At the National Arts Marketing Conference (NAMPC) in Austin this past November, we all crawled in after the presidential elections brought us to our knees. There’s no other way to say it. The election cycle itself was brutal in its unrelenting assault on our intellects, emotions, relationships, and sense of decency—then the outcome was deeply disappointing to many. It was not that “our” person didn’t win or that we personally were going to be worse off. The kick in the gut was that our nation was clearly so divided and voting from a place of self-interest, exclusion, and ugliness rather than for the greater good and our better selves.
As the days of the conference rolled on, the prevailing sentiment went from shock to grief to resolve to reinvigoration. Networking coffees turned into heart-to-hearts with people I’d never met. Panels turned into open discussions on how we do our jobs now. And the outcome—for me—was a realization that perhaps unlike any other group of communicators out there, we as arts marketers are uniquely and powerfully capable of healing and giving a platform for deep connection and meaningful action. It’s as daunting as it is exciting.
With immense passion, a diverse and agile skill set, highly engaged stakeholders, and unparalleled content apparent in the spaces, faces, photos, videos, words, and music we have our hands on—all of us cultural communicators have the most powerful ammunition on the war of indifference, division, self-interest, and the mentality of scarcity. We are the guardians of cultural storytelling and the stewards of universal human expression. If we cannot levy our ideas and our voice to outshine darkness with light, then it cannot be done. And it must be done.
One theme that came up again and again at NAMPC was: common ground. And in thinking of the daily churn of news, social media posts, and conversation about what is now a nation in turmoil—with talk of threats to the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting … so far—perhaps empathy and commonality are hard to muster for many. But again, if disparate people of all backgrounds, beliefs, outlooks, orientations, and intentions cannot connect, reflect, and get perspective in our galleries, performance halls, public art spaces, screenings, and programs—where can they?
Now is the time to throw our doors open and use our biggest, boldest ideas for marketing the arts to call our communities in and to bring art to the people. The best arts marketing is outreach and a manifestation of our missions, so let's advocate for those budgets and tear down the walls. Now is no time to be an impenetrable monolith on a hilltop. We need to be for the people and places where all views are considered. It is a matter of living our missions and survival.
At a time when it seems most everyone is trying to be right, let’s do right. Where paranoia and fear lead people to point fingers and twist facts to scramble for dollars and audiences, we can and must embrace the idea that there is enough for everyone. Within our communities and together nationally, we can unite with campaigns for not just the merits of our institutions but the humanity of art itself. I submit that now is not the time for economic impact reports or correlating arts education to standardized test scores. Rather, now is the time for letting art speak directly to our communities’ better selves and to our shared humanity.
Yes, arts marketers, we have a tactical role in the organizations we serve: move the needle i.e. sell tickets, increase memberships, boost donations, etc. And that is all important as it supports revenue and underwrites our own costs. But if we stop there, we are failing our missions and our communities. Because if there’s not a higher purpose to communicating about the arts, what's the point in filling up a building with people?
This is our call to stand up and to use our powers for good. Let’s not squander it.