Michael Kaiser's 4 phases of the arts recovery — for YOU

This week I heard Michael Kaiser outline his 4 phases of the arts recovery — and here’s my translation of what it means for YOU and your career. The celebrated arts consultant and former president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Michael Kaiser gave a thought-provoking two part interview for Musical America.

In it, Michael laid out the four phases of how he sees the recovery from the pandemic unfolding for arts organizations. And these lessons can absolutely apply to individual artists and ensembles. Michael starts with where we are now . . .

Phase 1: lockdown

For arts organizations who’ve received payroll protection plan money or extra grant funding—and for musicians who are receiving unemployment checks—of course, all that is helping. But no one knows how long the extra funding will last. So we need to have a plan for what’s coming next.

During the lockdown we’ve seen everybody putting their performances online, adding to the saturation. And the vast majority of the what’s been put up, live or recorded, is being offered free.

It’s unclear what this is actually accomplishing because audiences are burned out with Zoom fatigue and Netflix binge-watching. And everyone’s feeling the loss of not being able to connect in person. All that has ramifications, as we’ll see.

Over the next months we’ll enter what Michael calls . . .

Phase 2: partial re-opening

This, Michael predicts, may be the longest and most difficult phase for arts organization (and artists). In this phase concerts halls and theaters will remain closed.

If small halls can afford to offer live social distancing concerts or outdoor performances, well, that will be great to see. But there will be a significant loss of earned income so it’s likely that only  flexible smaller organizations will be able to experiment in these ways.

Until we have a vaccine or a cure, people aren’t going to feel comfortable sitting shoulder to shoulder in large theaters or halls. So we may be a year or more away from a solution.

During that time, some arts organizations will close their doors permanently. Others may, Michael says, need to go into a period of planned “hibernation” until they can once again offer performances.

But the challenge for arts organizations, ensembles, and individual musicians during this phase is not just financial.

What’s needed now

The real question is how to continue to be connected and relevant to audiences and donors.

In terms of musicians putting their work online, there’s SO much it’s overwhelming. And I don’t know about you, but after a day of Zoom, I don’t have the bandwidth to sit and watch onscreen a whole concert, ballet, or play. So simply posting performances online isn’t the way to go.

Michael reminds us that what people are craving is real human connection. More than ever, audiences want and need connection, relevancy, and a sense of community and belonging.

We need to create opportunities for audience members to engage in meaningful conversation—to connect with us and with each other through creative online programming and event design.

Why not experiment with short performances/movements interspersed with interaction and discussion? What might it be like to unpack your creative process in a Zoom interactive performance? You could take questions and ask questions—to have a real dialogue in between movements.

Whatever you put online should help build the relationship between the viewer and you. Connect with your communities, convene conversations and invite people into your process.

We trust that eventually we’ll reach . . .

Phase three: welcome back

When we’re able to welcome audiences back to our halls, Michael says we’ll face a couple more challenges. First, finding the funding needed to produce and commission interesting and important work. And second, since halls will all re-open at the same time, competition for audiences will be fierce. The bar will be very high to offer relevant, exciting work that people will choose to attend.

This phase may feel very far away right now, but it’s too easy to fall into the typical musician mindset trap of thinking short-term and transactionally. When you’re in survival mode you’re only thinking about next week, next month, or the next project.

But the cost of this short-term thinking is you’re always putting out fires. You never get around to looking at the larger plan for your career and your life.

Michael Kaiser makes the point that as we anticipate phase three we need to start planning NOW for future seasons. That we need to share our ideas and plans with donors and fans—to help them feel that all-too-needed sense of hope and excitement for the future. That’s part of the value you can be providing now, helping people to dream bigger with you.

Phase four: lessons learned

Eventually, after we’ve come through the first three phases of this collective hero’s journey, we’ll have learned some tough lessons.

Michael says that arts organizations will need to have figured out a better balance between earned and contributed income (ticket sales and fundraising), and individual musicians will as well need to have a balance of income streams,

I think they’ll also need to have figured out how to engage their audiences, community, and donors in personally relevant experiences—both within and outside the concert hall. And I hope we’ll all have forged stronger relationships through ongoing conversations so that we feel that we’re part of a larger “family.”

Some artists are already cultivating these kinds of tribes through their own Patreon communities, crowdfunding campaigns, and commissioning projects. But these need to NOT be episodic and transactional, but instead be “the way we operate” as artists—cultivating networks and building communities based on genuine human relationships.

The prognosis for the future

Michael Kaiser sums up the interview with “One of the things we’ve observed in this pandemic is how much people turn to the arts for solace, for entertainment, for inspiration during the country’s darkest times.”

He reminds us that there will always be a demand for the arts and that he’s “hopeful that many organizations can survive through these phases so they can meet that demand well and with exciting and important art.”

May the force be with us all—thank you, Michael!

If you’d like to consider working with an expert music career coach I’ve got a few openings coming in the next round of my Beyond Talent Power Group program (small group coaching), check here.

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