I read this marvelous post by Jon Stancato of the Stolen Chair Theatre yesterday. He had given a very provocative speech about the future of arts organizations. His post is actually called The Speech That Got Booed!
The boos were for this courageous statement: But, I don’t want to be a charity, in large part because I don’t think our social cause has enough merit to compete with other charities who actually change lives on a grand scale.
But what really caught my eye was this sentence: In this interconnected, digital age, if our art can serve as a meeting place for communities of like-minded individuals to connect, celebrate, and be challenged, then we might find a way of restoring theatre’s primacy in people’s lives and creating sustainable theatre-making organisms (not organizations).
So, let’s substitute social networks for organisms and see what Stolen Chair and other theatres could look like as one. This is, in fact, the topic of Beth Kanter’s and my upcoming book, The Networked Nonprofit.
Here are a few ways that Stolen Chair, or any theatre, could begin to morph their organization into a social network that will be less expensive to run and maintain and more connected to its real and virtual communities:
1. First step is become facile with the social media toolset. Stolen Chair is doing a magnificent job of this on their blog and through Twitter.
2. Move from transactions to relationships. All organizations have a tendency towards isolation and insulation. It’s hard work to reach out and begin to build relationships with other people and organizations. Particularly when we all feel so busy all the time anyway. But, the only way to change the shape of an organization, to begin to open itself up, is to connect through conversations. And social media make it so easy to do. Just start, don’t worry about having an agenda or a plan, start to talk and connect and share with other people and organizations. Those other theatre groups aren’t your competition, they are resources for ideas and space and people. Because they are so often financially poor historically, arts organizations tend towards transactional ways of thinking. In blunter terms, fannys in seats trumps relationships. Unless those relationships are people with big checkbooks. That may have worked at one time, although I’m sure that it ever really did, but it certainly doesn’t know when people have lots of choices of where to go and what to see and will not stand for being treated like ATM machines.
3. Trust people. People want to help, they want to be involved in meaningful organizations and efforts, and that includes arts organizations. An organization doesn’t have to change lives on a grand scale as Jon said to giving meaning and be important. Organizations inhabited by passionate people, and increasingly paid staff, can often forget that people, those folks out there sitting on their coaches, want to help. They want to be creative and help shape efforts. To see some examples of this, take a peek at what Nina Simon writes about the wonderful ways that museums are developing participatory cultures using social media on her blog Museum 2.0.
4. Lose Control. Jon, are you and your colleagues ready to turn yourselves over to your network? Are you ready to let people in to really help shape the productions, or do you really just want them to buy a ticket, sit, watch, clap and go home? (I think you do want to involve them, Jon, that’s why I’m picking on you!) It does not mean that the artists give up all control, it means that they invite people to participate, to help shape an effort, to share their efforts, to be full, creative participants in places and works that never allowed them to fully participate before. One such effort was an exhibition hosted by the Brooklyn Museum of Art called Click! A Crowd Curated Exhibition.
And, for gosh sakes, whatever you do, stay away from bricks and mortar!! Investing in space may seem like a good idea – oh how lovely it would be to have our very own home, but in the long run, for the overwhelmingly number of theatre and performing arts groups it is an enormous finance drain. And this is why relationship building with other organizations and individuals is so key to the success of arts organizations, because shared resources are the only way we’re going to make it.
It’s a very exciting time to rethink arts organizations. The Nonprofit Finance Fund has a fantastic paper on reimagining the capital structure of arts organizations here. But we also need to reimagine participation in the arts, as Clay Shirky would put it, by the crowd formerly called the audience.