30 risky products to promote each year.

MV When you talk in New York in terms of branding cultural institutions the  branding of the region, to our credit, is not how we branded it fifty to sixty years ago during the era of GE. During the past ten days of attending functions in NY everyone mentioned  how we have not been aggressive in talking about how to market the region.

HF How does this impact your organizations?

SP We are just a fifteen minute drive to the Clark (in Williamstown). When people think of Vermont they don’t think in terms of culture. They think of cheese and beer. Culture is  not on top of the list.

MV What makes the BSO unique is that we are one orchestra but, because of Tanglewood, we are  able to effect the music world because we are training the  next generation of players. That is a part of branding the orchestra. At Tanglewood we have 200 employees and are educating 150 fellows. We loose $4 million a season but it gets absorbed. We would never consider cutting that program. So we are not just financially driven. In the  shoulder season we do more non classical programming. We consider that. I feel motivated by our mission. For profit share holders one expects a return or dividend. We all want to maintain financial equilibrium but it is different from delivering a profit to share holders. I don’t think of making a profit. There is a separate holding company which is concerned with that but making a profit is not my philosophy for the BSO.

DF Our institution is so unique. This theatre was designed by an architect who designed 300 theatres. Most are now gone but this is just one of two that have been brought back to their original condition.

LNM It is unique to have Tanglewood. It is an asset that makes us different than other communities in the country. We are open all year round. Our attendance doesn’t spike but our best economic months are during Tanglewood. Like other seasonal organizations we need to take care of Tanglewood and Tanglewood needs to take care of us. It is a fragile relationship. Everyone should realize how Tanglewood sustains us during the summer season.

SC We all understand each other. That’s why we all meet on a regular basis.  Berkshire  Creative started at the Rockwell Museum. We are all sensitive to the situation.

HF What about partnerships?

MV I been in Boston for 14 years and met with the museum director maybe once. (Malcolm Rogers of the MFA?) It is different here. S&C exists here. There is a concentration of real high level institutions that are not playing it safe. Maybe there are a few other places around the country but nothing like this is happening in a non urban environment. There is the issue of marketing the region and the way the state responds to financial pressure. You don’t cut things that generate money. The state cut marketing for tourism. The issue is how to promote Lenox and towns that don’t have resources to cut through the noise.  We spend well over a million to promote Tanglewood. The question is how to drive people to the Berkshires? How to play to the strength of the summer season? During fall foliage there are still great museums to visit. There should be more focus on that.

LNM There are ticketing promotions between Tanglewood and the Clark, Chesterwood. We did a joint ticket promotion with Mass MoCA. If you have enjoyed Norman Rockwell now go see Sol LeWitt. Go figure. We are good at moving people around within the community but there is not enough money to market the Berkshires outside the region. Culture and hospitality is the largest driver of 25% of the job base in the Berkshires. But between all of us there is not a million for marketing and advertising other than Tanglewood.

SC Because of where we are we spend a tremendous amount  $200,000 on marketing. Berkshire Museum spends a lot on marketing, a tremendous amount. We need to leverage our product. We are known in New York but elsewhere not so well.

LNM We reach 10,000 students a year through our historical civil rights paintings. Through scholarships at the Rockwell center we are constantly training and teaching. We have worked with visitors all over the country.

MV Our thinking about education has shifted. We would bus in 2,000 kids for Pops. We couldn’t tell which kids were prepared or not. We had to cut that back 50%. We have corporate partners that donate $2.5 million a year to get instruments into the schools. To be truly educated you need the arts. Music is one of the disciplines. The focus is on various entities that don’t appreciate that the country is obsessed with sports. Music is created through an ensemble.  It is an important learning experience. In a sort of way that playing football is also an ensemble experience.