The Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) is preparing to take the next steps around Small and Mid-Sized Presenters in the United States: Stories and Perspectives in our new report commissioned with support from the Wallace Foundation. This initial pilot study gives a first look at the realities of small and mid-sized presenters, and the shifts they are weathering.
In the below Inside Arts interview by Linda Nelson, the report's collaborators talk about the takeaways and next steps.
Small and Mighty
A new preliminary report points to the need for listening more deeply to small and mid-sized presenters. The report’s collaborators talk about the takeaways and next steps.
The Association of Performing Arts Professionals is preparing to take the next steps around Small and Mid-Sized Presenters in the United States: Stories and Perspectives, its new report commissioned with support from the Wallace Foundation and shared in draft form with attendees of APAP|NYC 2019. This initial pilot study gives a first look at the realities and major changes small and mid-sized presenters are weathering.
Identified in collaboration with Western Arts Alliance and Arts Midwest, the 19 study participants included colleges, small universities and independent presenters. Half of the study group had budgets between one and two million dollars. Of the 19, the majority have experienced substantial changes in their environment over the last five years including rapid community diversification, tensions related to current politics, gentrification, and audience evolution not keeping pace with demographic changes. The participants noted that the annual APAP|NYC conference was often cost prohibitive for them, yet, despite that, they continued to find ways to attend parts of the conference. Some of participants most successful programming strategies include partnerships with other organizations that aid in cultivating and retaining audiences and create programming that, for them, was ambitious or innovative. They reported as challenges attracting younger and more diverse audiences and agents’ sometimes narrow perceptions and understanding of their venues, budgets or programming aspirations. Overall, the theme of “small and mighty” emerged throughout the focus groups and most interviews. While the “small” notion reflected participants limited organizational capacity; the “mighty” idea reflects these presenters’ ability to manage budgets, know their communities, present successful events and navigate their challenges.
The report was funded as part of an ongoing communication partnership between APAP and the Wallace Foundation through which the organizations develop and share audience development resources for the presenting field. The following interview is with the report’s author Suzanne Callahan, of Callahan Consulting for the Arts, and Krista Bradley, APAP director of programs and resources.
What are the key takeaways from this report?
Krista Bradley: We need to learn more and listen more deeply to small and mid-sized presenters. We need to find ways to raise up their voices, share their stories and serve more of their needs. This is not new for us. It's been something that has bubbled up in membership and conference surveys over the years. The report underscores the need and inspires us to take some concrete action.
Suzanne Callahan: As the researcher, I highlight two takeaways. First, we must remember that this is only a beginning study, sharing the perspectives of 19 presenters. It is the first chapter in what will be a longer story about these presenters, as APAP continues its dialogue and research. Second, I was struck with presenters’ perceptions of being, as many of them said in the report, “small and mighty.” They function as entrepreneurial forces, who stretch their small budgets to pay artists and produce performances, wear multiple hats to do all of the work needed to present artists, and sometimes navigate polarized political environments in their communities.
What are the surprises in this report?
SC: I was surprised at these presenters’ passion that their stories be told, and their urging that APAP advocate for their value. The extent of their local impact is not commonly known in the national arena. During the conference, when sharing findings from this study in two back-to-back sessions, I looked out at packed rooms where—with each slide presented and story told—heads nodded and hands shot up. I sensed that small and mid-sized presenters are beginning to feel validated and heard by APAP.
KB: As a former small/mid-sized presenter, I was surprised to hear that so many others in the field felt the need for a special cohort, or a way for “like-sized presenters to meet, share information, discuss similar issues, and solve common problems.” One cannot underestimate the value of connecting with others sharing similar challenges and situations. There’s much learning to be gained from each other. I also thought that the call for agents to rethink how they perceive and work with this constituency is important for our field and our performing arts ecosystem in general.
One of the report recommendations is about piloting a cohort for small and mid-sized presenters, and you did this at APAP|NYC. Will this continue?
KB: Definitely. We piloted a number of affinity group meetings at this year’s conference and all were well-received, especially the small and mid-sized presenters' group. I like to say that the power of membership is the collective power of the membership: connecting with each other and the power of convening. We are now exploring how we might facilitate these affinity cohorts so people are connecting with each other, not just at the conference but year-round. How do we raise up the leadership and energy released in those sessions to create some working groups to help advise APAP and drive the work? The small and mid-sized presenter constituency is an important one in our field and for audiences in communities nationwide. I think we realize that, and we want to raise the visibility of those organizations and what they're accomplishing as well as their needs.
What are your next steps based on the findings of the report?
KB: Because this study was formative, we know that its findings cannot be applied broadly to draw conclusions about the presenting field or all small and mid-sized presenters. Hence, we want to pursue a larger scale quantitative study of small and mid-sized presenters across the country. This is part of an effort to help us gather info about the field for the field. A wider study can help us identify further issues and themes, highlight the diversity of this constituency and inform further investment of resources and programming. We are also looking at how to support and facilitate year-round affinity group networking for small and mid-sized presenters this year. And we’ll be looking to program more sessions and tracks for this constituency at our 2020 conference. We’re thankful for the support of our partners, particularly the Wallace Foundation, that funded the focus group study and realizes the importance of research and data to better inform decision making. Readers should stay tuned, and we want folks to be involved in helping shape the next steps.
SC: Because one of the big takeaways is raising the visibility of small and mid-sized presenters, we’ll also be sharing this report at the [South Arts] Performing Arts Exchange regional booking conference this fall.
KB: And we’ve got webinars and future stories planned to share with the field. As mentioned in the final pages of the report, we are continually thinking of the ways that additional research could build on what was learned, to help determine if the initial findings hold true for the larger population of small- and mid-sized presenters. We want to be sure we are deploying this information and raising up voices while simultaneously mining the field.
Linda L. Nelson is the deputy director for Portland Ovations in Maine. She was the founding executive director for Opera House Arts at Maine’s 1912 Stonington Opera House for 17 years and most recently served as assistant director for the Maine Arts Commission. Her journalistic and new media roots date back to her 13-year tenure at Village Voice Media in New York City.