Patrick Dupré Quigley, founder of the Miami-based professional vocal chamber ensemble Seraphic Fire, presents the second installment in his series on arts entrepreneurship. (Read the first entry here.) This week, Patrick looks at how to focus oneself on producing and publicizing the very best art.
Before we discuss the basic building blocks of any organization (product, community, need), I think it is important to take a step back and engage in some self-examination. As organizations are largely defined by their leaders, it is important that you, the leader of your organization, adhere to some basic assumptions.
1. YOU ARE HONEST.
Honesty is the arts entrepreneur's currency. At the beginning of this process, you will have nothing to convince others about your ability to fill the need of the community except for your artistic skill, and your word that you will be a good steward of resources. Be truthful with the many people who you will need to ask for support and partnership about what you will actually do to further the mission of your organization. Do not ever fib about finances, about the commitment level of other supporters or about your own personal connections. If you have real artistic ability and you are honest about where you are as an organization, those people who also recognize the need that you have identified will be more than happy to help you.
Be honest about the amount of research you have done into the need that you are wishing to fill. If someone asks you a question about your research that you do not know, do not make up an answer. Let the person know that you had never thought about that angle, but you will look into it immediately and get back to him or her. This tactic only works if you follow through on your word to investigate and report back to the questioner.
Be honest about your ability to follow through on tasks that you promise you will complete. It is much better to tell a potential funder or a board member that the scope of the project he or she has charged you with is more than you can personally accomplish than to agree to something that is impossible and then not finish the job. You will gain a reputation as someone who over-promises and under-performs one of the biggest warning signs for potential funders.
Be honest to the people who work for you about how much they can truly expect to make, and how many hours they can expect to work during a given time period. Do not promise an extravagant salary to an employee only to ask that person to take a pay cut six months later. In general, people who are looking into working for a not-for-profit are realistic about their salary expectations, especially if they are working for a startup company. If you lie to someone to lure them into working for you and then you don't follow through, you will most likely lose an employee very quickly along with your reputation among the other non-profit professionals in your community.
You will always gain more through honesty than deceit in this line of work. Inform all future actions on that idea.
2. YOU ARE REALISTIC.
In this post, I use "honesty" to refer to your treatment of other people expectations; "realism," on the other hand, refers to how you form your own expectations of what you and your organization can reasonably accomplish. Just as important as being honest, being realistic about the amount of work it will take to accomplish your goals and the standards by which you measure success is essential to any arts entrepreneur.
In the first days, weeks, months and even years of your entrepreneurial venture, tasks will almost always take longer than you expect. Scheduling your first meeting of your board of directors, assuming you have community movers and shakers on your board (you should!), will take immense amounts of time juggling schedules, finding a venue, setting an agenda, etc. This is only one of hundreds of tasks that will define this journey for you, so make sure you leave ample time to accomplish all you need to get done.
Additionally, you should be realistic about your initial definition of success. Overnight successes simply do not happen. When Seraphic Fire and I received our first Grammy nominations, we were declared an "overnight success!" We were honored, but we had been in existence for more than nine years and had released 10 recordings it did not happen overnight.
For your initial offering to the public, you should really define success by 1) being able to actually produce the project you said you would, and 2) attracting even a small number of people outside of your personal circle to experience and/or buy that product. You will learn what you did right from that first show/exhibit/concert, but more importantly, you will know what you did wrong and you will be able to change that for your next offering.
If you define your successes modestly at first, you will not end up discouraged after your first outing.
3. YOU ADHERE TO DEADLINES.
So many of the basic questions of every arts organization Will we win this grant? Will our press release be noticed by the local paper? Will we remain eligible for not-for-profit status? depend, often solely, on whether you are able to get the proper information to the particular entity before the deadline. For grants, media outlets and the IRS, there is often no bargaining with a missed deadline. It is a binary choice: Get it in on time, you succeed; get it in even one minute after the deadline, you lose.
Because funding entities, in particular, are under such pressure for every dollar that they give, they are, more often than not, looking for ways to narrow the pool of applicants, and what better way to accomplish that than setting firm deadlines. To a funder, an organization that can't even submit the request for money on time is not an organization that it will trust to produce results.
Having established some philosophical boundaries for good artistic entrepreneurism, let's shift to some very concrete concepts: product, community and need.
Foundations of Your Enterprise
1. THE PRODUCT
First and foremost, in any artistic endeavor, the product that thing which your organization/company/gallery/ensemble produces or provides is king. If the art or service is mediocre, nothing else matters. If you do not believe 100 percent that the music/dance/sculpture/plays that you are producing or the educational opportunity that you are providing is the best of its kind out there, you shouldn't be trying to sell (see my sidebar on this subject) it to the public.
From Day One, the resources of your organization should be focused on producing and promulgating the very best art. I'm not talking about the best art on the resources that you have; but, rather, the best art, period.
The art that you produce should be of superb quality, timeless in its durability and relevant to the consumer. Your shows should crackle with excitement. Reviewers and audience members alike should refer to attending one of your events as an "experience." The words "vibrant" and "glorious" should not be seen as hyperbole.
In the end, the paintings of Michelangelo, the music of Mozart and the plays of Molière are not revered because they were well-marketed; they are venerated for their sheer excellence of construction, their agelessness of content and their continuing relevance to modern consumers. Certainly there are forgotten geniuses of this world, but for the sake of a winning entrepreneurial strategy, we want to emulate the former rather than the latter.
2. THE COMMUNITY
Additional to creating an excellent artistic product or service, you will need to be hyper-aware of the community in which you exist. Most of you reading this probably received your training in an artistic discipline, either performing or creative. In the Academy, we are taught that what is important is our craft, our abilities, our taste level, OUR skill. We are, with few exceptions, taught to look at each of our movements, each sound we make, each brush stroke, and analyze how we can improve on that basic element. We focus on self-improvement, on training our bodies, on sharpening our minds.
While this approach is essential to the way artistic training works, once we leave the Academy and try to bring our product to the community at large, this inward-looking mindset is, at best, perceived as unaware and, more often, taken as narcissism. This inward-looking mindset that doesn't take into account the surrounding community can often have dire consequences for your organization's survival, or at least make for an embarrassing or awkward situation.
In the first two years of Seraphic Fire's existence as an independent organization, our opening concerts were always held either the third or fourth week in September, most often the weekend prior to the opening weekend for another local organization, The New World Symphony. Thus, it seemed only logical when planning our sixth season that we would, once again, begin our year on the last weekend of September.
Some of you who have been longtime members of performing-arts organizations no doubt already see where this is leading, but I, who was raised Catholic in New Orleans (one of the most Catholic cities in America) and who had attended Catholic institutions for elementary school, high school and college, had absolutely no idea that the Jewish High Holy Days will, in some years, fall on the last weekend of September. Thus, I was completely taken by surprise when, after the mailing of our season brochure, I began to get phone call after phone call of faithful and supportive Seraphic Fire followers who were either disappointed or hurt that they would not be able to attend our opening concerts because of religious commitments.
As we had already had a number of years of programming at that point, our patrons were, in the end, forgiving once I explained my complete ignorance (many ended up chuckling about it and teasing me about it for years to come). If that had been our first season, however, we may have completely alienated an entire segment of our community on our first concert something that no startup organization can afford to do.
I will discuss the impact that a community has on the success of your organization in greater detail in future posts, but especially if you are new to a community (and even if you're not), you should spend a good bit of time researching the demographics, cultural season and other unique qualities of your community prior to starting any new venture.
Here are some community factors you should research prior to starting any organization:
- What is the total population of your community? This will determine the total number of people that you have the potential to reach.
- How geographically segmented is that population? For example, is your community centrally organized, with a concentrated downtown area where people both work and live, like Manhattan? Or is it a community of many different neighborhoods or smaller municipalities where people tend to commute to work, then return to their respective communities in the evening and on the weekends, like Miami or Los Angeles? This will determine where the best place to exhibit or perform will be, depending on who your target audience is.
- What is the average income of the community that you hope to serve, and, more importantly, how much are similar organizations charging for artistic services in your area? Knowing the fee you can expect to receive for services is integral to determining financial viability.
- Is there a healthy tradition of your art form in the community, or will you be a genre pioneer for your area? The answer to this question is very important, in that it will determine how adventurous your programming can be, how much educating of your audience you will have to accomplish, and how many people in your community are already fans of the type of art that you want to produce.
- Are there any other community-specific circumstances that will affect the financial viability of your organization? For example, in Miami, the cultural season runs from the very end of September to the very beginning of May, because, historically, many people leave town to escape the harsh summers. Additionally, there is a significant portion of the population of Miami-Dade County that either speaks English as a second language, or does not speak English at all. This will determine what the actual vs. the perceived population that you can reach with your marketing without duplicating your efforts in other languages.
3. THE NEED
Finally, in order for you and your organization to succeed, there must be a real need for the art that you are producing. This is often the most difficult question for arts entrepreneurs to ask themselves: Does my community need what I want to produce?
Ask yourself this question, and be brutally honest: Is anyone else in my community already producing the product that I plan to promote? While there are some communities that can have more than one professional ballet company/contemporary art museum/professional symphony orchestra/professional opera company (large markets like New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C.), the vast majority of communities in the United States really only have room for one of these large organizations. In plain terms, if your goal is to establish a direct competitor to the [insert city name] Ballet, for example, it is probably not a good idea.
On the other hand, there is often quite a lot of room in the arts community for more specialized artistic organizations that fill the repertoire and production holes the large, long-established local arts organizations can never hope to fill. Houston, Texas, for example, which already has one of the great opera companies of this country, the Houston Grand Opera, also has an incredibly vibrant and growing Baroque opera company, Ars Lyrica. The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area supports two of the finest orchestral ensembles in the nation: the Minnesota Orchestra, a large symphony that focuses on the standard masterpieces, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which tends more often to program outside of the Romantic era. The two organizations complement rather than compete against each other, thereby filling different needs.
As you consider the need that your organization might fill, think creatively:
- What will set you apart from all the other artistic forces in your community?
- What niche is currently untended to that you have a particular expertise in filling?
For me, this was the choral repertoire of the Renaissance and early Baroque. Not only had some of the basic repertoire of this period never been performed in Miami, it had never been performed in the entire state of Florida.
Once Seraphic Fire, over a number of years, had established itself as the place to hear the finest quality professional singing in South Florida through the means of this repertoire, we were able to, bit by bit, expand the type of repertoire that we performed. Now, most of our seasons span more than 1000 years of music, but in the beginning, we started off quite narrowly focused.
Be willing to be flexible in your initial offerings to your community, and you will find that, over time, you will have the freedom to branch out to other areas. Before you branch out, though, make sure that you are doggedly pursuing the fulfillment of the need that you have identified; otherwise, you will not have the foundation upon which to diversify your offerings.
Next in "Becoming an Arts Entrepreneur": a checklist for starting your organization from scratch.
Patrick Dupré Quigley is a two-time Grammy-nominated conductor, founder of the professional vocal chamber ensemble Seraphic Fire, and a frequent guest conductor across the United States. He has conducted the New World Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony's Community of Music Makers series, the San Antonio Symphony, the Louisiana Philharmonic, the Naples Philharmonic, and will make his Carnegie Hall and Mobile Symphony debuts later this season. He's on Twitter at @PDQuigley.