How To Lose Donors & Alienate Patrons

In case you’ve missed it, the incoming board chair at Carnegie Hall, Ronald Perelman, has made it clear that he wants to fill that venue’s event calendar with more pop acts like the type he remembers from the 1950’s and 1960’s. At least, that’s what he told the New York Times in an article by Robin Pogrebin for the 2/19/2015 edition.

Adaptistration People 130The article projects an image of Perelman as a board leader with a governance style more akin to shooting from the hip rather than firm market research and mission driven planning. In the interview, Perelman delivers a stereotypical hypothesis (young people only go to pop events) followed by a surface level solution (program more pop acts) which is based on 50 year old observational evidence (he once watched the Beatles and the Rolling Stones play there in 1964).

Moreover, the decision to use a feature article in one of the more influential traditional media outlets around as a platform to discuss increasing the number of pop acts seems curious compared to the host of other issues he could champion. Public reaction to Perelman’s vision was less than enthusiastic.

Case in point, conductor Bill Eddins posted an open letter to Perelman that was downright scathing; it points out problems from practical considerations to mission driven artistic concerns.

Carnegie’s importance is not only historical. It was designed for what we do, with some of the best acoustics in the world. The other art forms (and yes, I do call them art forms) that you mention – pop and country – frankly, acoustics is not their bailiwick. They are electric, as we say in the business. What, are you going to get Kanye to do an unplugged set? I think not. Bieber? As for Jazz – they have a tremendous venue just up the street dedicated full time to that art form. That should be a hint to you. They think enough of their art form to build and maintain a grand venue.

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If you want a younger audience, a more hip audience (and again, you’ve denigrated most of those who set foot in Carnegie already) why don’t you offer the same kind of programs that Jazz at Lincoln Center offers? Outreach to the schools, workshops, an academy, and a resident ensemble that plays the music their venue is designed for! If you offered that it would be truly enlightened leadership.

If nothing else, Perelman’s interview is almost certainly causing its fair share of gastric distress among the ranks of Carnegie’s public relations staff. It’s not as though arts organizations are overstaffed and spending most of each day inventing problems to solve, but now Carnegie’s PR department must deal with this on top of what is likely an already overflowing plate. In an ideal world, Perelman has taken a necessary mea culpa step by purchasing that office lunch every day since the interview was published and pledging to do a better job with internal communication.

Having said that, if Perelman’s initiatives were known and are something Carnegie is firmly behind, then they were likely braced for the impact.

Either way, it will be interesting to see what sort of impact this has on donors and patrons; especially in light of Carnegie’s most recent round of capital improvements.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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4 thoughts on “How To Lose Donors & Alienate Patrons”

  1. Terrific summary, Drew, and I too loved what Bill Eddins wrote in his open letter. Reading the comments on his page, it appears that some readers are taking his distress out of context. None of us, much less Mr. Eddins, are saying that programming at Carnegie has to be either/or; we embrace all genres, and it’s understandable that the powers that be would like to see a balance of offerings. Fine. But Mr. Perelman’s admitted disinterest in classical music (whatever “classical” actually means to him) is rightfully alarming.

    What dismays me the most in Ms. Pogrebin’s New York Times article is a quote from Sanford Weill: “We want to think about, how can we do more in pop music, country music, in jazz, to get a younger audience here?”. How very sad, that it would never occur to Mr. Weill, nor most likely to Mr. Perelman to ask, “how can we do more in the classical repertoire, and in new, contemporary concert music, to get a younger audience here?”. These are the much better, and yes, much more challenging questions that many of us are asking every day and discovering answers to, through our own pursuits. I feel what’s needed in this case is a helpful and congenial conversation between those of us working in the field and those at Carnegie’s helm, to share our insights and successes and assure them that there are options beyond “turning the amps up to 11” when it comes to attracting diverse and enthusiastic audiences.

  2. I think you’re spot on Alex; I would be thrilled if anyone inside Carnegie actually took you up on your offer but I’m not going to hold my breath either.

    Based on what’s known, it seems as though a best case scenario is Carnegie now realize this was a bad talking point, are dropping it internally, and simply waiting for the hubbub to die away. On the other end of that spectrum is a scenario where they were completely serious and will follow through on those plans starting next season.

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