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Why Your Arts Organization Should Adopt an Anchor Mission
Episode 39

Why Your Arts Organization Should Adopt an Anchor Mission

CI to Eye with Karen Brooks Hopkins

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and Karen talk about how arts organizations should adopt an anchor mission to better serve their communities, how chain stores are a threat to the future of cultural districts, and how running a successful fundraising campaign is very much like mounting a military operation.

Erik Gensler: Karen, thank you so much for being here.

Karen Brooks Hopkins: Thank you. I’m thrilled to be a part of this exciting series.

Erik Gensler: After your time at BAM you worked as a fellow at the Mellon Foundation researching anchor institutions. So, can you tell us what is an anchor and what you learn from this?

Karen Brooks Hopkins: Anchor institutions are “enduring organizations that remain in their geographic places and play a vital role in their local communities and economies. Anchors generally include colleges, universities, hospitals, libraries, parks, community foundations, and arts organizations.” And this space we believe is really sort of the next step in terms of integrating the power of culture into the wellbeing of communities. So, after I left BAM after 36 years and we had focused, particularly during my tenure as president during the last 16 years of my service there, we had focused on the neighborhood around BAM, the creation of the Brooklyn Cultural District. So, more and more I was thinking about districts, about the fact that companies leave. Look how many de-industrialized communities we have in this country. Things change, but cultural organizations essentially stay. And because they stay, they have the opportunity to really make impact along the lines of universities and hospitals. They don’t have the same amount of job creation, but they have other kinds of fire power, character excitement and so forth, that make them integral places in their communities for both local citizens and residents and for those who will visit. I was invited by Mellon to be their first senior fellow in residence. It was incredible, post-BAM. And they asked me, “What do you want do?” And I said, “Well, I’d really like to think about community-building through the arts. I’d like to think about the power and importance of culture both to locals and to visitors.” And out of that the anchor institutions project evolved. So, I worked on this project for two years, doing the research, working with Steve Wolff, who was our thought partner and who helped us with all of the data. Bruno Carvalho, this brilliant humanist urbanist who is now based at Harvard who brought a certain sensibility of the history and issues that face communities into the way we addressed the questions related to our work. And then NCAR. I’m also a fellow at NCAR, the National Center for Arts Research. I’m the Nasher Haemisegger fellow there. And they provided us also with lots of the data and overlays and ways of looking at the big picture and trend throughout the country. There were a couple big takeaways. We did a survey of all board members, volunteers, and staff members at each of our three sites. We chose three sites that were very different, but each of them are located in what I will call a community in transition. One was New Jersey Performing Arts Center, a somewhat traditional large venue in Newark, New Jersey, which has a lot of urban poverty and other challenges. AS-220 in Providence, Rhode Island, a de-industrialized community that has also faced a lot of challenges. And then our third site is MASS MoCA, a fantastic contemporary arts muse in North Adams, Massachusetts, which is also a rural kind of community that is challenged, right next to Williamstown where everything is perfect.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Karen Brooks Hopkins: We did these surveys that gave us information about the relationship between board, staff, and volunteers, to their organizations. And one of the things that we learned was that our institutions rated number one when it came to civic identity. People know that our institutions are there, but they were at the bottom of the chart on civic leadership. That was a really eye-opening situation, because it means that, obviously, people know we’re there, but they do not see us as leaders in community transformation, revitalization and many important issues that are facing communities. So this one was a real wake-up call. We also studied partnerships as part of this, and the way that our sites partnered with other organizations across sectors, such as universities, hospitals, but also other arts organizations within their geographic area. And we found that the main way that most anchor institutions partner is by donating space to other organizations, or providing low-cost space. And obviously that’s important. Organizations need space. But, it felt to me that if we’re really going to make impact through powerful partnerships and really create networks where cultural organizations are doing more for their communities and regions, then we have to do better than just space. That can’t be the most important and prolific way that we partner. We need better ways to partner.

Erik Gensler: Given what you learned, were there certain takeaways of what you think arts organizations could be doing better in order to be successful anchors?

Karen Brooks Hopkins: First and foremost, arts organizations need to adopt the anchor mission. They need to determine how they can serve as an anchor institution. So, the first thing is understanding that and then deciding to take it on. It’s not about size. It’s not about wealth. It’s about a point of view. I will also give you the definition of anchor mission. “To align core institutional purpose with values and place-based economic, human, and intellectual resources to better the welfare of the community in which the anchor resides.” So, it’s beyond art-making. It’s art-making for sure, and obviously bold, innovative, program is the heart of what we do as cultural institutions. So, I’m not moving away from that, but I’m talking about program, marketing, education, audience services, everything that then connects back to the community that it serves in the most important and profound ways. How does that happen? How does program connect? How do audience services connect? It’s about asking that question in every way. And in adopting this anchor mission I believe we can do more and attract more resources, more money, more recognition, more fire power. In every way I believe that by taking on this mission we will do better as cultural organizations. the first part is looking at your organization and determining how you can fit into the anchor space. And I can give some examples of this. The way we partner. I believe that small and large organizations are natural partners, and yet they don’t necessarily see themselves that way. The small organizations are flexible, original deal on the cutting edge of many, many important issues that affect our world today through culture. And they are often more flexible than the large organizations who have their own challenges, but who have venues that are generally better equipped. They have more resources, powerful boards, and are extremely visible. So, it feels like these two sides could really meet and find happiness together if they would work in a mutually respectful way, not just for a year, but for three to five-year partnerships. I believe that if these ideas are artistically relevant and come from a sincere place that they will attract a lot of money. But, they can’t be hit and miss. They need to take place over a period of time. And everybody needs to give each other, some space to do their work. I also think these cross-sector partnerships, working with universities, working with hospitals, working with libraries. There is so much to be gained because of the natural audiences and service groups that each one of these, components have, the arts will benefit by partnering up here, but only if the partnerships are real, only if the artistic work is important and- and well thought out. That’s what it takes I think to help move things along. And the last one of these that I’ll mention is that lately I’ve been really promoting board exchange. So, for example, if there is a partnership, say, between a small and large organization then perhaps one member of the board of the large goes on the board of the small and agrees to make a financial contribution during that period of time and vice versa. Maybe not at the same level in terms of finance, but that in that way we learn to “inhabit each other’s skin” in a way that is more reality-based and that there will be participation from both partners in terms of program, in terms of staff, and in terms of board. It’s up and down the food chain. And that is what I think it takes to make it work.

Erik Gensler: You talk about how it is critical for us to be opening up our institutions. I know at BAM you wouldn’t just do an African dance performance, but you would create a festival, and you would build programming around that where you invited the community in.

Karen Brooks Hopkins: The idea of opening up institutions, it not only enhances the institutions themselves, it enhances connection to community and creates a more vibrant destination. And of course, as arts organizations, we want to be all these things.

Erik Gensler: I feel like the opening up of BAM … I lived in that area, and I remember that when you’d have these festivals you’d take over the streets around BAM.

Karen Brooks Hopkins: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: You’d invite the community in.

Karen Brooks Hopkins: We have been interested in not just kind of doing the greatest hits of anything, but in really exploring the depth of things and looking at them through a multiplicity of entry points. In doing this we found that more people could have access and that it created an easier way for more people to enter into the work. So, for example we have Dance Africa, which is a program that’s been going on for almost 40 years. It’s a great Memorial Day festival in New York, and it began with performances of African American dance companies in first the Lepercq space and then in the opera house at BAM. And then when we opened the cinemas we decided to add African films to that weekend. And then there was a huge Afro-centric bazaar on all of the parking lots and public space around BAM that has 50-thousand people who come. Then we added talks, master classes. There’s a council of elders that comes out of the community that helps set the theme of what each festival will be about. And there’s an incredible education program that takes place in partnership with Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Organization that’s over 25 years old. And the kids study the nation of Africa that we’re working with that year. Every year we bring a dance company from a country in Africa. And they now, the indigenous company accompany on-stage and do their own work but along- perform alongside of the African American companies. So, now what we do is we bring the company in early. They work with the kids at BSRC who’ve been working already for a whole semester on learning the traditions, the customs, building their costumes, and learning a dance. This creates this incredible connection with the tradition for the kids and then the kids perform in the festival alongside the professional dancers. The idea of going on full on, of looking at every creative iteration that we could bring to our audiences and bring to artists as part of this festival seemed to us like the most interesting way to bring the work to the stage and to the community.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and bring new people in from many different points, whether you just go to the festival in the parking lot of you come and see our performance. The story of BAM in terms of helping the revitalization of Downtown Brooklyn, of truly being an anchor there, and you mentioned the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural Alliance. I’m curious how that came to be. And if you could talk about the evolution of BAM during your tenure there and how the community changed and how you worked with the community as it changed.

Karen Brooks Hopkins: When I started at BAM Brooklyn was sort of the punchline of a joke. My boss and mentor, Harvey Lichtenstein, who was both president and executive producer of BAM for 32 years. He came to BAM in 1967 and retired in 1999. Harvey was really focused, not just on great shows, but on creating a context for BAM. And he believed that by bringing other cultural institutions into the neighborhood that that would happen. So, he was kind of an early adopter of the idea of a cultural district. And then of course it took 40 years to actually make it happen. There was funding, then it was defunded, then there was a recession, then there wasn’t a recession. So, things moved in a kind of a crazy way, but the end result is this organic district that I believe exemplifies what a 21st Century cultural district should be. It’s not the 20th Century style, which was sort of edifice, edifice, edifice, plaza. Kind of the Lincoln Center model, which has now taken almost a billion dollars to make more accessible. It’s the idea that it’s small and large, visual and performing diverse ethnically, a lot of different crazy things going on, a lot of different interesting things going on, all pulled together by a common street scape lightning landscape, and then ultimately public art so that when you’re in the district it’s a mish mash of activities that are going on, but that you are in a place where art lives. And I believe that a district formed with this intent is a metaphor for our life in 21st Century New York City, and that is exactly what I believe a cultural district should be. Now, after all these 40 years comes gentrification and all this other types of problems that exist as the result of success. How can you be successful having moved the needle for revitalization but not leave anyone behind and still maintain the diversity and quality of programs that make it interesting rather than bland it out by bringing 10 chain stores to the base of every one of these buildings. I mean that’s a war and it probably will not be won in the air in terms of developers and departments even though holding their feet to the fire in terms of affordability is absolutely crucial. But, it’s gotta be won on the ground. Every chain store that moves into the ground floor of any of these buildings in the cultural district will deaden everything that’s happened in this whole 40 years. If you look at Manhattan now, it’s a chain store, and Brooklyn is on its way. And this is why we have to be vigilant about this. I believe that every single space should have a cultural purpose, that there should be culture involved in every user that is in residence in those spaces, and that it’s not just about the cultural institutions; it’s about the connection between every building to the cultural purpose. Restaurants, obviously, provide audience amenity. Stores, things that are creative and boutique-y are the kinds of things that you want in there. the idea of diversity of usage in the commercial sector is key. It is incredibly important to get these developers who are building these neighborhoods on the boards of these cultural institutions because that will help push them to do the right thing.

Erik Gensler: I remember the headline when the Time Warner Center opened in the early 2000s that,I forget what paper it was, but the headline was, “Manhattan’s Been Malled,” M-A-L-L-E-D. But, I thought that was so clever.

Karen Brooks Hopkins: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: And over the past 15, 20 years we’ve seen that happen. I used to live in Fort Green, and every time I go back there it’s unbelievable, all the Trader Joe’s and all the restaurants. And it just … it’s unrecognizable for someone who lived in that community. I remember I saw you and Joe Melillo, BAM’s executive producer, interviewed a few years ago, and I remember you talking about how you would set up business meetings with every business owner developer that would plan to come to the district.

Karen Brooks Hopkins: As I say, the idea is really to make everyone who is coming into the neighborhood a stakeholder in its future success. And I don’t just mean success in terms of the profitability of these buildings. I’m talking about success as a place to live, success as a place to work, and success as a cultural district where there is a creative life. And the best way to do that I really believe is by meeting with people, talking to them, getting them involved so that our success is their success and vice versa, as opposed to some kind of a standoff. Years ago I went, before all this was really fully evolved, I went to a town meeting in Brooklyn. I think it was at LIU. And someone got up and referred to BAM as a plantation, and this blew my mind. I was deeply upset about it, and I vowed that on my watch that was gonna change, and it did change. I mean obviously there’s always room for improvement, and I’m not saying that every problem has been solved, but I believe that we opened up the artistic roster dramatically to be much more diverse. The Fisher Building created an entry point for smaller, local organizations that could not afford the freight at the opera house and who didn’t really need a two-thousand seat theater. The staff diversity, the board. In every way, starting with program, it was important that we let the light and air in and that we get everybody involved as much as possible. And I believe that the Fisher Building went a long way toward doing that as well as , all of these other program changes, staff changes, and so forth, but it’s about everyone being on the same page in terms of building the district that we want and not ending up with something that’s been hoisted on us. And this can happen to arch organizations ’cause compared to developer’s are we powerful? I think not. There are other interests that are larger. But, as a group, if we try to work together I think that we can bring these interests more into alignment. And it is very important for us to do that. When you think about the arts it gets the short shrift a lot. Funding is cut. The arts are marginalized and considered elitist. But, when you think about it the arts enhance love of learning. The arts build community. The arts generate the largest tourism dollars. The arts are our greatest buildings are arts institutions that house our most incredible treasures. And at the end of the day art is the only thing that endures from generation to generation to generation and onward into the future. So, why we as Americans don’t get this is a little beyond me. But, I believe that by working together, by relentlessly pursuing these goals, great programs, anchor mission, driving the message home, that we will raise the bar for our field and for creative enterprise everywhere and in all of its various iterations.

Erik Gensler: Perhaps because of arts PR problem that you’re outlining arts are not getting included in major city expansion grounds, and I’ve heard you talk about the example of Buffalo and Portland. Do you think that is because of the PR problem?

Karen Brooks Hopkins: I think it’s astonishing that there would be several billion dollars for community revitalization spent in Buffalo or Portland or anywhere that wouldn’t include the arts community, and I think it’s an oversight. I think they don’t think about us. I was looking even at our own New York Times. They do these big conferences now, and they had one I think a year or two ago like on the future of the city or something, and there was no arts panel on it to me this is kind of mind-blowing. I think that we must insist as a sector that we be represented. Places like NCAR continue to bring data that shows and demonstrates the impact of and presence of arts organizations and communities and how that impacts those communities I think we can continue to make the case. Their vitality index is a great way of reinforcing the message with local elected officials and others. But, part of it is that the arts organizations are so busy like trying to get the show on-stage or the exhibition on the wall that sometimes they miss the bigger picture. But, we cannot miss the bigger picture because it’s all connected, every part of it. As I say, the more we embrace this mission, the more resources we will have for individual organizations.

Erik Gensler: I love that Mellon funded you. I love what NCAR’s doing. I feel like as a field we are so missing research, just research in general, research about all the big issues facing the sector. And because we’re so budget-constrained and people-constrained that is the thing that falls off, and I think it’s really dangerous.

Karen Brooks Hopkins: Our field is so cash-starved and under-resourced that it is mind-boggling. Only 5% of all private philanthropy is dedicated to the arts. And then public participation is 20% lower than it was 15 years ago. So, just keep rolling on that and you can see why everybody is hysterical about not having resources. So, I’m going back to anchor and saying, “Hey do we get more resources?” We have to be in the conversation, and the conversation is about revitalization of communities. And that is a conversation with board members, with politicians, with artists, with communities, with audience members. We cannot neglect that conversation because that is how we are going to get more and be more. I believe that we’re actually at the next turning point. If you look at the continuum, and our field began with individual arts organizations doing disciplinary work that was focused in one area: muses, theater, so on. Then we moved to these big multidisciplinary performing arts centers, where we had groups of buildings. Large Eurocentric type buildings was the general rule of thumb. Then we’ve moved now to cultural districts where there’s a lot of different kinds of action like in Brooklyn happening within a defined geographic space. I think the next thing is what I’m calling organically connected partner networks. And in certain cases they will- these will be geographically connected, but in other cases they may be programmatically connected. They may be connected because of the theme of their mission or ideas. There are many different ways that organizations can find to work together, and these organic networks are going to bring more glory to the field and more awareness. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Erik Gensler: Would a simple example be like Broadway and Off Broadway? It’s a district. They’re connected. Or I’ve heard you talk about the Museum Mile on the Upper East Side.

Karen Brooks Hopkins: The idea of Museum Mile festivals that are not just about opening – all the museums, but are about certain thematic issues that they want to bring to the table that they could plan years earlier. So, that in a way, the district would then, or in this case the Mile then, would be speaking in one voice. I think that that gets a lot of attention. And so as I say, it’s not just about partnership. It’s about an organically connected partnership. And when that is in place it’s about attracting the resources and the audience. And I think that these things all follow in a very specific way that makes sense. And we just never get enough time to focus on them. But, partly, we say that, but I say if we make the time, again, the money will follow, and then the whole ecosystem will benefit.

Erik Gensler: You are an amazing fundraiser. I’ve heard from many people, and I’ve heard you talk about fundraising. And I’m hoping we can turn the conversation there. You say we need fundraising support. You outlined how funding is- is declining, both public and private, and how the arts have such a small piece of it. But, yet, fundraising talent is in short supply. Why is it so hard to find great fundraisers?

Karen Brooks Hopkins: The work is relentless. There’s so much rejection and disappointment. Not everybody can handle it and pick themselves up and then live to fight another day. The donors really hold the guards and there’s a lot of competition out there for their support. You have to be very efficient, not waste anyone’s time. The writing has to be good. You have to have board members that can help you get access to funders, as well as through your own research. There are so many things that can thwart a request for money along the way that it’s a perilous occupation and one that is not meant for the faint of heart. Many people are just unable to cope with those emotional demands and the practical skills that are necessary to get the job done. When I did it at BAM for 36 years I maintained an incredible discipline. I went home every night after doing a long day’s work and then generally had a performance or a meeting or a cocktail party or something, and then I would just read information for like two hours every night. And what was I reading? I wasn’t just reading about BAM. I was reading about the world. I was reading about trends in business, in the field. I read Crain’s. I read The New York Times. I read The Wall Street Journal. I read Forbes magazine. I read Variety for our movie business. I read Indie Wire. I read a zillion annual reports. I read many different kinds of internet publications and blogs and so forth. And I was reading to understand what was going on out there and how I thought it might impact BAM. And some of it probably was a total waste of time, but a lot of it wasn’t a waste of time. And I read tons of stuff about fundraising: chronicle philanthropy, inside philanthropy, everything I could get my hands on, because I felt that the reading was kind of the extra special sauce on top of a very intense almost militaristic fundraising campaign that would take place across every flank of the system: corporations, foundations, special events, memberships, high network individuals. On and on and on. And doing this research, couple with this whole military operation that we ran as a staff, I think was an important way to move our fortunes forward and to build a group of donors that were loyal, would renew, and were interested in what we were doing.

Erik Gensler: When you say militaristic operation, what do you mean?

Karen Brooks Hopkins: I’m saying you’re gonna take a lot of casualties along …

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Karen Brooks Hopkins: … the way as far as the rejection is concerned. But, that you are definitely having a game plan and a strategy for each one of these constituents that I just named, such as foundations, corporations, and so forth. And when things go down you’ve gotta be ready to move another direction to get to the goal. So, it’s kind of a treasure map where the- the path keeps changing. And in that case it’s very much like mounting a military operation, that you have to be smart, you have to be flexible, and you can’t panic. But, at the same time you have to keep moving things around so that you, if one thing fails, you’re able to move to the other- to the other thing. And I think that this is not easy for many people. It wasn’t easy for me and I was doing it every day for 36 years. I find that many younger people just don’t want this level of, how can I say it? Where they are…must ingratiate themselves to donors, must provide a certain level of service must be really on the bubble as far as knowing what’s going on and knowing how your donors feel or what’s happening with them on any given day. Are they making money? Are they losing money? Has this happened? Has that happened? And it’s just not for everyone. I believe, however, that if you do embark on a path of a career in fundraising and you’re good at it, you can really do well, and that it’s a path to the executive suite. Because it is hard to do, organizations need it, and in many ways it not only builds resilience and character, it moves you through various communities of people who are wealthy, people who are change makers, people who are opinion leaders, people who are community leaders. It puts you in all of those spaces, so I think it can make you a strong candidate to be an executive director.

Erik Gensler: I’ve heard you list all of the skills required to be a good fundraiser and it was really impressive. Can you list some of those skills?

Karen Brooks Hopkins: Well, good sense of humor. Don’t take it personally. It’s not you; it’s just business as, Don Corleone would say, “you need to be able to write well.” You need to be able to make your case and get out and not waste anyone’s time. You need to be able to absorb a lot of information about things you may not know about. I mean when I went to BAM I was a theater person. I didn’t know anything about chamber music which we were doing at the time, or this or this or this. Certainly not about the avant-garde. And I had to learn enough to communicate it, to sell it and to find what I thought was interesting about it for a donor. So, you’ve gotta be able to do all these things professionally, and then you’ve gotta be able to develop the- the thick skin and character to be able to handle it personally. But, it’s also good manners and common sense. Someone gives you money, you thank ’em. You invite them. You send them the good reviews. You stay in touch with them. You communicate. You don’t give them lousy seats. I mean it just is about thinking. And it’s astonishing to me when I look at some organizations how even this basic information doesn’t get through. So, all these things are in play, some more complicated than others, when you approach being a leader in this field. I want to say one other thing about fundraisers. When you are a fundraiser you must live on the practical level. You cannot live on the what-if level. You must live in reality. Fundraising is about one thing, and that thing is getting money. It is not about trying to get money. It is not about almost getting money. It is about getting it. And there is a lot of hardship and disappointment along the way. And that is why delayed gratification is the fundraiser’s creed. And you have to be thinking about that. When we talk about these bold initiatives they can’t be just pulled out of a hat. They have to be planned. They have to be thought through very carefully because you need money for things to go wrong, not just for things to go right. And that is how a lot of these crises just blow up. It’s because we are prepared with a brilliant artistic concept, but without the resources we need to bring it to the floor.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely.

Karen Brooks Hopkins: And so we have to think about the whole thing from beginning to end in a very thoughtful way.

Erik Gensler: I’m gonna quote you. When you say, “The American requirement for fundraising forced our organizations to be the best we can be and have a deeper connection with our supporters and communities.” I agree, and I totally love that.

Karen Brooks Hopkins: So we live here in America in a very capitalist society. I’m not even gonna go into the other components of it, but it’s not like Europe where cultural institutions are owned by the public in a way and are supported by the government. Okay, that’s not happening here, so we need fundraising, and because we need fundraising and we need people to support us it forces us to be the very best we can be. And it has caused us to have a vital, dynamic, and ongoing relationship with our audiences and the public that supports us. So, in many ways I believe that fundraising has made us great because we had to do it, we’ve done it, and as a result of it these connections, these profound connections, have been formed, and I think that has made our institutions better, stronger, more resilient, more creative, and among the best in the world.

Erik Gensler: So, we’ve come to your last question, and this is your CI to Eye Moment. And the question is, if you can broadcast to the executive directors, leadership team, staff, and board of a thousand arts organizations what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Karen Brooks Hopkins: I would say that executive directors, in tandem with program directors. Sometimes it’s the same person. Sometimes they’re different. We need to always begin and end with bold, visionary program. This sets the tone and is everything. Too often because of the resource crisis we are just phoning it in or just trying to stay the course. Keeping the lights on, paying the staff, keeping the building clean. And I understand that it is hard many times to go beyond that. But, again, I challenge all the executive directors to think about what it means to be their best selves as an organization and as a leader, and then challenge their people and their organizations to get there. And I believe when we do this, when we step out of the comfort zone, take some risk, but do it for the things that are really the great things, the things that bring the glory, that these- this brings us the most thrilling results.

Erik Gensler: Thank you.

About Our Guests
Karen Brooks Hopkins
Karen Brooks Hopkins
President Emerita, Brooklyn Academy of Music

Karen Brooks Hopkins is the President Emerita of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), where she worked from 1979 until her retirement in June 2015. Crain’s NY named her one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in New York.” Karen recently completed a term as a Senior Fellow in Residence at the Mellon Foundation, where she researched anchor institutions. She is also the author of the book, Successful Fundraising for Arts & Cultural Organizations.

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