In a thread arising from a post about whether or not arts organizations should ask artists for donations; I commented that, for an arts service organization, the artist may be the only person with whom the ASO can develop the necessary relationship.  Travis Bedard responded with an observation that “ASOs are TERRIBLE at telling me what it is they DO in general.”

As the Communications Coordinator of the ASO for theatres in the province of Ontario—and therefore someone who has that as the first line of my job description—I breathed a sigh of relief that he wouldn’t be part of my next performance review.  But, I admit that I also nodded reluctantly in agreement, and found myself wondering (as I have before) why that happens.

We all have our mission statements, we can give you a list of our current programs, and we can recite all of the benefits and the value of being a member of our organization.  But there’s more to the message than that.  I’ve noticed that I have trouble with “the elevator speech,” and I think the problem starts with how ASOs fit into the theatrical ecosystem.

I always liked the simplicity of the marketing message of the chemical company BASF: “we don’t make a lot of the products you buy, we make a lot of the products you buy better. [VIDEO]

I think ASOs have a similar place in arts and culture; we don’t create theatre, we make it possible for artists to create better theatre.  The successful outcome of any arts service organization is a changed artist or a changed organization.  What an ASO does is try to change lives.

That’s all.

I look at the vastness and diversity of the theatrical arts in Ontario (and I’m certain it’s the same everywhere): professional and amateur, individuals and organizations, teachers and students, emerging and established, urban and rural, seasonal and project-driven, classical and contemporary, traditional and experimental, rich and poor, invested and aloof, progressive and conservative.  All of those labels (and many, many, many more) make up each unique artist.

And those are the simple labels.  Artists are driven by impulses that are hard to articulate.  Where did you come from and where are you going; what stirs your dreams and what leaves you sleepless at night; what provokes your rants and what provokes your praise; what makes you feel connected and what makes you feel alone.  And questions I don’t even know how to ask and answers you can’t possibly articulate.

All of this knowledge requires time, effort, money; knowledge that can only be achieved by attention.  What one artist or organization needs in order to change will be different from another.  But we struggle to find the common needs, defining them in the broadest way possible, so that we can solve them with the right program in a feasible way.  We try to be pragmatic.

But none of the labels and the impulses are constant.  We’re all intelligent, evolving beings.  Suddenly that need may no longer exist; that program may no longer be the right solution.  So we have to change what we’re doing.

And perhaps that’s why it’s hard to explain what ASOs do.  Because if an ASO is going to serve artists well, what an ASO does today is probably going to be different from what the ASO did yesterday, and what the ASO will need to do tomorrow.

Maybe, we can’t tell you what we do, because in order to be “of service”, we try to do too much, we try to do be there for everyone.  (I know my “to do” list is always longer at the end of the day than at the beginning.)

Or perhaps, we can’t really answer the question, because if we do have a pat, easily-recited answer, then we’re not doing it very well.

What we do is listen.  Then we act.  And then we listen again.

  • January 10, 2011