Staying Inspired as an Arts Marketer

Ask the Industry

AUTHORS: PennyMaria Jackson , Sara Villagio , Sara Waugh
Jul 02, 2018
13 Min Read

Ask the Industry features advice from arts marketers in their own words. We hope you can learn from them and it will spark new ideas for your organization.

This month, we’re asking, “What keeps you inspired as an arts marketer?

PennyMaria Jackson (Apollo Theater), Sara Villagio (Carnegie Hall), and Sara Waugh (Marin Theatre Company) discuss their favorite apps, websites, and blogs to keep up with marketing trends, what they do to recharge outside of work, and how they keep their team (and themselves) motivated, even during the busiest times.

What’s something you do to stay inspired as an arts marketer? This could be something at work or outside of it.

Sara Villagio (Carnegie Hall): I attend as many musical performances as I can, at Carnegie Hall and beyond. There is nothing quite like seeing a full hall (especially when you must work hard to fill it), or kids excited to experience or create music. I also try to “say yes” to challenging myself, even when I’m not particularly excited about it! A few weeks ago, I attended an event in Queens that was focused on new music discovery. Each participant had the chance to experience 15 minutes of music from four different artists, concluding with the option to attend a longer set by your favorite artist. It was a casual, non-committal, and digestible way to hear artists I was previously unfamiliar with. I was excited to think about how we could apply that model of discovery and exploration to our work at Carnegie Hall, across all genres of music.

I also focus on recognizing what I think of as “little moments.” A few weeks ago, I arrived at work and kids were lined up in matching t-shirts, laughing, chattering, and excitedly waiting to enter Carnegie Hall for ourLink Up program. (A thousand kids playing recorders is just as crazy as it sounds but is equally inspirational!) I stopped on the street and watched them before I entered our office. It was such a happy, special, small moment. They say to stop and smell the roses, but most importantly, I try to acknowledge when something moves me and think about why it does. That helps me to continue to invigorate myself – and how an audience member, or guest, might similarly be invigorated by a moment like that.

PennyMaria Jackson (Apollo Theater): Don’t sit in your office or become too insular – get out and explore the world! While we can easily get caught up in our institutional day-to-day campaigns and season plans, it’s important to be aware of what’s going on in our community as a whole. Learning is a life-long process, and the arts is a living, expansive field. To reaffirm and expand my arts marketing inspiration, I evaluate other marketing initiatives in various fields, markets, and mediums. In addition to being observant, this includes attending conferences and expanding networks.

You’ll never succeed without failing, and it’s easier to accept failure if you can come to terms with the fact that you are still figuring it out. We all are.

— Sara Waugh, Marin Theatre Company

Sara Waugh (Marin Theatre Company): I see what other people are doing! I’ve been a theater kid my whole life, so I don’t need a lot of convincing to get out to see what other theaters in my community are producing each season (or see shows in other cities when traveling!). I’m also a huge fan of live music, festivals, and live sporting events (Stars on Ice, anyone?). My other excuse for staying social (literally) is that I’m constantly inspired by what other organizations are doing to market their events, serve and engage patrons on-site, and keep them engaged post-event.

What do you read to keep up with marketing or digital marketing trends? Do you use any apps or websites that help you keep track of articles or blog posts?

Sara Waugh (Marin Theatre Company): I am an avid follower (and fangirl!) of Colleen Dilenschneider’s Know Your Own Bone and have been since graduate school. When I started school in 2012, I was up against an older generation’s way of thinking/doing/practicing marketing. I began to feel like the new ideas I was bringing to the table were just evaporating into the void (while our theater’s ad campaign ROI’s were just plateauing). It was a huge help to have, in writing, from a certified marketer, insights and data to back up my theories and test my new ideas related to smaller institutional changes; baby steps towards bigger changes, if you will. We started seeing improvements across the board!

Now, I’m a younger member of Marin Theatre Company’s senior management team, and I feel even better about referencing Colleen’s insights and suggestions to support my experimental campaign ideas. I really trust her advice and data doesn’t lie!

Sara Villagio (Carnegie Hall): I like,Know Your Own Bone, The Hustle, the Harvard Business Review (Daily Management Tip and Daily Alert). I’m a somewhat obsessive reader of The New York Times, and two of my favorite columns are Corner Office and Dear Sugars. I love them both because they speak to human perspective and human challenges. For fun, I subscribe to’s Word of the Day email (keeps me learning!). Recently I started listening to an online radio show, On Living: The Trauma and Beauty of Being Human. I feel that marketing is primarily common sense inspired by human nature. As marketers, we engage with humans and learn from their reactions to information, content, and more. So, while I enjoy many of the traditional publications, blogs, and outlets, I seek out articles and reading that may contextualize how I approach and engage with other human beings. My Myers Briggs profile (ENFJ, for the record) says that I “live in a world of people possibilities.” That was the most accurate point in the profile!

Most frequently, my daily inspiration comes from other people. I love harnessing the energy of a team. I am always interested in meeting marketing leaders from other industries and non-profits outside of the performing arts. It is inspiring and helpful to recognize that many of us deal with the same challenges. Some of the best advice I received early on in my job search, after college, was to tell everyone I met, in any context, what I was looking for professionally. That provided the chance to practice talking about myself, but it also helped me learn how to network and deliver my elevator pitch. (I still work on this now.) The experience reminds me to assume nothing about any person I may meet, to never judge a book by its cover. You never know who my parent’s neighbor in Florida’s kid might turn out to be or if someone could really help you achieve a particular goal or connect you to the right person.

What’s something you do creatively outside of work?

PennyMaria Jackson (Apollo Theater):I’m an avid arts enthusiast and theater reviewer. Though I’m not a full-time critic, I earned a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University and currently review theatrical shows for Maxamoo (a roundtable podcast) and formerly for To See Or Not To See (a video review site currently on hiatus). It’s so great to get out of my comfort zone (far away from the Broadway box) and experience theater around the city, which serves as an excellent reference point for productions at my organization. It’s also extremely important to consider and discuss perspectives other than my own. As inclusivity disparity persists in our field, I particularly love and am dedicated to highlighting shows created by, for, and/or featuring artists of color.

Sara Waugh (Marin Theatre Company): I picked up counted cross stitch a couple of years ago. I fell in love with a trend I saw on Etsy of cross-stitch designs with Grandma-esque floral patterns perfectly adorning quirky catchphrases like “Yas Kween!” or “Put a Bird On It.” I thought, “Hey, I was a Girl Scout, I can probably follow a pattern and not screw this up!” I found an artist on Etsy who was willing to make me custom patterns to fulfill my weird design ideas and boom! Sara has a new hobby! My favorite is one I made for my partner that says “‘I should have checked myself.’ – Guy Who Wrecked Himself” and it’s surrounded by roses.

My mom was an art teacher and a theatrical costume designer, and I realized a long time ago that I’d probably never be the sewing/design wizard that she is, but I still wanted to have a creative career in theater! I knew I wasn’t going to hack it as an actor. I’m a terrible singer. But through marketing, I’ve managed to find a job working in theater, in a creative capacity. Giving myself small non-work-related art projects and goals to work towards at home really helps me stay motivated when I’m working on difficult projects at work.

How do you motivate yourself and/or your team when it’s busy and you’re/they’re running out of steam?

Sara Villagio (Carnegie Hall): Like many things in life, running out of steam can happen at any time, for so many reasons. I think of life as a series of opportunities to reset and begin again. When I am running out of steam, I take a moment to reset. Wipe the slate clean, clear my mind, and think about what I need to do next. Why does a resolution have to be reserved for the New Year? There is no course that can’t be altered or adjusted – but how we react, adjust the plan, and respond to that moment is key to keeping the engine running. Our ability to be nimble and flexible has the power to define you.

I can think of so many times in my work (both at Jazz at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall) where the plan didn’t go as expected. When your website quits. When the artist doesn’t show up. When someone sends out an email with a huge mistake in it. When you miss an important deadline. Or when something surprises you – a video takes off; a campaign exceeds all expectations.

How you react when the plan goes off course is incredibly important, and I’m constantly trying to keep that in mind.  There is a post from Humans of New York that really nails this idea. This wave analogy is one I’ve heard before, and I often use it to frame my thinking when something challenges me. Whether that is sitting down to make a list, cleaning off my desk, or taking a pause– I find that reminding myself that there is always a chance to begin anew is both refreshing and helps reinforce a positive outlook. (And also, let’s keep it real: it’s ok to emote, cry, be angry, laugh, shout, whatever. Sometimes that release is what enables you to crawl your way out of whatever rock you’re under! Empower yourself to do that in the most productive way you can.)

There is no course that can’t be altered or adjusted – but how we react, adjust the plan, and respond to that moment is key to keeping the engine running. Our ability to be nimble and flexible has the power to define you.

— Sara Villagio, Carnegie Hall

Sara Waugh (Marin Theatre Company): Who needs a drink!? But seriously, when we’re all feeling the pressure of working on a million projects at once, I make us all stop and go for lunch or go for a drink. Just to get folks out of their chairs, get away from our computers and get the blood flowing. Our jobs can also feel pretty thankless at times, especially because when things do go well—a show is a success, we sell out, get great press, etc.—the positive sentiments usually all get channeled towards the actors, creatives, and crew working every day on the show. And those folks more than deserve it! If the good vibes and congratulations don’t also make their way up to the folks in my office who’ve also put in countless hours towards working on the show, I want them to still feel the success and feel proud of the work they’ve done. We’re a small non-profit organization. I have no money to give out bonuses. But I can usually get us to happy hour. And sometimes unwinding and debriefing on what worked well and what didn’t outside of the building can help us all think about what we might approach the next project differently in a more relaxed and neutral environment.

What authors/speakers/leaders do you look to for inspiration?

PennyMaria Jackson (Apollo Theater): Baraka Sele is a powerhouse consultant in the arts field. Her decades of experience includes connections with NJPAC, National Endowment for the Arts, Kennedy Center, Alvin Ailey, and a plethora of other arts companies. Baraka’s experience, dedication, focus on people of color, and agile ability, to be honest, have propelled her through several doors. However, she remains humble and uplifting to others as she stands proudly in her authority and influence. Each time I speak to her, see her briefly or just hear her name, I am inspired all over again to continue moving forward and creating waves. Baraka is the TRUTH, and if you haven’t heard of her, you should look her up.

Sara Waugh (Marin Theatre Company): Raise your hand if you miss the Obamas! Seriously. This country is going through some weird, difficult, challenging times, and I think the folks I tend to look to for inspiration are those who’ve helped me personally, previously feel like all is not lost. Many of those folks are not theater industry leaders, but artists/authors/leaders in other ways.

I look to folks like RuPaul, the Fab Five, Donald Glover/Childish Gambino, Baratunde Thurston, Janelle Monae, Lady Gaga and the myriad playwrights I’ve had the privilege of working with here at MTC for fearlessly making space for their communities’ inclusion in the media and in life through their amplified voices. Seeing, hearing and learning the truths of folks like these—especially the playwrights I get to work directly with here—definitely keeps me inspired to find new ways to help tell their stories, encourage others to share their truths, and continue to promote the communal aspect of theater. We’re all in this together, we’re all sharing this experience together, so let’s make it the best it can be and lift each other up!

What’s one piece of leadership advice you’d give to arts marketers?

PennyMaria Jackson (Apollo Theater): Value your experience! There’s been a lot of imposter syndrome talk lately, and it breaks my heart. If you built your career in this community with a passion for the arts, a desire to promote, and have worked your way up the ladder step by step – know that you deserve to be where you are, and your future is “unlimited” (Wicked reference).

Sara Villagio (Carnegie Hall): One piece of leadership advice I’d give to arts marketers is to ground yourself in empathy. Assume nothing. Whether it’s a colleague, an artist, or a partner you’re working with, asking why, and how, has helped me understand those around me in a way that allows me to respond and support them. We all have biases and assumptions, both conscious and unconscious, that influence our interactions. But starting from a place of openness helps to mitigate a little of that. I ask a lot of questions. Most of my job and my ability to succeed in it is about active listening. I digest what someone has said to me, and say: “Let me make sure I’m understanding this correctly” and repeat it back. It helps me to learn processes and functions, informs my decisions, enables me to advocate for my team. Harnessing your own empathy is pretty much a goldmine.

Value your experience! If you built your career in this community with a passion for the arts, a desire to promote, and have worked your way up the ladder step by step – know that you deserve to be where you are.

— PennyMaria Jackson, Apollo Theater

Sara Waugh (Marin Theatre Company): You don’t have to have all the answers! You’re never going to know the outcome of any situation definitely, so use all the data and instinct you have on hand, take risks, roll the dice and do not forget to have fun. We work in the arts, and the arts are awesome! When you fail, inevitably, something you previously learned will come back to haunt you and make you think, “Dang, I knew that!” Keep pushing yourself to learn (even when your eyes DO feel like they’re bleeding out of your head) so you can share all the good stuff you’ve learned with your team.  Failure is simply unavoidable so just embrace it. You’ll never succeed without failing, and it’s  easier to accept failure if you can come to terms with the fact that you are still figuring it out. We all are. If you really want to be inspired by other people’s—we’ll call them “learning opportunities”—just Google “Pinterest fails” and I promise, you won’t be disappointed.