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How Can We Incentivize Artists?

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And so it begins. A new year. But did you hear?

"We need to support the arts, and we need to support more of it."

These words are ever-present in chats with my arts community colleagues. So, it got me thinking: What does "support" actually mean? Well, the dictionary defines it as, "bear all or part of the weight of; hold up." And who are "we"? Is it the collective "we", like saying in this case, the arts community and audiences should come together?

Let's start with the arts community. Yes, there is much innovation out there, but in my opinion, this movement is not being fully embraced as the "new way" by our fellow colleagues. We must change this. We need to create conditions to enable and create "artrepreneurs", a term first shared with me by Luminato's Janice Price.

In the interest of not doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result, can us "make it happen arts folks" re-look at the current arts environment and establish actions to inspire a feeling of "wanting to go" rather than "needing to support, so we should go" in our audiences?

Globe and Mail columnist Marsha Lederman (who we respect very much and whose heart is in the right place) asks us in her recent column to "buy a ticket" in 2013. Interesting call to action. Inspired to buy?

"If you want the good cultural news to outweigh the bad in 2013, here's how you can help: Buy a ticket. It may feel as if a few bucks for admission to a gallery or a play won't make much difference, but your support -- and your eyeballs -- mean everything... (and) no more stories about arts organizations closing down."

Is it that bad out there? Reading this, I feel that audiences will think that if they don't buy a ticket, the world of the arts is soon to crumble and they'll feel responsible.

In my humble opinion, this sentiment does not have long-term viability. We need to re-think our approach. In order for the arts to have a sustained future and desired place in the lives of our audiences (young and old), we as the arts community need to take responsibility and inspire a change in how our audiences behave.

Let's start with how we see the state of the arts community and how it is communicated to our current and new audiences. We need to drive home the message that the arts as a whole is not and should not be seen as a charity. Case closed. I feel there are some in our community who are unfortunately currently focusing on this as a sales tool to retain and attract new audiences.

As we all know, if you want anything in life, you are attracted to things that someone is not "guilting" you to get. That may work once or twice, but it's not a sustainable way to attract you to do anything. Buy that car. Go on that trip. Some will say the arts are different. They provide an emotional connection and celebrate humanity; a unique value proposition. That said, heading to an arts experience is not as top of mind as we would like with potential audiences. This is very real and we need to remember this. They are fickle, and we need to continually give them fresh reasons to spend a few hours with us.

So our audience. Who are they? How are they spending their days? What motivates them to spend their disposable income? What experiences are they looking for? Purely presenting a show and herding audiences into a theatre does not cut it anymore. At the end of the show, there is rarely a choice but to go home, go to the bar (why not have one in theatres so audience don't leave?) down the street, or, well, you get it. Current and new audiences crave more. They want a deeper experience.

Ok, so who is doing this? Some are. Sleep No More caught my eye. It's a jaw dropping immersive evening that is currently wowing sold audiences in NYC. Simply, it makes you want to come back again and again. It's a game changer.

Let's then move to the idea of developing authentic and real relationships between artists and their audiences. At times, I feel there is a disconnect between the two. We have heard, "oh, they wouldn't understand" or "well, I am not sure how much in common I have with them." Truly unfortunate.

In the best of times, my thoughts take me to a time (I always picture William Shakespeare and his patrons chilling at dinner parties. Oh what fun that would have been, eh?) where audiences and artists grew together over the years. They formed friendships; they lived life together symbiotically, and actually got to know each other as people outside of the "shows the saw."

How about instituting something like that with your company? Or what about giving your audience a casual opportunity to grab a beverage after every show with say Sergio Di Zio & Hannah Moscovitch (actor and playwright in hot show called This is War on stage now ) or with Chris Abraham, Monica Esteves, and Kristen Thomson (part of another show on stage now called Somebody Else ). Or better yet, invite them over to your place? Create room in your circle. The arts community and their audiences should look to create this as common practice.

Another way to reinvigorate the system? Reward companies and artists for box office success, for innovation in building new revenue streams, and for new ways to develop sustained deeper relationships with audiences. In the Canadian film world annually, there is the Golden Reel Award which rewards a film for its box office success. Great, understand the rational here. Why can't we use this same thinking for the arts and create monetary awards that can be re-invested into future projects led by obvious "artreprenuerus"?

Imagine. Incentive for artists, companies and producers. Establish a mechanism for reward and the masses will be more swayed to look at new ways. Yes, criteria would have to be established so all companies are on equal playing ground. But something to consider, no?

And the funds for something like this? Good news, Toronto. Your city finance committee has announced a $232 million surplus, and contingent on City Council vote later this month, rumour has it $22.5 million will be committed to arts funding over the next five years. Nice one advocacy folks like TAPA & Business for the Arts for leading the charge on this among others. But let's seize this opportunity and use some of that money to "enable" (phrase from producer David Daniels) projects and people who are not only making it happen now, but also paving the way for the future?

Let's put dollars towards building more "serendipitous" partnerships such as the recent one between Crow's Theatre (Chris, Monica and Kristen from above at it again), its smart board led by Takashi Yamashita, Streetcar Developments, Toronto City Council led by Paula Fletcher, and a progressive community who saw all the pluses of making this happen. In the end, it will be a one of a kind multi-disciplinary arts hub in an under served urban area of Canada's largest city. As their press release states, it will be, "the first professional performing arts facility of its kind east of the Don Valley Parkway, an area that is home to over 1.3 million people."

This company does not have horse shoes or luck on their side. They made their own reality. The release goes on to say this is an "entrepreneurial business model that will diversify Crow's earned revenue streams" and as I understand it will enable them to truly become a "financially-sustainable not-for-profit" for the long term. All the parties involved listened to "the recommendations stated by the City of Toronto's Creative Capital Report (2011), including the development of new creative clusters and emerging cultural scenes to capitalize on their potential as generators of jobs and economic growth."

What can we learn from Crow's Theatre and their collaborators? They are bringing the "artist way" to the community at a professional level which is not just about producing shows and expecting audiences will drop everything and go see them. It's a new model of how to see residential and commercial development and planning, and how arts partners make sense. They are creating an environment where the value proposition they are creating is one that will inspire all.

We need to enable more examples like this. It's a model that accepts and does not seek others to look at it as charity. It is one that will enrich a community and all involved to lead better and more fulfilled lives.
But most importantly, we need to enable forward thinking entrepreneurial members of the arts community who are changing the game. It all starts with people.

Good news. Just announced today. Jeffrey Remedios, Kieran Roy and their team at Arts & Crafts have created a one of kind 10th Anniversary billing it The Field Trip Music & Arts Festival. Super artrepreneurial. These guys get it.

And we can't forget about the deep impact Jeff Melanson is having at The Banff Centre. Definitely inspiring and activities to be watched.

So there is it. Some concrete examples of how we as the arts community can create more cohesive models that are current with the times. There are some great innovators out there. Some are mentioned above. There are more. And in the coming months, we look forward to "shout out" what they are doing.

At the end of the day, wouldn't it be great to be in the incoming call and not in the outgoing call business as it pertains to audiences coming to our shows. We can't rely on the old ways of doing things. Let's look to each other and create magic where audiences are inspired to make time in their life for something we all know can enrich it forever. Not because they need to. Because they will want to. Let's enable the people that will make this happen. More to come. I look forward to any and all feedback from the members of the arts community and audiences alike.