The Playgoer: Our "Patrons" of the Arts

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Our "Patrons" of the Arts

Kate Taylor in the Sun really shows us how the sausages are made in the "cultivating" of mid-level "patrons" by our beloved large arts orgs. As we all know, development staffs get bigger and bigger, as programming and content budgets get smaller and smaller. All in the name of upgrading that ideal small donor to the honorific "patron"--or, to put it in numbers, $1500-$2500 a year.

The theatre example is worth quoting at length:

The specific perks vary, but at performing arts organizations, they include better seats and sometimes complimentary tickets, as well as close personal assistance from the patron office with ticket purchases, and, at higher levels, invitations to events such as opening night cast parties, or private concerts at the home of a board member. At museums, they may include curator talks, invitations to openings, and receptions with artists.

Patron offices are managed by a staff of usually two or more extremely courteous people, who help with ticket orders and in general provide a sense of personal attention and service. The vice president for planning and executive director of special campaigns at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lynn Stirrup, said that every time she has added staff to the patron desk-- which has gone to four full-time employees from one since 1994-- she has seen returns in increased contributions.

In addition to the staff, patron groups are generally overseen by a couple of very social board members, who draw on their large networks of friends and acquaintances to bring people into the program. The Lincoln Center Theater patrons program, for instance, which last year raised $2 million, or 20% of LCT's total donations, was run from the mid-1980s until her death in 2004 by Joan Cullman, a board member with many connections in the theater world and beyond. One of the two board members who currently runs the program, Ellen Katz, said that she originally joined the patrons group because of Cullman, whom she and her husband socialized with in East Hampton.

"She always had this cocktail party, and one thing led to the next and you got an invitation in the mail [to join the patron group], and lo and behold you joined," Ms. Katz said. "You pretty much couldn't get through her grasp." Now Ms. Katz has perfected her own way of pitching the program, casually bringing it up in a variety of contexts, from dinner parties to rounds of golf, to conversations with other parents at school. "Whenever the subject of culture or activities in New York comes up, I always try to weave in my love of the theater and then say, 'Oh, have you seen this latest production at Lincoln Center?'" she said. "If they seem interested -- because I don't like to push-- I say, 'Let me send you an invitation'... On occasion, I've had dinners at my home for 20 people and then taken them all to the theater."

The other LCT board member who manages the program, Daryl Roth, said the services of the patron office take the hassle out of coming to the theater. "It's the ease, the hassle-free ability to get good seats, and have a real person helping you," she said. "We have the most terrific patron staff. It's small, but they are as gracious and helpful as you can imagine."

Now I know this is how one has to make the sausage in this day and age. We have now been permanently weaned off the NEA. Or any concept of a truly democratic approach to supporting culture or our non-commercial theatre.

These vast resources that go into catering to the Patron Class--to making sure they're "hassle free"--how can they not further a perception of theatre as not for everyone. How can that not rub off on the average theatre lover who doesn't have $2500--to give to all 5 or 6 of the companies he regularly attends--and arrives at the theatre feeling the conspicuous gap between those who have a "patrons desk" and those who don't. (Like the Admiral's Club at the airport.)

Once again, it's time for some company to take what I'll call the "Obama-Dean" approach--small bore donations. There could be something invigorating and pride-filling of the "$10-20 patron"--and good for the institution if there are thousands of them.

Think of it this way: If the BAM Patrons desk has gone from 1 to 4 in the last big do you think it will be ten years from now? Not smaller.

And do you think the non-patron--including their aesthetic tastes & preferences--is going to get increasingly more attention, or less?


Susan said...

First of all, the idea that theater is for everyone is a myth, even without patron programs. I work at an Off Broadway theater, and our top ticket price is $65. We barely distinguish ourselves from Broadway with that price. Unfortunately, it's more true to say that "all theater is not accessible to everyone."

But even if it were true... theater may be for everyone, but the perks are not. It's how it has to be. Our company's grant from the NEA next year equals 0.3% of our annual budget. Our donations from individuals (not including board members or special events) makes up 6%. With board members and events (which are largely supported by individuals, with some corporations), that jumps to nearly 19%. Providing perks takes time on the part of the staff, effort, and it often costs. (Dinners with artists, free CDs, etc.) It cannot be offered in exchange for $10, as much as we would like to.

Anonymous said...

There's a myth that's peculiarly American - bigger is better.

Rare is the theatre that gets bigger AND - consistenly - better.

The handful of theatre's that have gotten bigger and consistently better (Steppenwolf, for ex) are held up as goals that smaller theatres are supposed to seek as an earmark of success.

Theatre is often a small medium that can have very very big impact. That's a good thing.

Lately, people have conflated the idea that a big stage equals big quality, big ideas.

Quite the opposite has occured. Stages have gotten bigger and the ideas on them have gotten smaller.

But when you spend all your time and money on trying to convince people that that's a good idea, you are lost. And you end up with huge development departments and seasons that are less than courageous lest you end up with unsettled ticket holders who might stop putting $2500 bucks into a season just to get a better table at a fundraiser.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally: How about that Kate Taylor?

To think, real arts reporting? About theatre? Too bad she doesn't have a larger readership.

Still, good for The Sun.