Category: Arts and Culture

Happy 20th Anniversary, Karla Raines!

Karla Raines of our company is fond of saying that you have to do something for 10,000 hours to become an expert at it.  We at Corona believe that she’s right, because as she celebrates her 20th year at Corona Insights this week we’ve seen the impact of her 40,000 hours of strategic planning experience.  We can confidently say that she’s an expert four times over.

As consultants, our presence and power tends to be diluted across a large number of clients.  From an individual client’s perspective, we come in, do our thing, and then we glide back out to the periphery until we’re needed again.  But in reality, we’re not just waiting in the wings for the next call – we’re working with other clients.  Over the years, Karla has illuminated strategic paths for hundreds of clients.

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Colorado Media Project

If you’d like to learn more about how Coloradans access arts and culture, and how the news media interacts with the arts, we’ve got some good news for you.  The Colorado Media Project has been working Colorado Public Radio, Denver, and Rocky Mountain Public Media to study these issues (with support from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and Gates Family Foundation), and Corona Insights was part of the team. 

We conducted a large statewide public survey that’s chock full of interesting information.  You can go here to learn more and to read our report on the topic, as well as the results of a community listening project conducted by Hearken, a firm that develops engagement strategies for newsrooms.

Arts & culture: What do Coloradans want to know? [Event]

On November 8th, come to the Colorado History Center and hear Corona Insights and our friends at the Colorado Media Project talk about the intersection of arts and information:  how people participate in the arts, how they find out about things to do, and other interesting things about the news media as it relates to arts and culture.

Speakers will include:

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Arts and Culture Blog Series Recap

With the end of 2018 just around the corner, we also end our 2018 blog series on arts and culture. Over the past few months, we covered a couple of different topics within arts and culture. First, we had fun catching up with some of our past clients and collaborators who work in arts and culture:

We also spent some time thinking about the definition of arts and culture and how to study it:

Finally, we looked at some pressing issues in the world of arts and culture:

It feels like such an exciting time to be doing research,evaluation, and planning in arts and culture. We can’t wait to see what new projects come up in 2019!

To stay on top of everything we cover, sign up for our quarterly newsletter, The Corona Observer.

Be sure to stay tuned to the Radiance Blog next quarter for our next blog series topic!

The arts and…cannabis?

Medicinal cannabis has been legal in Colorado since 2000, with recreational cannabis making its legal debut in 2014. Since then, attitudes towards cannabis in the Denver area, as well as nationwide, have shifted. The taboo surrounding cannabis has slowly begun to shrink away. As we approach this new horizon, we must ask ourselves—how can the cannabis industry and the arts come together to ensure the success of both industries? I recently attended a CBCA panel discussion on this exact topic. Gathering legal, industry, and non-profit leaders who work in the cannabis space, the panel discussion encouraged us all to open our minds and think differently about the future interconnectivity between the arts and cannabis.

RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist on Unsplash

While Denver is fortunate to have a robust arts community, this can sometimes lead to competition over funding. As such, arts organizations are consistently looking for new ways to fund and expand their programs and offerings. Cannabis organizations can fulfill this need and serve as a new door for funding. While cannabis companies may not be as flush with cash as we may think, they are actively seeking ways to connect in meaningful ways with their communities. New funding avenues also open doors for further democratizing of art in the metro area. It opens up inclusive opportunities for artists and art mediums that may be overlooked by traditional art spaces such as galleries or museums. Additionally, cannabis companies are inherently collaborative. The regulations around cannabis in Colorado are stringent thus causing companies to embody a culture of collaboration in order to work effectively, efficiently, and legally with state regulators.

Additional funding opportunities and meaningful collaborative partnerships may sound too good to be true. And in some sense, it is. Federally, cannabis is still recognized as an illegal substance with no medical benefits. Therefore, any arts organization must carefully consider the legal implications of partnering with a company in the cannabis space. Tom Downey, a lawyer who was on the CBCA panel I attended, noted that while accepting money from a company associated with a federally illegal substance does present some risk, there are numerous examples of other companies who have not experienced negative repercussions related to receiving funds from the cannabis industry. One example Downey offered was the “Adopt-A-Highway” signs that line the interstate. Several of these signs are sponsored and funded by cannabis dispensaries or other ancillary businesses meaning that in the strict legal sense, CDOT is breaking the law. However, no criminal action has ever been taken against them. For nonprofit organizations in particular, there may be a fear around regulatory repercussions, such as your 501c3 status being revoked. Downey noted that this has not happened yet either.

If your organization may be interested in developing a relationship with a cannabis company, there are three critical steps that must be taken:

  • Get your board’s buy-in
  • Set clear expectations about goals for your partnership
  • Talk to a lawyer or legal advisor about your organizations’ specific risk potential

Convincing a board to accept money from the cannabis industry may be a tough topic to navigate. The CBCA panel suggested selling the board on an increased revenue stream, transparently communicating the risks and rewards of a partnership, and pointing out comparable businesses that are already successfully working with the cannabis industry. If your board is hesitant to enter into a relationship with a cannabis company, another option is to work with ancillary businesses, such as insurance providers, package producers, or marketing firms that work with those in the cannabis industry but are not directly related themselves.

Once the board has given a clear go-ahead, it is important to seek out partnerships with companies and organizations that are open to a relationship that has clearly defined shared goals. As with most partnerships, cultural “fit” is important to consider. 

Consulting a legal advisor never hurts either, as your organization assesses the risks and rewards of partnering with a cannabis company. Lawyers, such as Tom Downey, have extensive experience helping clients handle the federal, state, and local implications of such a partnership.

In our work, we often engage non-profits in the arts and culture space who are looking for new ways to raise money for capital campaigns. We have a saying at Corona— “money follows bold action”. In Colorado, cannabis is a $1.6 billion industry, with slightly fewer than 400 operating dispensaries. As we face the brave new world of cannabis legalization, we here at Corona are interested to see how “cannabis social responsibility” has the potential to disrupt the nonprofit and arts space. Enhanced arts and cultural offerings contribute to a vibrant and engaged community. In the next 3 to 5 years, we anticipate the taboos related to cannabis to reach a tipping point, where the dated negative associations with cannabis subside. Given that, now is the time to think about how your organization will maneuver a changing philanthropic landscape.

How Allentown is using art to shape its downtown

In 2015, SeanKing and his colleagues reached out to Corona to learn more about creating a cultural plan for their city of Allentown. We spent more than a year working together to produce the Allentown Arts &Culture 20:21 Plan.It has been so interesting to see how cities of all sizes are using arts to revitalize their downtowns. I was very excited to catch up with Sean recently and hear about what Allentown has done since revealing their cultural plan.Below is an interview that captures some of the highlights of how Allentown is using art to shape its downtown.

To start us off,can you tell us a bit about your background and role in arts and culture in Allentown?

For over 25 years, I’ve been working in the world of marketing for non-profits and small to medium sized businesses as the principal of my own consulting firm. In 2013, an opportunity arose through one of my clients to become involved with the revitalization of the city of Allentown which had launched a plan for $1 billion worth of reinvestment from a state tax program designed to reinvigorate Pennsylvania’s third largest city. I had little experience with concepts such as “arts-led economic development” and “creative place making” prior to venturing into the cultural planning process with the team at Corona Insights.

My role in 2013 working as a consultant led to an invitation to connect with the other arts leaders in the city in a meeting with the lead developer and other funders to discuss the role of arts and culture in the city’s rebirth. The topic of the first meeting was creative place making and the conversation focused on how arts and culture could be infused into the coming development of office space, a 10,000-seat arena and market rate housing. It was clear that the arts leaders needed to connect with one another and to create role in this redevelopment process and eventually I began serving as the convener of these groups which led to cooperative marketing and fundraising efforts.

At the same time as these projects were launching, a tax credit program, known as “Upside Allentown”, was being unveiled to support redevelopment in the neighborhoods around the main business district. The blocks in these historical neighborhoods had fallen on hard times and through the program, funds were made available to address needs in housing, physical improvements, education, public safety, economic development, marketing and of course, arts and culture. Upside Allentown became the source of the funding for the original needs assessment and cultural planning process, as well as serving as the initial investment into our first Signature Initiative, an Artist-in-Residence program. From there, we’ve been able to cultivate and leverage funding from other sources to continue to expand the role of the arts in Allentown.

What do you think arts and culture has done for Allentown since the cultural plan was unveiled?What are you most proud of so far?

Since the adoption of the Arts & Culture 20:21 Plan there have been several major impacts on the organization and the city as a whole.

Prior to our project, no less than eight previous plans for the arts had been delivered to the arts organizations, city council, mayor and funders. Needless to say, none of them ever gained much traction. From the very beginning, it was our intention to work from the 20:21 Plan and not let it sit on the shelf and collect dust. In short, for the first time in decades there is a general plan for the arts for people to reference, and if we follow our plan, we will be able to leverage our success into a comprehensive plan for the arts for the entire city in the coming years.

The 20:21 Plan has provided a framework of components for programs and initiatives that came directly from the residents and guests of the city. Using Corona Insight’s methodology of listening at the grassroots level has given us credibility when speaking with arts organizations, artists, funders and city officials. One of our favorite quotes from the original series of focus groups with residents came from a recently relocated NYC resident of color who said, “I know there are arts buildings (such as the museum and symphony hall), but I have no idea what goes on in there.” This statement has become a rallying point for arts organizations to work on connecting with the community.

Advocacy has become one of our main areas of interest and work recently. As we’ve continued to evolve as an organization with the 20:21 Plan as our source document, we’ve determined that our best efforts would be put towards those projects and initiatives that the arts community, including artists and arts organizations, cannot accomplish on their own. Therefore, we’ve begun doing more work in advocating for the arts with government and municipal planning officials, data analyses of the region’s creative economy, while also offering professional development for artists, capacity building for event organizers and collaborative marketing efforts.

Most importantly, we’ve raised the specter of the arts across the city at a time when there were some major challenges facing the city government and when redevelopment was occurring at breakneck speed. It was a goal of ours to simply have a seat at the table, no matter the project or role. The arts are now being invited to meetings regarding all facets of the city’s operations with the opportunity to contribute what we call “artistic solutions to urban challenges.”

Since the delivery of the Allentown Art & Culture 20:21 Plan, the 20:21 stakeholders group has evolved into the Cultural Coalition of Allentown, a 501c3 organization with a Board of twelve local and regional leaders and two part-time employees. We have seen the budget commitment to the arts from city entities grow from $0 in 2014 to an effective budget of $150,000 in 2018 with additional growth planned in 2019 and beyond.

Internally, the 20:21 Plan has become a touchstone as an organization when making decisions regarding projects with which we want to engage or dismiss. Making certain the Plan was a living, breathing document has been a goal of ours as we revisit the document formally once per year and several times throughout the year in determining the direction or pursuit of new goals and initiatives.

What recommendations do you have for other communities, especially ones similar in size to Allentown, who want to use arts and culture to revitalize their community? Are there any challenges that they should be aware of?

Allentown is certainly not unique. It is a city of 120,000 people which has recently grown in diversity with Hispanic, Syrian and African-American residents bringing their unique heritage and culture to the city. The challenges of bridging these different cultures and making sure that the redevelopment includes everyone and leaves no one behind is an obstacle that cities of all sizes in the late 2010’s are attempting to solve.

While Allentown does benefit from a Neighborhood Investment Zone (NIZ) which has helped fund all of the major construction and development, none of these funds have been ear marked for support of the arts.  All funding that has come to the arts has been organic in nature but only merely percentages of what is spent on other economic development undertakings.

Unfortunately, arts funding for the sake of funding the arts is dead. Unless arts organizations are connected in some way to economic development, education or healthcare, the future is rather gloomy as funders look towards ways for their investments to make as much impact as possible.

A confluence of initiatives including Allentown starting the cultural planning process at the same time a major redevelopment was occurring combined with a determination to connect economic development to the arts can be replicated in other communities. The combination of three or more of these or different elements allows for the arts to fight for their fair share of the economic improvements occurring in cities nationwide. The hardest part is taking the first step.

Creating a culture of collaboration was first and foremost before we were able to begin implementing even the needs assessment and cultural planning process. For Allentown, there were four main elements needed from any community before embarking on an arts-led economic development strategy.

First there needs to be a catalyst. This individual, project or organization gets people talking and moving away from the status quo. Second, communities need the data and research to know exactly what is being said about the arts on the streets, in the homes and schools and at the highest level of government and businesses. The third component is a sherpa to help guide the project through its many facets and to lead the way in convening ongoing and consistent conversations about the arts. Lastly, a strong network of stakeholders who, by staying connected and moving forward with one vision, will start to turn ideas and concepts into realistic and practical outcomes.

Obviously, this is a gross simplification of the time and energy that needs to be expended to reach your goals. One of the most significant challenges we met and still continue to wrestle with is the splintered leadership within the arts. The arts institutions must remain strong to provide structure, so artists and independent galleries and organization can exist and thrive. However, getting buy-in at all levels is extremely difficult and is a never-ending job as there will always be new players moving into the market, elected officials to be voted in and out of office, company mergers, artist egos, difference of opinions and everything else associated with the natural ebb and flow of the economy in a given region.

Resources will inevitably come up as part of the discussion, but as a wise counselor once advised “Money always follows great ideas.” It is up to the artists, arts administrators and communities as a while to find common ground and reimagine what is possible through the arts in their cities and towns.

Thanks to Sean for updating us on the cultural plan at work in Allentown!

Cultural Competency Requires more than Translations

We at Corona have the privilege of working with a wide variety of arts and culture organizations in Colorado and beyond.  One of the biggest challenges we hear a lot about these days is providing programs and services that will appeal to a group of culturally diverse audiences.  In the Denver metro, where we do much of our work, the percentage of the population that is White is expected to decline from 68% in 2010 to only 50% in 2050, so tackling this issue is critical to the success of the arts and culture sector in the state.

For a long time, it seemed like most arts and culture organizations’ approach to cultural competency was to offer translations of materials in other languages.  While there is certainly nothing wrong with providing translated materials for non-English speakers, and it is often the first step many organizations take in trying to be more relevant to underserved cultures, there is a big difference between simply providing translations and being culturally relevant.  The key question we have recently been asking our clients to consider is what it means for an experience to be designed with diverse audiences in mind compared to an experience that has been adapted for diverse audiences from an experience designed for a non-minority audience.  In the former case, the experience should seem instinctual, organic, natural, and welcoming. In the latter, the experience can come off as contrived and inauthentic.

It is important to consider that the definition of “diverse audiences” varies greatly by region, and a truly diverse approach will consider how the experience will reach audiences of all types.  However, for the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on some things we have learned about how Hispanic families in Denver experience arts and culture to illustrate ways in which translations don’t go far enough.

Imagine that you were designing an experience and wanted to ensure that it would be relevant and inclusive for Hispanic families.  Rather than thinking about how a non-Hispanic family might enjoy the experience and then providing translations, here are a few things to consider:

  • Many Hispanic families are multi-generational, and grandparents are deeply involved in the lives of their grandchildren.  An experience for Hispanic children, therefore, may be more successful if it includes seating areas for grandparents who might otherwise wear out after standing for a long time.
  • Many Hispanic families value free play more than their non-minority counterparts, so having an experience that is highly structured may not translate well.  Instead, allowing plenty of time for kids to explore and learn on their own may be more successful.
  • Similarly, the ideas of highly-structured questionnaires as a means of evaluating either child performance or program success may not be effective among Hispanic audiences.  Culturally, the idea of answering closed-ended questions in a very impersonal experience is somewhat foreign compared to a conversation with friends about a topic, so qualitative approaches may be more successful than quantitative approaches.

Of course, these are just a handful of things to consider out of countless ways that Hispanic families might vary in how they take in an experience, so the long-term solution to the challenge of being culturally relevant to all families is to ensure that you have representation among your leadership and staff from the various segments that you are trying to reach.  While you are trying to get to that point, though, keeping in mind that experiences should be designed for diverse audiences rather than adapted for them will help to put you on the right track.

Taking Culture Seriously in Social Science

As a species, we exist in culture like fish in water. When we want to explain something that humans say or do, we need to consider culture.  While omnipresent, culture is not static. Its influence ebbs and flows depending on context. Every person experiences a myriad of cultures depending on time and place as long as they are interacting with other people. Culture is also intersectional and layered. Given how complex and abstract it can be, it is tempting to overlook culture as a causal force of behavior in favor of more tangible and measurable variables. Yet, we ignore culture at the peril of making good inferences. In this blog, I will detail some of the innovative and creative ways social science has worked to avoid this error and take culture seriously.

Photo by Farzad Mohsenvand on Unsplash

Defining culture is a difficult task. For a great breakdown of the linguistic origins of the word, see my colleague Andrew Streight’s blog in this series. For the purposes of this piece, I will rely on the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition and define culture as, “the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization.” In other words, culture is a collection of the customs, beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and values that a group of people share. A scientific study of culture requires the recognition of at least two critical traits from this definition. First, culture is shared. It is a phenomenon that exists beyond and outside of an individual at the group level. Second, culture is learned. When studying culture, we must be clear that it is distinct from genetic inheritance.

A lot of great qualitative research has used methods like ethnography, in-depth case studies, and participant observation to form the foundation of our knowledge of culture.  However, today I want to focus on quantitative methods that have been used in economics, psychology, political science, and sociology to study culture. The three most common quantitative approaches to studying culture have been survey data, experiments, and studies of second-generation immigrants.

Survey researchers often view the influence of culture simply as a nuisance that they need to control for when analyzing their data. Here, we need to move beyond simply accounting for differences in demographics and location, and move toward descriptive measurements of cultural phenomenon. To this end, survey research has made major progress with the advent of ambitious projects like the Generalized Social Survey and the World Values Survey. Since its inception in 1981, the World Values survey has tracked cultural beliefs through repeated representative surveys in over 100 countries. Accounting for around 90% of the world’s population, the project allows social scientists to analyze how the average beliefs of a country, on topics like secularism or self-expression, affect an individual’s attitudes and behaviors. Additionally, these cultural measures have allowed a robust debate about the relationship between economic development, values, and democratization to be tested empirically.

Next, experimental research has provided interesting insights on culture’s impact. Research has demonstrated that the propensity for individuals to cooperate in experimental games consistently mirrors patterns in an individual’s every-day environment. Subjects who live in societies with high levels of generalized trust are much more likely to cooperate in the lab than those who live in untrusting societies. Additionally, scholars have attributed interesting cross-national cheating patterns in tax compliance experiments to distinct cultural norms. These findings are a critical reminder of why it is important to include diverse participants in our experiments.

The final, and potentially most interesting, quantitative strategy for studying culture has been a focus on outcomes amongst first and second-generation immigrants. Focusing on individuals who move across countries, or whose parents have, is a great way to isolate the potential effects of culture from other important causes of behavior like laws and institutions. This strategy has yielded some fascinating results.

For example, immigrants tend to hold attitudes toward inequality and social policy that are consistent with the average beliefs of their country of origin. They are also likely to vote accordingly. Additionally, scholars claim a culture of honor came to the US with Anglo herders in the 18th century as these patterns of migration correlate with contemporary levels of reciprocal violence in the South. Finally, the detrimental effects of the transatlantic slave trade can be seen in immigrants with coastal African ancestry having lower levels of interpersonal trust, regardless of the current country they call home. Indeed, attitudes toward fertility, female labor market participation, and development all suggest a strong cultural influence passed from parents to children over generations.

While complex and often abstract, culture exerts a strong influence on a myriad of attitudes and behavior. As such, we must think critically about its influence whenever we are studying people. This review barely scratches the surface. Hopefully, the future will only bring more creative solutions to measuring and testing culture’s effect on various outcomes of interest. One place to look is the emergent field of cultural neuroscience. Here, fMRI research has confirmed what should be obvious from the above discussion. Various cultural tasks and routines yield distinct, observable patterns in our brains. Just one more reminder to take culture seriously.

What do we mean by “arts” and “culture?”

Photo source: Henry & Co., Unsplash.com

As a philosopher turned strategy consultant, sometimes I like to begin my analysis of the wide range of data we work with at Corona Insights by stepping back and digging deeper into the key words that tie a set of information together. Understanding the linguistic root of a word as well as the evolution of a word’s definition can help illuminate the underlying assumptions and philosophical perspectives that might otherwise hinder clarity and meaningful interpretation.

Deeply examining key conceptual language is also important to the group processes we run to help identify and clarify future-focused strategies for our clients. Establishing a common understanding of the conceptual language involved in a strategic process is crucial to ensuring alignment and enabling powerful decision-making. Otherwise, trying to make collective decisions without explicit recognition of a shared definition can be like two people playing a game by different rules without realizing it. There’s a reason why people take a moment to establish the rules first before playing a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” (2 out of 3, go on “shoot,” for example).

The interrelated words “arts” and “culture” (and the theme of our blog series this month!) serve as a prime example of what can happen when people use differing definitions for terms and don’t explicitly recognize these differences and the underlying assumptions behind them.

While a Google search of “arts” yields this definition, “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination,” the evolution of the term suggests it encompasses a much wider range of meaning and interpretation. Original interpretations from the Old French art meaning “skill in scholarship and learning” and the Latin artem meaning “work of art; practical skill; a business, craft” suggest that the term didn’t always have the connotation related to human creativity but, instead, began as a way of indicating expertise or talent in a craft (Online Etymology Dictionary). The notion that there’s a rigid definition for what is art and what is not didn’t begin to take shape until the late 15th century, when the term was understood as meaning “system of rules and traditions for performing certain actions” until sometime in the 16th century when it was first used to mean “skill in creative arts.”

Anthropologist Susan Vogel, in Art/Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections, highlights the damage that can be caused by culturally-conditioned assumptions concerning what constitutes “art” and what constitutes “artifact.” Namely, the impact is that those who discover an object like an African sculpture end up having as much or more influence than the original artist on determining whether it is, in fact, art. Vogel writes, “a central issue is our classification of certain objects of African material culture as art and others as artifacts. Our categories do not reflect African ones and have changed during this century…we may be misled into believing that we see African art for what it is.”  Without explicit recognition of an accepted definition of the word “art,” objects that should be understood as pieces of art end up being described as artifacts because of the underlying assumptions behind an unexamined conceptual definition.

That a complex conceptual term like “art” might have an intricate linguistic history that opens up its definition to broader interpretation and meaning also holds true for “culture.” Another Google search reveals the following definition for “culture” as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” What this definition doesn’t include is the sense of active cultivation, of tending to and promoting the growth of culture as one would a crop (Online Etymology Dictionary). The origination of the term in the 15th century from the Latin cultura meaning “a cultivating, agriculture” and the stem colere meaning “to tend, guard; to till, cultivate” suggests that culture need not be as strictly defined as our Google definitions might be, as it includes the aspect of being “regarded collectively” as human intellectual achievement. A more conceptually encompassing definition such as this one from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy allows for a broader range of human activities to fit since “culture is the product of human activity, particularly those things that are socially transmitted, including beliefs, practices, objects, etc. (Appiah 1994: 111–112; Scheffler 2007: 107).” This less confining definition would make better sense of the trend towards an evolving definition of “culture” noted in the 2017 CultureTrack report.

Photo source: Ruslan Bardash, Unsplash.com

In a 2017 national survey of cultural audiences across the United States, La Placa Cohen notes that people are beginning to define culture so broadly the term may not even apply anymore, with the implication being that audiences are both open to new experiences and vary in terms of which activities they define as “cultural.” The report states, “for today’s audiences, the definition of culture has democratized even further, possibly to the point of extinction. Activities that have traditionally been considered culture and those that haven’t are now on a level playing field…audiences were more likely to consider a street fair or food and drink experience culture than an opera or ballet.” For cultural organizations, assuming everyone has the same definition of “culture” as they did even 5-10 years ago potentially means inadequately responding to the dynamic needs of those you serve.

In both cases, the mistake lies in the assumption that everyone shares a single, fixed definition of a complex concept like “art” or “culture.” Definitions of terms such as these are not only subject to individual philosophical assumptions and perspectives, they are also constantly evolving.

The importance of stepping back and discussing definitions for terms like “arts” and “culture” lies not so much in the need to necessarily arrive at a strict, fixed definition, but in the collective experience of taking the time and effort to collaboratively examine the unique philosophical perspectives and assumptions all of us carry, sometimes consciously and other times unconsciously. When we try to combine the words “arts and culture” as they are so often presented, the need for focused, ongoing discussions of how we—both as individuals and as parts of larger societal groups–are defining these concepts becomes even more evident. By “arts and culture,” do we mean the expressions of human creative skill under the umbrella of collectively-regarded human intellectual achievement? Or do we mean something broader, like the vast range of human activities that indicate a particular skill set and capture the general beliefs, practices, traditions, values, etc. of a group of people?

I don’t have the answer and I don’t think there should ever be a final, “right” answer to this question of how we should define “arts and culture.” What does matter, though, is that we make the time, effort, and space we need to have ongoing discussions of evolving concepts like these—to till, to tend, to cultivate them. For concepts that capture so much of what it means to be a human being as the terms “arts” and “culture” do, we can learn a lot about each other and, perhaps, come to understand each other on a deeper level when we do.

Disrupting the membership machine: An interview with Rosie Siemer

Membership programs are ubiquitous. From credit card companies to professional associations and cultural institutions, it seems like everyone is vying for our loyalty, engagement, and money. In a society based in consumerism, the ways we engage members are looking more and more alike across sectors and fields. That consolidation is quickening as consumer expectations shape when, where and how we engage.

So, how might arts organizations differentiate their programs and offer compelling reasons to join?

To gain a bit of perspective I sat down with Rosie Siemer, Founder and CEO of FIVESEED. Rosie consults with museums, arts, and conservation organizations worldwide to engage new and diverse audiences. An expert in museum audience engagement and membership innovation, Rosie has consulted internationally for leading organizations, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Museum of Science, Boston, Saint Louis Art Museum, Desert Botanical Garden, and Space Center Houston.

This blog is a compilation of my interview with Rosie.

Online engagement circa 2011

It is difficult to remember what it was like before we could swipe, hover, or press for fingerprint recognition. Rosie reminded me what it was like in the early days of member engagement using online tools. When Rosie started in membership engagement in 2011 online and social media were new, and especially new to those running marketing and membership programs for arts nonprofits. She got to see the earliest application of social media – and saw first-hand what worked well and what didn’t. It’s difficult to believe that the early adopters of 2011 were beginning to use email and social media for donor outreach. (Can we imagine our membership programs without these marketing channels today?)

Rosie reminded me, “Just remember, Facebook didn’t have a sophisticated advertising platform back then. This was back in the time of fan gates and page tabs—before the advent of Facebook’s social graph and mobile ads.”  She went on to note, “Algorithms weren’t dominate in the early days of social media. You had a lot more control over the timing and placement of your membership program marketing. Plus, you could get in front of your audience much more easily.”

Membership managers have less control over placing their messages online now that algorithms rule the world. When you have less control over what your audience sees it becomes harder to break through the flood of messages and engage authentically with them.

In essence, social media is a customer service channel today. It is the channel through which members reach out 24/7 with questions, complaints, and suggestions. Membership programs increasingly function as customer service. Wait, what? I thought guest services was responsible for customer service.

Social media is typically run out of the marketing department, which means that member input and comments go there first when in fact they may need to be addressed by the membership department. As Rosie has observed, “In some cases marketing is the middle-man between membership and the member. This situation can be very challenging for members if the social media manager is not responsive.”

The shift to member-centric models

The classic membership model has fallen short of meeting the needs of different types of members. While the classic program may be relatively easier for the organization to manage it can feel static and off the shelf. Too frequently a member finds themselves saying, “I guess I’ll take that even if it isn’t what I need.”

Rosie pointed out that arts organizations have lagged in product development when compared to other offerings in the leisure and entertainment industry. Since they have limited budgets and limited staff to dedicate to member engagement they haven’t been able to keep up with broader consumer trends.

More arts organizations are recognizing that their members are whole people with expectations, needs and demands that extend beyond membership. The expectations they have for their Amazon Prime membership inform their expectations as a museum member.  Rosie  is seeing arts organizations implement a distributed management approach to member engagement. This, in turn, is disrupting the way organizations are structured.

“Membership has historically been a stand-alone division or housed within the Development department. Membership is now being rolled up under marketing or under a division with guest services, which makes a lot of sense. You miss the opportunity to cultivate members and donors over the long-term when organizations have silos. I’m seeing that organizational structures are changing; they are becoming more integrated and holistic in how they steward the customer journey and member lifecycle.”

Increasingly, consumers across generations – from Gen Z to Boomers – share the same expectations. Rosie noted that “in many ways millennials are exhibiting the early indicators of what older generations want too. It is a lifestyle issue, and membership is increasingly about convenience, cost and customization.” This trend is expected to continue.

What is on the horizon?

Rosie’s new book is expected to be published by 2020. She is focusing on membership innovation and audience development. As she wraps up her research she’s wondering if some initial shifts will become major trends. Will cultural organizations extend their service offerings to include transportation and cohort experiences for groups? As loneliness becomes a bigger and bigger issue, along with lack of access, might museums radically reinvent the way they design their experiences and meet people where they are at? Might we envision a membership program that addresses those barriers? Rosie can.


If you want to learn more check out:

Membership Marketing in the Digital Age: A Handbook for Museums and Libraries – Rosie is a co-author of this go-to resource for membership programs.