Innovative Cultural Programming During a Pandemic

October 21, 2020 Professional Blog

It’s been over seven months since the global coronavirus pandemic took root here in the United States. Arts and cultural organizations, similar to other types of businesses, are struggling to navigate the myriad challenges brought on by the pandemic. Theatres, concert halls, and other performing arts venues remain closed in most cities. Many museums and galleries are open, but with strict limitations on visitation. These ongoing disruptions have had a huge financial impact on organizations both big and small. Earned and contributed sources of income are down and many organizations are depleting razor thin capital reserves. According to a 2018 report from National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University, arts and cultural organizations in the United States had an average of five months working capital. However, the report also warned that “the majority of organizations had considerably less reserves as the results were skewed by the fact that working capital was concentrated in larger organizations and especially art museums.”¹ With staff reductions, limited revenues, and dwindling reserves, many arts and cultural leaders are contemplating how to keep their organizations afloat. While cost-cutting is an important measure, leaders would be wise to also invest in innovative and exciting programming to both keep audiences engaged and to shore up much needed resources.

It might seem counterintuitive to invest in programming during such challenging times. However, programming is the manifestation of an organization’s mission; why they’re in business. If an organization cannot provide solid, value-added programming during the hardest of times, then the public may only view the organization as “nice-to-have.” We can take a guess as to where this leads. Alternatively, there are at least three strategies for building robust and innovative programming during this unprecedented time that may help build audience and revenues.

Programmatic Expansion Though Partnership

A mentor and dear friend used to say to me that when you don’t have money, you have friends. This tip has proven to be among the most useful during the hardest of times. In short, businesses across the board are struggling right now. Instead of utilizing a scarcity mindset, organizations might instead utilize a mindset of abundance to forge affinity collaborations to deliver content and services to a shared audience. Sadly, far too many organizations are going at it alone. Instead, leveraging resources can expand and deepen both programming and impact. At Science Gallery Detroit, this has been a tool we’ve utilized repeatedly to broaden our programmatic reach. For example, with our current exhibition, we partnered with Ars Electornica to embed select exhibition programs into their global festival. This included a conversation with the curators of the exhibition along with a bespoke performance from Ghostly International recording artist Shigeto. Although Science Gallery Detroit is still a start-up based in Detroit, with a limited audience, this collaboration helped us take local programming to a global audience.

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Virtual collaboration with Ars Electronica

We leveraged a similar strategy for another Future Present program. We collaborated with the 28th edition of the annual Concert of Colors festival, which went virtual this year, to embed one of our exhibition-related performances featuring members of Underground Resistance into the festival line-up. What’s more, the festival partnered with both Detroit’s local public radio and television stations to broadcast the performance. This collaboration, which cost no additional dollars, brought together a variety of resources and audiences to maximize the scope and reach of our programming.

Presenting Innovative Virtual Programs

Indeed, screen time is taking a toll². It feels like a never-ending cycle of business meetings, classes, entertainment, and social activities taking place online during the pandemic. And, while we certainly crave authentic analog experiences, virtual programming will most likely remain a core component of a comprehensive programming plan for the foreseeable future³.

At the onset of the pandemic, many organizations rushed to migrate programming online. In many instances this included presenting archived versions of past performances. There was a dearth of content and lots of redundancy, making it hard for an organization’s programming to stand out. What’s more, much of this content was “nice-to-have,” but not essential or value-added for current and potential audiences. Perhaps the good news of this ongoing pandemic is that organizations are now beginning to create innovative and exciting born-digital content.

A great example comes from Actors Theatre of Louisville. Having established a strong reputation for presenting new and exciting theatrical works (including the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays), Actors Theatre have pivoted to create innovative virtual programs that are both seasonal and nod to a previous times. This fall, Actors Theatre is presenting adaptations of both Dracula and A Christmas Carol. Both are presented as radio plays; a nod to a bygone era of rich dramatic storytelling broadcast over radio. The Theatre collaborated with experienced radio professionals to create this production. This approach is both fresh and timely given the connection to the holidays. It’s for these reasons that it stands out: exploring the digital medium to create an exciting, timely, and unique experience. In addition to charging a fee to access this performance, Actors Theatre has also created a “limited edition interactive experience box” as an add-on to enrich the digital engagement with the performance.

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Courtesy of Actors Theatre

One additional example I will draw attention to is the digital work of Company E, which is a Washington, DC-based dance company. Historically, much of Company E’s work has taken place abroad through international collaborations that builds “art through engagement with the diplomatic missions from nations around the globe.” However, with both travel restrictions and the challenge of reimagining dance programming in a virtual setting, Company E has been forced to explore new avenues for connecting with audiences. During the pandemic, Company E has launched a new online arts magazine called “On Cue,” which explores thematic content that intersects with the organization’s mission: “world premieres, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and a suite of toolkits for teaching online, using digital media for creation, music making, and cultural diplomacy.” The first season featured six episodes and a second season features seven more, as well as some short documentaries. In sum, this new digital magazine leverages the Company’s talents and assets in new ways to produce programming that is unique, interesting, and serves as a wonderful tool for institutional marketing.

Presenting Programs in Unconventional Spaces

One of the silver linings of the Great Recession was the growth of the pop-up business concept. In short, an abundance of real estate coupled with limited resources fostered innovative approaches to using the built environment. In similar ways, the current pandemic is forcing arts organizations to reconsider the use of physical spaces for analog live events. This is by no means an easy task. For many performing arts organizations, environmental conditions can have a huge impact on performance. However, the activation of outdoors spaces can be leveraged for innovative programmatic delivery.

The most exciting example of this that I’ve personally experienced was a recent production of Twilight:Gods by the Michigan Opera Theatre. Earlier this summer, the MOT announced the appointment of the renowned opera and theater director Yuval Sharon as the new artistic director. Sharon, a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, is known for presenting creative opera productions in unconventional spaces. Twilight:Gods, his first production for MOT, was presented in the opera’s parking garage adjacent to the theater. The production was both a live performance and an immersive experience. The limited audience experienced the production from the comforts of their automobiles. Different scenes from the performance, which was based on Wagner’s Ring Cycle, took place on different levels of the parking garage. The audio of the singers and musicians was broadcast on FM frequency into guest’s vehicles. It was imaginative, exciting, and the performance felt distinctly Detroit. Not only was it an exceptional production, but it provided a high-quality experience in a safe manner. What’s more, I can only imagine that this type of production is capturing the attention of a potentially new and curious audience.

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Courtesy of Michigan Opera Theatre

This pandemic is far from over. Arts and cultural organizations will need to continue to develop innovative programming to both meet the demands of audiences and generate streams of revenue. By utilizing a bevy of approaches, including collaboration, innovative virtual programs, and presenting programs and exhibitions in unconventional (and safe!) locations, organizations can engage with audiences in ways that are both exciting and responsive to the challenges of our times. It is exactly this type of bold programming that will keep organization’s top-of-mind and exciting.

[1] How Many Months of Working Capital Does the Organization Have? SMU DataArts, dataarts.smu.edu/artsresearch2014/reports/balance-sheet/how-many-months-working-capital-does-organization-have#/.

[2] Rethinking Screen-Time in the Time of COVID-19. UNICEF Office of Global Insight & Policy, 7 Apr. 2020, www.unicef.org/globalinsight/stories/rethinking-screen-time-time-covid-19.

[3] Binder, Matt. The livestreaming boom isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Mashable, 18 Sept. 2020, mashable.com/article/future-of-livestreaming/.