Strike up the Brand!
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is known for setting the tempo for the times. (Just ask its Maestro Marin Alsop, the first female conductor of a major American orchestra.) So when the BSO recently unveiled plans to hire professional journalists to help tell its story, the arts world listened.
A brilliant career move or a sign of the Apocalypse? Only time will tell.
What is certain is that, in this instance, the BSO is not alone. Arts organizations around the country—from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, to the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles—are turning to in-house journalists to help control the quality and targeting of their messaging.
Mark Nerenhausen, professor of practice and founding director of the Janklow Arts Leadership Program in the College of Arts and Sciences, is not surprised by the trend. He says it’s part of a larger shift in the way arts organizations communicate with their constituencies—whether patrons, donors or policymakers.
“Many arts groups are taking their cues from the business world,” says Nerenhausen, who has more than two decades of professional arts administration experience. “For-profits often have a stable of writers—more accurately, content providers—who create material related to their core missions. As newspapers and other media outlets continue to slash their arts coverage, arts leaders have to take matters into their hands.”
Experts agree that eliminating the middleman is not easy.
“Arts organizations need to have rules ‘to separate church and state,’ so the content has credibility,” Gabriel Kahn, professor and co-director of media, economics and entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, recently told The Washington Post. “It’s one thing to do marketing and another thing to foster lively conversation and debate about a topic.”
That’s why the Janklow Program in the Department of Art & Music Histories has teamed up with the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at the Newhouse School and the Broward Cultural Division in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to present a series of workshops for people who want to write intelligently about arts and culture. Known as the Broward Arts Journalism Alliance (BAJA), the program targets not only professional writers, but also citizen journalists and audience members.
Nerenhausen says the purpose of BAJA is to explore innovative methods in arts coverage, mostly at the local level.
“There’s been a gradual erosion of local news reporting—not just in the arts, but in all areas—as media outlets have cut back on their reporting staffs,” he says. “This doesn’t mean that people aren’t interested in their communities. It just shows that the economics of the digital age make it harder for local outlets to compete against national and international ones in garnering audiences and ad dollars. Arts leaders can’t rely on third parties anymore to tell their stories.”
Supported by a $25,000 “Art Works” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, BAJA is the brainchild of James Shermer G’98, grants administrator of the Broward Cultural Division. For assistance, he turned to Nerenhausen, former president and CEO of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts; and Johanna Keller, founding director of the Goldring Program.
In October, BAJA presented the first in a three-part series—the other two are slated for January and February—at ArtServe, an arts service agency and multipurpose facility in Fort Lauderdale. More than 40 people, including national and local experts, amateurs, self-taughts and newbies, came together for a daylong discussion about the changing face of arts coverage.
“It’s exciting to work with Mark and Johanna, both of whom are leaders in their respective fields and bring an entrepreneurial sensibility to the table,” Shermer says. “They understand how imperative it is for arts groups to change the way they communicate, internally and externally. It’s all part of franchising the brand.”
Keller returns the compliment, saying that BAJA exemplifies the interdisciplinary spirit for which the Goldring and Janklow programs are known. “Our hope is to give people new skills and insight about what they see and hear,” says Keller, a Musical America 2014 Profiles in Courage recipient. “We want to involve the community and engage them in arts journalism.”
Goldring professor Eric Grode ’94 was among the presenters at BAJA’s fall event. “It was a remarkable session,” he says. “In many ways, it’s the best time to be an arts writer because the barriers of entry have never been lower. The audiences are out there, but it does require initiative and creativity to get them to hear you.”
A freelance arts writer who has worked for The New York Times, as well as XXL and TV Guide magazines, Grode is excited about how digital media and networked communications are “blurring the lines” between amateur and professional writers. He thinks this phenomenon will encourage writers to become more knowledgeable about multiple art forms and more fluent in “alternate platforms” of self-expression.
“In the old days, a critic would pass judgment on something, which might trigger a letter to the editor that would run four or five days later, and that would be it,” he says. “Today, this is just the beginning of the conversation. The critic no longer has the last word. … I can tell that some older journalists bristle at this idea, whereas younger writers are ready to roll up their sleeves, and write about things they’re passionate about, and see where the discussion goes from there.”
As director of one of the country’s few arts leadership programs steeped in arts administration and social entrepreneurship, Nerenhausen describes the process as “changing the conversation by connecting people by communication.”
“Even though arts leaders and arts journalists don’t always work in tandem, their goals are usually the same: to raise awareness of work that reflects our society,” says Nerenhausen, whose program is named for another arts philanthropist, Morton L. Janklow ’50. “I think BAJA challenges participants to think about new types of writing, the process of art, the mission and the business of arts organizations, and many other interesting, often over-looked details that fuel arts organizations.”
Most arts leaders agree that new practices—such as hiring in-house journalists to churn out feature stories, artist profiles, tweets and briefs posts—should complement, not compete with, existing arts coverage.
It doesn’t hurt that integrated marketing (e.g., social media, mobile marketing and email marketing) is good for business. Take the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which recently instituted customized iPhone and Android apps, so users may stream music, access program notes and purchase tickets. As a result, sales are up, with more than 40 percent of its email subscribers having purchased tickets this past season.
The bottom line, Shermer says, is good writing. The better the content, the more likely it will be shared, creating a feeling of “interconnectedness” among users.
Jami Nix Rahn, founder and editor of the blog Art South Florida, says programs such as BAJA are potent reminders that arts journalism is not dead, just changing. As a fall presenter, she walked away from the experience feeling empowered, if not downright inspired to make her writing more “interesting, credible and engaging.”
“The opportunities for arts coverage in the digital age are virtually endless,” she says. “Everyone has the same opportunity to start their own online presence in less than five minutes and to begin publishing their message. The Internet has made information gathering and fact-checking easier and faster than ever.”
Rahn believes the arts and creativity are integral to where the national economy is headed. “We’re all in the same boat,” she says. “Arts leaders support arts in the community; arts journalists create the buzz that, in turn, draws the public to arts events.”
Nerenhausen agrees: “Arts education and participation are the ultimate competitive edge. My hope is that BAJA will inspire people to think about arts journalism and arts leadership in new, synergistic ways. The future of both fields depends on it.”