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Friday, February 20, 2004

Prosyletizing for the Arts

By Joe Patti

To Mr. Andrew Taylor
The Artful Manager

I have been giving a fair bit of thought about your postings regarding promoting the arts in a manner similar to the way religion is being promoted by using other subjects as a starting point. I have been concentrating especially upon your challenge to evaluate if current materials are "preaching only to the converted."

My musings started out focussed on the practicalities of creating printed and online materials that embedded an organization's  information within another subject. One of the first things that  occurred to me were the obvious perennial arguments that most arts  organizations don't have the additional money and staff time to create such pieces. There was also the fact  that in my experience, the post  office is rather strict about approving bulk mail rates on pieces that  contain elements unrelated to the non-profit mission of the  organization. (I once had a piece announcing a fundraising auction  rejected because the logo for the restaurant at which it was being  held was judged too prominent and therefore constituted an advertisement for a profit making business.)

It certainly seemed that a web site set up with material and search terms unrelated to the arts would be the easiest and best way to disseminate a message to people not currently inclined to patronage the arts. (An article about how non-profits are using web sites with general information to gain fundraising by adapting the Moveon.org approach may be found here http://www.wired.com/news/holidays/0,1882,61204,00.html?tw=wn_tophead_3 ) 

Then there is the big concern for every arts organization--how do you justify the expense of funds and staff effort on a project that is expressly designed to be so subtle that there is probably no possible way to measure people served or directly attribute increase of attendance to it?  Honestly, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the only effective way to disseminate information in print form to a group outside of those disposed toward the arts is to forget all about measurable results and returns. The mind set would have to be more akin to opening your office window on a windy day and tossing your brochures out and have a lot of blind trust.

Time, money and grant reporting stats aside, the weblog posting also got me to thinking of other instances where religion was presented that might provide a viable approach for the arts. An interesting option might ironically be to adopt the approach of the Chick tracts (www.chick.com) which very overtly proselytize. I really disagree with what they say and the manner in which they try to transmit their message, but it is a great format for dissemination. Even though the illustrations tend to look dated, the pictures attract your attention when you see them laying around and create enough interest to make you want to pick them up even if you may not agree with the subject matter. (This is a problem for me in the doctor's office. I see those "So You Have a Horrendous Venereal Disease" pamphlets with the stick figure illustrations and I can't help picking one up and giving everyone in the waiting room the wrong idea. There is something intriguing about the way the illustrations are used to present the information, even if it might seem ludicrous.) They are cheap to print and are a good size for carrying around and passing out. 

There might be potential for success in copying the format for presenting a softer sell approach to the arts. Certainly, since the "tracts" would be informative about arts issues in general rather than focussed on selling a specific performance series, the cost of producing them could be shared by a number of area arts organizations. In fact, the best approach for creating "stealth" materials and websites might be to share the burden.  It would actually turn the process of development by committee into a strength since you want everything produced to lack a strong focus.

And, of course, the format gives you the opportunity to preach to a whole new choir if people pick up your materials thinking they are Chick tracts they hadn't seen. Obviously, mimicking the Chick tracts too closely will alienate many if they decide they are being mocked by the arts community. However, you are reaching a demographic that attends an event regularly with their families. People who are devoted to the Chick tracts might have a stricter criteria of what constitutes wholesome entertainment than your organization can muster, but that is not true for all church goers. It may not hurt to present a soft sell case for arts attendance in some other general format with which they are familiar.

The other aspect of the Chick tract which makes them a good example for this type of project is that it utilizes the viral marketing approach and encourages people to pass them along or leave them in public places. This is an obvious must if you are attempting to preach outside your choir because, by definition, you won't have the people you want to reach on your mailing lists. This is where the bit about opening your window and trusting the wind to carry your materials to the right people comes into play. Most marketing departments I have worked with have tracked where staff and volunteers have placed brochures and posters and then tracked where ticket buyers heard about a show.  There is no point in doing so in this case. You can start out by giving staff and volunteers copies of your stealth brochure and asking them to drop them here or there or email the Adobe Acrobat format file on to friends. It isn't very long until the material is beyond your control and you are dependent on the kindness of strangers  to keep your materials in circulation.

On the whole, it seems like an interesting model to explore and adapt if one wanted to do as you suggested and create publications to appeal to other groups.

Joe Patti

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