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The State of the Arts in 2020

The State of the Arts in 2020

CI to Eye with Donna Walker-Kuhne, Tom O'Connor, and Jill Robinson

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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What is the state of the arts in 2020? Where are we going? How have arts organizations responded to the massive changes driven by the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and the reckoning of systemic racism? In this episode, Erik speaks with three consultants to understand how the arts landscape has evolved and how it is moving forward.

Erik Gensler: What is the state of the arts in 2020? Where are we? Where are we going? So much has changed in the last six months. How have arts organizations responded to the massive changes driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and the reckoning around systemic racism that plagues our country and institutions? To help answer these big questions, I interviewed three consultants who all work with arts and cultural organizations. I chose consultants because they work with multiple organizations and thereby offer a broad perspective informed from their client work, outreach and research.Each of them have been guests on CI to Eye in the past and I was thrilled to welcome them back to share their perspectives. I spoke with Jill Robinson CEO of TRG Arts, Donna Walker-Kuhne, Founder of Walker International Communications Group, and Tom O’Connor, President of Tom O’Connor Consulting Group. I wanted to know their inputs, how they were receiving information from the sector, and then know what they were observing and what they were thinking about to help us all better understand the state of the arts in 2020.
(Theme Music Plays)

Erik Gensler: Jill, I’m so happy to chat with you again. Welcome back to CI to Eye!

Jill Robinson: Oh, Erik, I couldn’t be more thrilled to be back on CI to Eye and have enjoyed the podcasts. Just kudos to you for continuing to bring really great leaders and thought leaders and insight to our field. It feels as important as ever than now. So, I’m just tickled to be here. Thank you.

Erik Gensler: Thank you. Which is why I wanted to speak with you. I’m really trying to answer what is the state of the arts right now and to start off, I’d love for you to just talk about what the state of the arts looks like, feels like, and how you are spending your time connecting and learning from the field. So, let’s start with, how are you spending your time right now getting inputs, and then what are some of those inputs telling you?

Jill Robinson: Yeah, so we started at the top of March, as you know, doing TRG 30’s. And that’s interactive. It’s a live roundtable and enables me to hear a little bit. Certainly, there’s a lot of talking to and presenting of, but there’s Q&A and feedback that comes to me there that I have not only valued, but has humbled me and made me incredibly joyful and inspired and helps me stay attuned to what the field, through that particular group, needs. We also have been doing recovery summits. We did those in April, May, June, into July. And those were, kind of, half-day sessions with executive leaders—chief execs, mostly—from the UK, Canada, and the US, and that was designed to really provide, as best we could, our data from our COVID Sector Benchmark, our Reporting on Comeback Study and elsewhere. Data provide a peer opportunity for people to give each other counsel and then, through our aggregated experience, be able to serve up, in real time as we could, what we were hearing that we thought could be of use. There were shifts in that those conversations in content over time. And then, we have clients. I’m doing strategic planning for two organizations right now and am involved in leadership and other issues with a handful of others. So, those have been my channels, as well as what I hear on a weekly basis in a series of meetings from our consulting team and the work that we’re doing. The state of the sector, whoa. It’s varied and it’s both terrifying and wildly inspiring, actually. Today is September 24. And today, what I’m hearing more of is simultaneous grief and, and calibration around, “the change on my teams, my furloughed teams. What do my teams need? What do I need, who are tired? What does my board need? How do I ensure that this team that continues to face and now really can see that this pandemic and the impact of it is going to go on for some longer, much longer time? So, this recalibration around, “How do I lead through that? How do I remain inspired through that? How do I keep a team and a board focused in the right ways? And I got fewer of them …. and, and and,” on one hand. And on the other hand, I hear, “This pandemic has forced me to have time of a different kind. So, I’m not on the gerbil wheel of production and curation, my traditional business. I have fewer people to help me do it, but it’s time that we are thinking in very, very different ways. And the leaders who are inspiring me the most are the ones who are thinking really provocatively about their … I know you do, too. I read a lot—and Simon Sinek’s, Infinite Game has inspired a lot of my thinking right now, and the notion of “just cause.” What is my organization’s just cause? I’ve made it more practical in conversations and asked the question, “Why should my community give two hoots if my organization survived this pandemic?” and the leaders and boards that are answering that question in new ways are just … oh, my gosh, they’re so inspiring, the leaders that are able to pull up and that was a hard job anyway, and you layer a pandemic in, and it narrows the aperture even tighter for some, and the people who can widen it, they are … they are inspiring me and I’m seeing that they are going to do great things and already are.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and that transcends digital, in-person. It’s just going to the bigger, like Simon Sinek, would say, “Why.”

Jill Robinson: And some of them are … you know more about this than I do, but I hear a lot about the new distribution channels. Our COVID Comeback Report that we just updated for September, it was surprising to me actually to see that a full more than 50% of them have no intention to have digital, distribution of anything. And, you know, there’s a belief system, perhaps infrastructure, perhaps other operational realities about that. But this contemplation of channel for distribution of experiences, relationship-building, and the eventual—I’m sure you’re this way too—you can see, I can see 10, 20 years out my 90-year-old … Well, I was gonna say, “My 90-year-old self.” I’m not that old, although today, sometimes I feel like it (laughs). But my 90-year-old self, when I’m engaging with, arts and culture, I imagine that technology, you know, will help me do that because of some of the things that we’re learning.

Erik Gensler: Well, that’s a great segue. I’d love to dig into that survey data. I was so happy that you all are doing it, and I love … I saw the results that you publish on your LinkedIn and hoping you can share some of the takeaways from that because I think it’s just, it’s a fascinating purview to help answer the question of this podcast is, like, where where’s the sector right now?

Jill Robinson: Yeah, yeah. It mirrors, you know, I was saying, those executive recovery summits that we were having, every week we were having them and it was so interesting to hear how the conversation would change every single week. So, when we first did the … The first COVID Comeback Report was in June and there was optimism that varied by country and varied by art form, but there was more optimism about a return by the end of 2020. You fast-forward to today and that’s really changed.

Erik Gensler: From June to September?

Jill Robinson:, Yeah, thank you, from June to September. And that has changed in these ways: back in June, the US was leading the way in its optimism.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Jill Robinson: Canada, second place, and the UK third. Now, you go to September, and the UK is actually leading the way and part of that is, is about the restrictions that are differently placed there in their country and the infusion that that government has made into the sector that gives them some capital, assuming they can tap it—they have to apply for it in the rest—but if they can tap it, it gives them some capital for experimentation. And so, you see that in the numbers. You see differences in the ways that organization types are thinking about the return. So, if you look at, multi-disciplinary and dance organizations, presenting organizations and dance, they are the most optimistic, but it’s only 25 or 30% of them that are expecting in-person performances as compared to theater and orchestra that are at 20-ish percent. And that’s really changed. Back in June, 100% of multi-disciplinary organizations thought they would return, 80% of dance organizations thought they would return, 60% of presenting organizations. So, it reflects both an overall reconciliation of the length of the pandemic and the impact, but there are still variations within the types of genres. What’s also interesting is that in the US, geography has affected some of that confidence. So, back in June—just using … we’ve done three of them, but just using that as the biggest place where change has happened—the South actually had 100%. They were a hundred percent positive they would return by the end of 2020. That continued, that confidence, in July. And that’s gone down to 33% in September. In the Northeast, it was at 71%. In the Southeast, it was at 75%. Now, it’s down, you know, into the thirties. In the Northeast, it’s down to 16%. So, today everyone is down. The least confident region is the West the most at 14%, the most confident region in the US is the South and Southeast, but only 33%. What we’ve seen is that demography affects confidence, that there are predictable reasons about that, that have to do with age and region in which you live, and then the kinds of things that people need and want to see to make them feel confident mimic right now, the things that we’re seeing in other studies. Maybe the last thing I’ll say is that it’s perhaps a little counterintuitive, but we’ve learned that loyalists, as we would describe them as donors and subscribers and members, are pretty consistently the least likely to return right now. And you unpack that a little bit and they tend to be older and-

Erik Gensler: Yeah, proxy for age.

Jill Robinson: Right.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, yeah. I think it’s super interesting. I hope everyone checks that out. I think that I was surprised to see the number of 50% of arts organizations just said, “We’re gonna sit out on the digital programming and just wait for a return for … You know, and I think we probably don’t have time today, but I think there’s probably interesting ties between how soon people think they’re coming back and if they’re going to do digital programming, I don’t know if you … yeah.

Jill Robinson: I’m sure you’re right, yeah. It’s confusing to me, a bit, though, because it feels like such an opportunity and there’s so many unexpected pleasures from … I mean, we all joke about Zoom, but there are unexpected pleasures from being on Zoom that have resulted in people giving each other grace, people learning more about each other, and I’m confident there are and will be unexpected pleasures from using digital means to produce and distribute and connect.

Erik Gensler: It sort of goes to the, how you started talking about the bigger picture of the ethos of what your organization is and having, you know, digital connections, even though you’re not in person. I certainly think it’s important and I also think the lack of it speaks to the financial uncertainty in the sector, which leads to all sorts of challenge around having skills, ability to take risks, and ability to quickly pivot, which I think all of that is a huge, perhaps, piece of why 50% are saying, “I’m sitting out.” What do you think?

Jill Robinson: There’s a thing I’ve been noodling, ever since he was on TRG 30. There’s a gentlemen named Dr. Tony Byers.

Erik Gensler: I listened.

Jill Robinson: Yeah, he wrote this book called The Multiplier Effect of Inclusion. And you may remember somebody asked him a question at the end of our conversation about something and he said, “You all are in the creative sector and I know you can come up with creative … you will come up with the most creative answers to these challenges.” We got off that webinar and I thought, “Will we? I wonder how free we feel to be creative right now because of the crisis that we’re in, the revenue crisis that we’re in, the crisis of systemic racism, you know, really coming front-and-center and putting people in all kinds of uncomfortable, personally uncomfortable places that, just, depending on who you are, it either, again, narrows the aperture or broadens it.” There are just all of these pieces, not least of which is the governance structures around us and how they either are seeking to mitigate and manage risk right now, or expand and excite thinking. I had a woman, super, super, gosh, interesting author named Rahaf Harfoush, who wrote the book, Hustle & Float, on a couple of weeks ago. And we got to talking about—pointedly talking about—her book and its argument that creative workers actually require a very different type of work and time for recovery and nurturing of that creative energy so that it can reach its biggest, most innovative potential. And I think, “Well, what do we expect of nonprofit or any, you know, creative, producing teams? It’s like intense work all the time, long hours, keep at it, work on weekends, work hard for your art.” Rahaf’s point is, our brains were not meant to multitask like this. We were not meant to be distracted like this. We cannot think creatively when we are on demand all the time, phone, phone, phone, phone. And so, the sector needs creativity and it needs to be inspired. And there are things pulling on the sector in all kinds of ways right now, but I’m both and interested in, sympathetic about, and wanting to provoke thought about, I guess.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, because of this, I hope what you said about not being on the hamster wheel, and I always sort of look at it, “Are you working on the business or in the business?” And I think a lot of cultural executives don’t get the time to work on the business because they’re in the business. And, hopefully, this is an opportunity to really think about working on the business and part of that is really what you and I talked about the last time you were on CI to Eye, which we could do another hour and a half on, which is people, right? And, like, that really ties to the book you’re talking about and that crisis, which I think was such a great conversation and I will put a plug in here. I mean, it was a few years ago, but I think it was one of my favorite conversations on the podcast.

Jill Robinson: I was mine, too, and it continues to be one of the most important issues as I think about … You know, right now, I think everybody, a little bit, is transitioning to thinking about 2021. I hear it now. And how, as leaders, we transition and bring people along; how, as leaders, we ensure that we can be as resilient as we need to be; how, as leaders, we figure out what the business model is going to be, hopefully based on a just cause, that does have income and income for artists and income for the team around artists that need to help make that vision happen, and that inspire people on boards to really lean in and imagine something that’s been energized by this pandemic time, rather than assaulted by. I think the more we can stay there, the better, but it’s a big job to do that, I know.

Erik Gensler: So, my last question, if you had to describe the state of the US arts field—and I know you work in Canada and the UK and I know this question is broad and varied and I don’t want to be reductive—but given your experience and all the inputs you have from your research, your conversations, your public programming, what are some, just few words around the state of the arts?

Jill Robinson: The state of the arts, from my catbird seat, is that it is more critical, it is so much more critical than ever. It will be part of the recovery economy. If you think about it, in communities, we recover when we’re together in spirit and in proximity, and so, our coming together in arts and culture, in church, if that’s your thing, in community centers, in restaurants … We must, we must come back as strong … Even though we might be smaller, we can be smaller and stronger than ever. And so, I hear evidence of people seeing that and I think I want to inspire the sector to be reminded of the importance of the role that they play in their communities, and in their communities healing from and through all kinds of things, including this coronavirus pandemic, but not only. And so, you know, the state is, right now, right now is in flux and there’s a lot of fear, and there’s a lot of fear that’s based on a lot of realities of change, but this sector is so critically important. And I am hearing governments acknowledge that. I’m hearing community leaders acknowledge that and neighbors acknowledge that. And that, that is the point.

Erik Gensler: I love that. Yeah, the arts … and it makes so much sense. The arts needs to be central to the recovery. So, that is hopeful. That is optimistic. I think that’s a great way to end. Jill Robinson, thank you so much.

Jill Robinson: Erik Gensler, thank you so much for everything you do.
(Theme music plays)

Erik Gensler: Donald Walker-Kuhne, welcome back to CI to Eye. It’s so nice to have you.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.

Erik Gensler: I wanted to have you back on the podcast at this moment because I think we’re just in such a moment of transition. And, obviously, we’re always in moments during position, but this is quite a big one. And from your purview, I know you talk to and work with lots of arts organizations and arts leaders and I’m curious to first start out to hear, how are you getting the pulse of what’s going on in the industry? How are you spending your time these days connecting and learning from folks in the field?

Donna Walker-Kuhne: So, what has happened, particularly since the murder of George Floyd, has really been an awakening. It’s been an awakening from the leadership of our arts sector, as well as the staff. And so, now, there’s this intersection from staff, particularly staff of color, saying, “This behavior has to stop. We do not feel inclusive. We have examples and experience of racism and we love what we do and we want it to be better.” And then, we have leadership who are seeking to find out, “And how do we do that? Okay, I hear you, but what’s next, what’s next?” And so, there’s this huge amount of learning that’s going on now, with the EDI workshops, the reading, the webinars, which are daily. And I think it’s really great because I call it a revolution, you know, that there’s a peaceful revolution happening within the arts industry of really looking at personal change because for everyone, this is a personal journey. It’s a personal journey of the fearlessness of people of color who are now speaking up in ways they never had before. And then, there’s a personal journey in white leadership, acknowledging that we have to transform ourselves. We have to look at our own racism, our own white supremacy, and create the kind of organizations that really represent what the arts should be. So, there’s this intersection of these awakenings right now that’s really, really amazing. It’s amazing.

Erik Gensler: When you’re leading these kinds of workshops, how are you approaching them? What has been … I feel like a lot of people are looking for solutions or workshops when that’s, of course, like, a starting point or a piece of it, but how are you approaching these conversations that you’re being asked to lead?

Donna Walker-Kuhne: I always start with my favorite quote that I started using right when the pandemic began and that’s from Arundhati Roy and I believe what she wrote is the way forward. I really, really believe this. So, that’s become my mantra. And so, with that, I’m encouraging anyone that I work with to please not look behind you, to please not think about what you did, but here’s the opportunity to leave the baggage leave with what’s not working, and start fresh. So, with that, then I believe the second step is dialogue. You know, there’s no magic formula to change ourselves, but we can do it if we continue to polish ourselves, and I think that’s through dialogue and it’s constantly having these conversations. So, in order to have the dialogue, you have to have a brave space where people can speak up because many people of color have been afraid to speak up for repercussions. “Well, if I say this, then I’m gonna get fired or I’ll be judged, and then I’ll never be able to grow or advance.” And so, this is what white leadership has to do, is immediately create this environment where your word is valued and that, you know, we’re going to do our best to create this brave space. And so, that becomes a second point. And then, thinking about the end goal. What is it that we want to accomplish? Do we just want to talk about this? Do we want to change it, transform it? So, many of the arts organizations I’m working with are saying, “We want to be an anti-racist organization.” So, then, we define it. “Okay, so, what does that actually mean? And then, what work are you going to do to make this happen?” And so, that, kinda, is the trajectory of where we go. Some organizations aren’t saying that “I want to be an anti-racist organization.” Some are saying, “We want to just kind of unpack what this looks like.” And so, they’re not quite ready to get to that end goal of erasing this, of eradicating that, and I think a lot of that has to do with holding onto their whiteness, quite frankly. But, you know, I realize that people are at different places along this journey and my role is to support them and advance and nudge and nurture, as much as possible.

Erik Gensler: I love your spirit of acceptance, positivity, meeting people where they are and helping them get further down this journey. You know, I think there’s a lot of—and understandably and for some cases—but shame that a lot of people approach when it comes to this kind of conversation and the blatant racism that’s in our country and our institutions. And I really feel like I understand why people have that intent, but shame is not going to change human behavior; openness and dialogue are, and I can see you have that spirit and I’d love you to comment on that.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: You’re absolutely right and I think, and again, it’s a way of how you see yourself so that, yes, you may have been behaving this way for a very long time, but that awakening of, “Actually I can transform myself.” You know, in Buddhism we call this “human revolution.” You know, this is actually an inner transformation to be a better person, to really polish and eradicate that negativity and look at what is positive about my life and how I can really expand on that. So, I do believe that we can change, but it’s a commitment. It’s definitely a determination that I’m going to do this regularly. It’s not once a week. It’s not just at a staff meeting. It is constant, constant. And that’s why I think the training and the workshops become important, as well as the readings and the dialogue. So, it’s like a formula that begins to, kind of, massage, you know, who we are. And then, we can have benchmarks along the way to see, where are we? And I think the staff of color will be very clear about the progress and how they’re feeling. Many of them have written letters to their leadership that are very clear in what they want to see changed. And it’s interesting to see how the various cultural institutions, whether it’s theater, dance, classical music, how they are responding to these letters. Some of them have taken it as a personal affront. Some of them are packing it one by one. Some are trying to figure out, “Well, what do we actually do with this?” And then, the role of the board of directors. So, what is their responsibility towards this and how much should they be involved in this training? So, I am seeing a trend, also, of boards being involved in the EDI work. And in some instances, it’s parallel with the staff. I think that’s very inspiring for staff to see that the board is also figuring out, “How do we live in a more harmonious, respectful society and how do we create that?” And so, this is not just the role of the staff and the ED. It’s very much a board-driven initiative, as well as providing the funding support to make it happen. Nothing’s for free, even if it’s just buying the books for the staff. And so, I think the role of the board of directors is to jump in with both feet, eyes wide open, to see, “How are we participating in initiating this as well?”

Erik Gensler: I would go even … you’re your diplomatic and that’s what makes you so good at your job. And I would say, if you have the fundamental structure of an arts organization, led by boards that are generally, a very capitalist model-

Donna Walker-Kuhne: Yes.

Erik Gensler: … and if you don’t have a board that’s able to recognize their place and their benefit in the system and willing to actively do the work and push the executive director and push the staff, you’re only gonna go so far. So, I’m really … the organizations that … I think it’s fundamental for the board to be involved. And would you say, I’m just curious … I know you’re doing a lot of workshops. How many would you say are involving the board? Like, if you had to say, “Okay, there’s 100% of the organizations I’m looking at; this percentage seems like deeply committed to being able to call itself anti-racist, doing the work for fundamental change. This group is doing nothing, but this group is sort of, you know, somewhere in between that.” I’m just curious, in your experience … you know, because this whole podcast is about trying to get at where the arts industry is right now. And I know this is anecdotal and based on your experience, but I’m just curious, where are you seeing, how are you seeing those buckets sort of align?

Donna Walker-Kuhne: I would say that of 100% of arts organizations I’m working with, 50% are very aggressively involved in ending racism now. They want to become an anti-racist organization. They have said that publicly and they’re prepared to do what it takes. I would say, there’s 25% just aren’t sure what that means. And then, there’s 25% that are holding onto their white fragility. And though that’s the ones that take the most work, frankly, because there’s an awakening that they haven’t quite yet arrived at and there’s a power base, as well. And so, that means, “What do I have to give up?” as opposed to, “How does my life expand? How do I become more of a human being?” So, that group, that 25% sector, it really, it requires a deep dive. The 50% they’re running. They’re running ahead and if they make mistakes, that’s fine. We are moving forward. We can’t live like this anymore. That’s where they’re at and it’s very clear. I think if anyone is looking, they would be able to see where that is.

Erik Gensler: How do you think about leadership? And this is something I think a lot of organizations are certainly thinking about, when you look in the traditional American not-for-profit arts field, particularly when you get to the larger, more well-funded organizations, the leadership teams are almost exclusively or primarily white. And there are organizations that have bucked this trend. There’s a few museums. There’s a few organizations. There are organizations, particularly that are culturally specific have done a better job, but, primarily, these are white-led organizations because they’re, you know … which you can say is racist because they live in America, which is racist, which is supported by capitalism, which is racist. So, they’re, you know, they’ve done what they’ve done and without disrupting it, that’s where we find ourselves, mostly white leadership.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: I agree. I think in terms of the leadership, I am encouraged by seeing appointments of people of color in various roles. There’s now a number of artistic directors. There’s new executive directors. And it’s like, yes, one by one. But I do think that there is now a realization that we actually have to start to trust that someone who’s not just like me can run this organization. So, I believe in five years, what should happen is that white leadership should be mentoring. There should be a pipeline and every arts organization that is specifically focused on enabling people of color to take leadership roles, and whether that’s in a vice position or executive, artistic director, that should be the goal. And so, it doesn’t mean that you’re putting yourself out of a job. It means that you’re expanding what that job can look like, what the potential is. So, again, it goes back to, Arundhati Roy’s quote, you know, let’s leave all of this old, colonizing thinking in the past and think about what would it be if we have this incredibly diverse group of leaders who are now wanting our cultural institutions? And does that mean I don’t have a job? Does it mean that we do it side by side? That’s what we have to figure out, but we need to begin. We have to start. The other option, then, is to have a violent revolution where you’re literally pushing people out.

Erik Gensler: (Laughs)

Donna Walker-Kuhne: And so, I don’t believe in that. So, that’s why I’ve put it on a trajectory of a process that ultimately, yes, I think that the leadership of our institution should reflect the cities we live in. So, if this is what the demographics look like, our leadership should reflect that in the most broad way. And so, to get to that point, that involves power. That involves money. It involves wealth. It involves class. Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste, which, you know she is advancing is really the basis of American society. And so, all of that has to be uprooted. Okay, so, who’s doing that? And then, who’s listening? So, this is not something that will happen next week, but I think we have to be vigilant. We have to be tactical. And that’s why the podcast that you’re doing, because you have such a broad listenership, so that these awakenings happen in different pockets. And then this bubbling that comes up to the top.

Erik Gensler: You know, the last podcast interview we released, with Kristie Swink Benson, who’s the head of communications at the High Museum in Atlanta, was all about how they increased their diversity and both internally in their staff and their guests who attend the museum, to mirror the population of Atlanta. And I thought that was really incredible and a plan that they, you know, they put in years ago and is coming to fruition now. They planted the seeds and evolved it. But, yeah, and, I mean, the challenging thing … and I can even speak personally for us at Capacity, where we worked very hard at diversity. We fell short when it came to leadership power and inclusion. And we are working very hard to rethink that and not make that mistake again, which is very hard in a moment where the arts is in an economic moment of being very starved for resources. So, I think right now it’s just such an opportunity for changing a culture, making plans so when there is activity and money in the sector, you can put those plans into action and appoint people in roles that can really make an impact. And every time I looked at LinkedIn every day, I see another BIPOC person appointed to a position of power in an organization. And so, I see that momentum.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: Yes, I am too. And I’m inspired by that because in my 40 years of working in the arts, I’ve never seen this before. And so, that, to me is a strong indicator of progress. And so, when I think about when I started in 1983, and then today, what changes have I seen in the field that really reflect awareness and commitment for transformation? Today, this is the time where I’m seeing the most real, actual results. You know, before, it was a lot of thinking and, “Oh, it would be great,” and, “What about this?” But today, I’m seeing real steps from, as you said, these appointments to the creation of equity, diversity inclusion committees that exist within many arts organizations and also with the board, to articles that are being written daily by people, artists, you know, by this proliferation of letters that came out, I’ve just never seen that before, the voice and the boldness. But most importantly, it was the fearlessness. It is a fearlessness that now exists with people of color who worked in the arts. And so, it doesn’t matter what you’re going to do or say; this is how it must be. And so, that commitment, unparalleled. It’s fantastic.

Erik Gensler: I agree. I also, in my own experience of watching this, if you just have a committee and it’s not central to the core of the organization, meaning your leaders are not on that committee or bringing the results of that committee on a regular basis to the larger decision-making structure, I don’t think you’re going to make as much effective change if we put this off to the side as a committee. It needs to be core to the mission of the institution for those 50% that really want to become anti-racist. I mean, you know more about this than I do, but I just see, like, if an organization pats itself on the back for having a committee, yes, that’s a good step, but that’s not an end goal.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: It has to be everything. There has to be a commitment from the executive team. The board has to completely endorse this and are willing to do the work. Then, the staff has to be given the freedom to craft, what will this look like? Then you put all of that together on a schedule, on a schedule that includes the dialogue, the workshops, the training, the personal bias test that you take, you know, to also be aware of how you are, what you feel. When all of those things are in place, then I think you see a change in an organization, but it’s a menu that has to be managed, implemented with bravery and courage. Really important.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. If you had to describe the state of the US arts field from your purview, and your purview is the work that you do, and I know this is a broad and varied question, but in your experience, in a few words, what would those words be? The state of the field right now.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: Transition, fearlessness, pivoting to a virtual landscape, bravery. That’s kind of what I see. I think that the opportunity that COVID-19 has provided for the art sector is to actually look at programming in a different way, through a different lens, and that you can use this now to really think about cultivating diversity in a way that perhaps you couldn’t afford to do in person. So, now, you can roll out all kinds of different programs. Now, you have the opportunity to partner with different organizations who may doing the work that you would like to do. And so, there’s a whole new lane of programming, collaboration, and marketing that is before us and this is up to arts organizations to walk down that path, to see that. And that, to me, is a great opportunity to start to implement the EDI work from your home. And so, you’re thinking about, “Okay, now, how do I actually do this? Okay, I’m not going to see anybody. How do we do this?” So, programming is absolutely one of those ways. I think that right after the murder of George Floyd, there was all these statements of solidarity that were issued. You know, everybody was posting, you know, “We stand in support. We will …” So, now, it’s about accountability. And so, when I think about what’s next? “Okay, fine. You issued your statement. And what are you doing?” There needs to be that feeling within arts organizations, that “I have to be accountable to my community, my constituents, my funders, because this is what I said.” Then, there has to be a level of accountability to yourself. “How am I measuring my growth so that when I go home—well, go back to my bedroom—I feel that, you know, I have, I’ve made a difference. I have a footprint. I’ve made an impact.” It’s also generational, too. I have seen more movement within the younger demographic than older. And so, there’s a much more willingness to be an ally. And I think that’s something that all white people should think about. What is, how, where am I on that trajectory of allyship? Am I aco-conspirator? Am I a partner? Am I an ally? Because you have to be on one of these. You have to be. You know, to stand to the side means that you are part of the problem. And so, you make a choice. “I’m going to be part of the solution. Then, where do I stand? I stand next to you. I’m in front of you. I’m providing the funding. I am working on myself.” But that piece, critical, because these are the things that people of color, certainly Black people have been saying for 401 years. This is not a new conversation. What is new is the way it’s being received and heard. And so, that’s when I think we have to push the door open, walk through boldly with, and this is what it looks like. This is how we uproot systemic racism. As we’ve mentioned, with leadership, with funding support, with board engagement, with programming, and at the end of the day, going home and feeling as if your life was respected and that I don’t have to leave part of me outside the door because I’m a person of color and I’ve got to fit within this model, but I can be all of me and that will be acknowledged and celebrated. That’s what we want to get to. That’s where we’re going.

Erik Gensler: That’s it. Donna Walker-Kuhne, thank you so much.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: You’re welcome, you’re welcome. Always great to see you, Erik. Thank you for this wonderful platform that you’re providing arts administrators. Thank you.
(Theme music plays)

Erik Gensler: Tom O’Connor, welcome back to CI to Eye.

Tom O’Connor: Well, thank you. I’m delighted to be invited back. Who’d have thought?

Erik Gensler: You’re one of our OG guests, as the kids say.

Tom O’Connor: You know, if you can make it through previews out of town, means a lot.

Erik Gensler: (Laughs) So, I know in your role as a consultant, you hear from a lot of arts leaders, and I’m curious what that looks like these days or sounds like these days, how you’re spending your time connecting and learning from the field.

Tom O’Connor: I know that a lot of people are asking themselves that and how do we “network” in this time? How do we make sure we’re keeping in touch? I mean, I’m fortunate to have a pretty strong network. To be honest, I feel for a lot of the folks who are just starting out right now, who don’t yet. But we’ve been starting to do something more formalized here with our team, really since the early days of the pandemic. We started hosting roundtables for marketing leaders, for that very reason. One to keep us plugged in and make sure we’re being of service in as many ways as we can, but also to make sure that that group can stay connected, that they have the opportunity to really be learning from each other, to be sharing with each other, and to make sure that all of us are combining our energies and combining our learning. I’ve been really inspired to see how even people in the same market who are normally very competitive are being very generous with one another and sharing ideas. And so, providing a format for that has been really rewarding for us. Important to say, too, that it’s all just peer-to-peer. That kind of roundtable energy is really authentic, really vulnerable. People from all budgets, all genres, all kinds of organizations coming together to really talk about what’s going on now. In, many ways people just needed space. And when I say that, I don’t mean distance from us. I mean (laughs)-

Erik Gensler: (Laughs)

Tom O’Connor: Maybe that, too, now.

Erik Gensler: You’re breathing down my neck, O’Connor!

Tom O’Connor: Maybe that, too, now, but they needed a space for themselves to really be able to say, “I don’t know what to do,” or, “I need help figuring out how to approach these challenges in front of me.” So, I’m happy to say, we’ve now got over a hundred organizations that take part in those. They’re a really wonderful forum to bring and also take insights.

Erik Gensler: So, you’re doing these roundtables. You’re just someone who I know connects with lots of arts leaders and we actually titled your last podcast, “The Most Networked Man in the Arts,” and so, I know you’re taking a lot of inputs in, and really the purpose of this podcast is to understand what the state of the arts is right now. And I’m curious, what’s on your mind when you look at the art sector from your purview?

Tom O’Connor: Well, I’d first like to say that I had no approval over that first podcast title and I would never say that about myself, but I guess it’s true. I do talk to a lot of people through consulting, through recruiting through, now, these roundtables. But to be honest, I think what I’m thinking about is what a lot of people are thinking about, which is, what organizations will still be standing when this is all over? “This” being a broad term to reflect a moment with compounding crises. But I’m actually pretty optimistic about the way certain organizations are showing us what they’re made of and proving to us how resilient and creative they are. And, you know, I have been thinking a lot about, “What are some of the, what are some of the attributes that are showing themselves in the organizations that are really responding well to this moment?” And there’s been a couple of, sort of, key sort of threads or trends that I’ve been seeing. I’ve kind of gotten them down to three buckets. The first is because everything is so virtual now, because everything is digital—we all know that—there are a lot of organizations where that kind of content and that kind of approach was in their DNA long ago, long before this all started. And, frankly, their investment was there long ago before this all started. So ,they have an apparatus in place to make and distribute what audiences want. And I think about some of the folks who’ve presented on our roundtables or just participated. I think about Jazz at Lincoln Center. I think about 92nd Street Y. I think about the Detroit Symphony. You know, those organizations where they were already seeking opportunities to connect with our audiences in ways that were not just the in-person experience. And so, when you think about now, when everything just totally flipped, we’ve now got some distance from that moment. We’re now six months into this crisis. Those are the organizations that I think were able to manage that first pivot really well. But something else that I observed now that I’ve long held to be true in my observations of arts organizations in general is that I’ve been really impressed by the smaller organizations that are really nimble, that are really able to turn on a dime, that are really able to innovate, fail, and, sort of, optimize and improve really quickly. They don’t have the bureaucracy. They don’t have the funding restrictions. They can make the kind of programming pivots. They can make the infrastructure investments. They can restructure the team that can do all of those things with a whole lot less limitation—“agita” was the word that came to mind. But when we have these round tables, we have organizations that are on these calls from, you know, $500,000 to $300 million in annual budgets. And this is a wide range of organizations. And it is not the larger organizations lecturing down to the smaller organizations. It is everybody at every level talking about what they’re able to do. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen smaller organizations, like one of my clients, TheaterSquared, in Fayettville, Arkansas, relatively small company by comparison, hugely innovative. Just built a brand new, beautiful venue. And they basically created a TV studio in their theater. They’re able to do that, A, because of the community support, but because of their ability to respond quickly. I think about these, sort of, early adopters and, sort of, folks who are leading the way are not always the behemoths. And, frankly, they’re often not. That’s kind of the second group, that’s sort of small and nimble. And then, the last is something that I think is something that I’m always banging the drum for but that is, I think, really obvious now, which is that there are a lot of organizations that have not made institutional marketing and institutional communications a real priority. And in this moment, in the ways that these organizations are trying to have relationships with audiences, it’s clear that the ones who have marketed themselves as companies, not just show-by-show, not just event-by-event, but really the personality and the humanity of a company and who is making those curatorial and programmatic choices and all of that, giving an identity to that. Those folks are leaps and bounds ahead. And I’m thinking specifically about the Public Theater, but there are so many examples out there of organizations that have done a great job of that. What I don’t want this to sound like is, “Look at how all these organizations have done this so well; if you had done that, you’d be in better shape.” That’s not what, I’m not what I’m saying, but I am saying that we all still have this opportunity. Every organization still has this opportunity to start now and make these kinds of attributes priorities, make themselves more nimble, make themselves more innovative, take some more risks and, you know, start to say, “Okay, have we not been able to do in this period that others have? Why is that?” and have those moments of reflection internally. I’ve been thinking a lot about something that came up on one of your, or your earlier podcasts, with Seth Godin. Something that really hit me, that I think is important and I’m gonna paraphrase and I’m probably not going to get this quote exact, but at the end of his conversation with you, he says something like, “You already know what to do, so go do it,” basically. My interpretation of that is, I have a hunch that many of us know what is broken in our organization. You know, what roles are outdated, what practices are ready to go? You know, now’s the time to change them. There’s nothing like a crisis to give us that opportunity, as painful as it is.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. I mean, the pandemics, the dual pandemics have just been such an accelerant.

Tom O’Connor: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: And if you can focus on what it is you need to do, I thought that I thought that was really powerful, too.

Tom O’Connor: Yeah, absolutely.

Erik Gensler: There’s been … so much rich research has … I’ve always said this is a field that lacks in research and I feel like the sector has really done a lot of research. And I’m curious if there’s any research studies or data or articles that you’ve come across that have left you thinking.

Tom O’Connor: In addition to the consulting work, I’m also a recruiter and I think a lot about the workforce. I think a lot about the pool of people, the lack of diversity in the arts administration field, all of that. I’m thinking a lot about how we are cultivating and fostering and nurturing and teaching, frankly, the people who are coming up in the field right now. And one of the, one of the most striking things to me was, just this weekend, I was reading The Atlantic and there’s an article in there about, I believe the title is, “Generation Work From Home May Never Be the Same” or “May Never Recover,” something like that. And it was talking basically about how you and I and many others like us who have been around this field for a minute, you know, we had opportunities in our early career to make connections, to meet people, to learn by just physical proximity and osmosis, frankly, by being in offices, by being in meetings, by going to all these things. If I were just coming into this field right now and I were just getting started, I would not exactly know where to turn, I have to say. You know, there’s lots of, there’s lots of things happening on Zoom. There’s lots of panel discussions to watch, the roundtables are great, things like that are wonderful. But I think that there’s a learning and relationship that I think right now is going to come back to bite us. So, what I’m thinking a lot and I’m thinking, and I’m not just thinking about how it bites us and about how it bites them. If people who are in the early, in their career, who I want to stick around, who I want to develop in this field, who I want to grow into leaders and not find another business. So, I’m thinking a lot about that concept, how we nurture those people, how we give them opportunities to meet people like you and me, how we give them opportunities to, to develop relationships that can further their career, enhance their skills, give them a network in a way that I don’t think you can always do just on Zoom, just in a virtual context. Just like the arts and culture fields so much are about the gathering, I think that a lot of education and professional development and all that is about the connection, too, so I’m spending a lot of time thinking about that.

Erik Gensler: I’m curious, from your purview, so many different organizations have tackled this in many ways, from versions of in-person and live-streaming and hybrid and doing nothing and doing all sorts of innovative, new kinds of programming, from scavenger hunts to drive-in movies. It’s been really impressive, the creativity. I’m curious how your either anecdotes or trends you’ve seen. Cause the point of this podcast is understanding the state of the arts in 2020. What do you think the next year or two will look like in the sector? And I know you can’t predict the future and there’s so many unknowns, but I’d love you to just share your thoughts around that.

Tom O’Connor: So, it’s interesting the way you framed that. Cause you know, I think you’re right on that people are trying a lot of new things. They’re frankly experimenting with what it means to be in relationship to their audiences right now and they can’t do it with their traditional programming and I think that’s super exciting, but I think that what is gonna reveal itself as we go through the fall, hopefully, as we get closer to the new year and pass it, is that we’re going to really find out if we are experimenting for the way things are going to be for the next four months or the way things are going to be for the next 18 months, which is scary, frankly. But I think that, to me, that’s the big question of, of what we’re doing right now, as far as experimentation, as far as trying to do things. It’s, how long has this holding us over for and what are we going back to, and when? But, you know, when I think about this, I also think about being tied into another financial reality that I think you’re probably seeing with your clients and that I know I’m seeing with mine is that, we’re in a phase where we’re in one scenario where we’re still in sort of a fulfillment phase, where people have paid for a subscription, paid for a season, people have paid for tickets that organizations are in the process of trying to fulfill, trying to give an experience to satisfy the payment they’ve received so people don’t feel compelled to ask for their money back, all that kind of thing, kind of nitty gritty of audience services work that I do not envy right now. But we’re going to move into another phase, and some organizations already have, where we’re trying to sell new experiences and make new acquisitions in terms of sales. And that’s the part that I think is such a huge question mark over this next six months. Because so many, if you talk to organizations now, it’s mostly about, “How do we not squander what we’ve got from the audiences who already paid for this season?” And that money is soon going to be used. That programming is going to be passed and we’re going to have to start over again and it’s going to be a percentage of already a percentage of the year before, so that’s nerve wracking. I can’t predict the future at all, but I’m going to be very curious to see what that equation looks like, when we’ve been, sort of, virtual-only, or at least primarily for some time, and are trying to keep those audiences activated

Erik Gensler: Yeah. There’s been a lot of activity ramping up in the fall and it’s kind of interesting how, certainly, we felt a seasonality the same way we felt in a typical arts season where, obviously, in March, everything came to a halt, but summer was slow as it is for most traditional arts organizations, of course. Summer festivals were closed and not happening. But then, we moved into a post-Labor Day activity where there all of a sudden was a lot happening. And I think a lot of that is programmed between now and the end of this year and I’m curious what you think that could lead into for next year, if you have any insight into the first half of next year, into the summer.

Tom O’Connor: I mean, I think we’re still,in many organizations … you know, to say nothing of the big announcement from the Met Opera today, their whole season being gone for the rest of the next year, I think we’re still in a place where a lot of organizations are thinking aspirationally about what they’re going to be able to do and thinking about scenarios of, “If we can be in the venue, this will look like one thing. If we cannot, it will look like something else.” I do think that there is an exhaustion of the scenario planning at this point, that folks feel very, if they can get down to two or three, as opposed to nine or 10, which is where we were three or four months ago. In terms of artistic programming, in terms of financial modeling, in terms of just any kind of forecasting at all, you know, and this I’ve heard from, from marketers, but also from executive directors, from board members, there’s just … I mean, talk about analysis paralysis. I mean, this is one of those things where there are so many scenarios that people were planning for in those early days that it felt like, you know, it could, it could go in so many directions that it was almost better to just pick one or two and hope for the best. I mean, because it’s just, there was no way to really have a strong handle on it because there were just too many variables in the mix.

Erik Gensler: I know you’re a big advocate of understanding how teams are comprised and how they work together. And I’m curious for you to talk about how you’ve seen or if you’ve seen an evolution on and in how organizations work together within and across departments, drawing on your experience from helping organizations figure out how to recruit and, and staff marketing departments.

Tom O’Connor: One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed watching is the, I think, rightful place that a lot of marketing leaders have taken in this moment, in terms of being real leaders around content production, really being that conduit between the audiences that we’ve known them always to be but that I’ve seen a lot of, I’ve seen a lot more questioning in the past than I have now. I think that in many ways, arts marketers have had the opportunity to really serve as the leaders they were they’re capable of being. But I think there’s been a real re-alignment, specifically between marketing and programming and this time around how—and I say programming to encapsulate all artistic functions and all of that. I’m speaking generally. But I think that, you know, the necessary partnership that has to happen for that, for this era to be carried out successfully, for the programming that we put forward for whatever the shape and content that we put out is, I think that it’s been really refreshing to see how that collaboration can happen, sometimes more messily than others. But it just reminds me that just like at the top of most traditional—if you’re talking about LORT theaters and other models, like, there’s a managing director and an artistic director and they have to remain in balance. I think in that same sense right now, programming and marketing have to maintain a similar balance. They have to find that way to strike a better and healthy and sustainable balance with one another to keep everything running smoothly. I think one other thing that’s been important to notice in these times is that a lot of organizations talk about their audience-facing teams, whether that’s called “audience services,” whether that’s called “customer service,” whether that’s called “guest services” in your organization, they’ve had to really convert those teams into the people who are, for all intents and purposes, the contact center for any way that people experience the organization. So, the team that has historically been really focused on front of house and ticketing in the most traditional sense is now troubleshooting people’s streaming experience on Vimeo or helping them with digital production in ways that, you know, they never had to be called on to do before. It just changes the nature of that job. So, I guess, you know, if I can bring this all home, these points that we’re making around marketing and programming and audience services, I hope that at the end of all of this, we stand back and say, and look for those people that have been able to make that pivot and have been able to reshape themselves within the systems of arts organizations. I will certainly be looking at them, as a recruiter, because I think that those are the folks that are going to carry us forward and move our industry forward because they’ve proven that they’re not married to tactics. They’re not married to current structures. They’re not married to templates. They’re really thinking about, “What is the goal with the audience right now? What do they want from us? What do we have the opportunity to give them? How do we get out of the way and make that happen?” And those are the people that make the magic in our business, as far as I’m concerned.

Erik Gensler: Are there any other big themes or ideas that have surfaced in your conversations with arts leaders that you want to make sure to talk about?

Tom O’Connor: I think a big one is that the, let’s call it the purism, what I would call de facto elitism, that has kind of kept us from offering more digital programming throughout the year, regardless of whether we’re in a pandemic or not, I think may finally be dead forever. And I personally will not grieve it. Let me just say that on the record. And then, I’m glad that the, you know, I’m glad we’re moving past to this idea that there’s one way to experience this art. I mean, there’s nothing like an in-person experience. There’s nothing like it and I think you would probably agree with me, but I think we’re as organizations really severely limiting ourselves as an industry by thinking of that as kind of the only model. And I think that in this time, we’re kind of disabusing ourselves of that idea. So, you know, obviously, I know there are a lot of structural factors behind why we function the way we do, why we can’t offer more digital content throughout the year when we’re not in crisis, including collective bargaining agreements. But I think in a way, we kind of needed a new north star as a business to really move us and all of those structural factors in the right direction. And I think we’re getting it right now and we’re framing it differently and we’re thinking about it as a way toward inclusion. When I sort of stand back and squint and look at the lessons of this moment, from whether we’re talking about, frankly, the dual pandemics of systemic racism and COVID, I think that there is a real opportunity for us in the way we function as organizations and the way we think about how we put forward our programming to be more inclusive, as a way to address both. The geographic footprint of audiences is totally changing. Organizations can have a whole new potential audience. I’m sure you see this in the work that you’re doing with digital targeting and marketing. Why should we say when this is all over, “No, just kidding, time to kind of close the barn doors again”? We’re changing as organizations by virtue of this time. So, I think this could really change the ecosystem of how all work gets produced and considered.

Erik Gensler: If you had to describe the state of the US arts field—and that’s very broad and varied—but in your experience, in a few words, what would those words be?

Tom O’Connor: This is where my social worker is going to show, but I will say, we are a field that is resilient, we are vital, I think we’d agree, and we’re very messy right now. All of those in ways that are deeply human and okay. But we, as a field, are in a whole lot of pain, you know? And so, just like millions of people right now, we can’t really rely on just generosity, philanthropy, and the tenets of capitalism to keep us going, keep us afloat. Those systems are either broken or greatly limited. We need government support to survive or we’re not going to have a country worth living in, if you think about some of the states that some of these arts organizations are in. And I think, you know, since we’re just a few weeks now from election time, I think we all know what side of the ballot is going to be going our way and supporting us in doing this work going forward. So, I hope that people will get out and vote.

Erik Gensler: Tom O’Connor, thank you so much.

Tom O’Connor: Thank you!

About Our Guests
Donna Walker-Kuhne
Donna Walker-Kuhne
Founder, Walker International Communications Group

Donna Walker-Kuhne is the Founder of Walker International Communications Group a marketing, press, and audience development consulting agency that specializes in multicultural marketing.

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Jill Robinson
Jill Robinson

Jill Robinson is the CEO of TRG Arts, a management consulting firm that works with arts and cultural organizations seeking to build resiliency through transformative operational practices.

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Tom O'Connor
Tom O'Connor
President, Tom O'Connor Consulting Group

Tom O’Connor is the President of Tom O’Connor Consulting Group, providing arts and culture organizations with strategic leadership toward organizational health. TOCG offers a mix of organizational development, marketing strategy, executive search, and coaching services. Tom is also on the faculty of the Yale Theater Management program and a licensed social worker.

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