Monday, April 07, 2008

Day 60 "In the trenches" ("Go to the phones!" edition)

Live-blogging the Pledge Drive again here today. Twice a year (once in spring and once in fall) our local public radio station gets on the microphones for a week to remind listeners that the programming that's heard free costs a good deal to broadcast. Dharmonia and I have worked in public radio for literally 20 years, since we each got started as part-time minimum-wage hourly workers at the Bloomington NPR affiliate to cobble together enough money to hack graduate school.

The affiliate here in Lubbock works especially well, and especially efficiently--and, as I've said previously, they're exemplary supporters of the local arts scene. So, it's no imposition to come out and help them pitch for bucks.

Yesterday was more pitching for bucks: one of the monthly musicales that our "Friends of Music" supporters board hosts to both generate income from high-dollar donors, and also to generally expand awareness and membership in SOM fund-raising initiatives. These are typically structured as house parties, hosted in the palatial homes of FOM members; the board member will donate space and, typically, catering costs; SOM will elicit contributions from area vendors (especially the area wine-makers) and do the promotions and outreach to ensure a sell-out crowd, and SOM faculty and/or student ensembles will provide a short musical program. Yesterday was my guys in the Celtic Ensemble.

The hosts were great and jumped on board--got the caterers to do Irish-themed food, got a recipe for lager-and-lime, even laid-on single-malt for late after-party tipple. They also recruited a whole raft of folks who are big into their Scottish heritage, a large group here in the Southwest (for various reasons, the Scottish games-and-heritage, kilts and claymores and Scotties trope is huge here), who were all very excited to play dress-up with their family tartans and sgian dubh.

The ironic thing about this is that, despite my own rather cynical and blase reactions to dress-up and festival, it's a hugely valuable way to do arts fundraising in Texas. As I've said before, West Texans are remarkably un-selfconscious people--about owning stuff or wanting stuff or buying stuff or believing stuff--and they are equally un-selfconscious about playing dress-up. The Texas ladies like Big Ol' Hair and Big Flashy Jewelry and they and their men are not shy about dressing up in the kilts and bonnets either. And the folks who are greeted at the door of the palatial home hosting the Musicale by the kilted sorts are as happy as little kids coming to a dress-up party.

And making them happy is the point of the exercise. Regardless of whether the kilts or the palatial mansion or the Big Ol' Hair are my style, it's more important to make sure the folks you're hitting for money are comfortable. The quickest way to kill a fundraising effort--or, for that matter, any positive response to whatever arts initiative you're undertaking--is to make people feel stupid. You cannot condescend to folks and then hit them for money. Or, if you do, the only avenue left to you will be to condescend so grotesquely that you make them feel stupid and make them feel that whatever art you're providing them is their only possible avenue to intellectual redemption. The world of Euro-American concert music advocacy did that for years, and the result, now, is that the only folks who still pay out money for symphony season tickets are older and greyer, and are unfamiliar with any other arts advocacy model than that of the condescending "you will listen to this music because it's good for you, and because the hoi-polloi are too ignorant to know that it's good for them, too." It's a tired, condescending, classist, hierarchical model, and it doesn't fucking work.

Much better to make people feel smart, and valued--because that's how you pique their curiosity and their confidence, and you need both of those responses if you're going to build support. Make 'em feel confident (not stupid), make 'em feel curious and open (not intimidated), on the other hand, and you can create a very positive environment for financial support.

So to this Musicale. Welcome them at the door (in kilts and bonnets, if necessary), give 'em some decent wine and some nicely-catered food from this place, be as outgoing as possible via introductions and other hello's, and, when it's time to play music, treat them like smart and receptive people. If you treat them as smart and receptive, they usually will respond in like form.

My guys clustered in a corner of the palatial living room, in front of the fireplace, and waited while The Boss introduced them. Then I took over, introducing the tunes, making a couple of jokes along the way, and generally framing what the SOM, the Celtic Ensemble, and my own little research center do. Along the way, you thank the host, and you thank the guests, and you treat them like discerning, intelligent, curious people who are receptive to new experiences.

And you know what? They respond. They like it when you treat them as smart--not stupid; attentive--not bored; receptive--not ignorant. And, treating them as smart, attentive, and receptive not only changes one's own behavior, it also changes one's own attitude. I'm a short-tempered, egocentric, hypercritical, demanding, son-of-a-bitch. So it's not a bad thing for somebody like me to treat people as peers--because maybe I might actually learn to occasionally see them as peers.

So, just before the last piece of music--which is always the spot in which to make any announcements, give any thanks, or to tell audiences about next events in the program, because they're not going to do anything except applaud and shift attention after the last piece--I talked about the traditional support networks for this music in the "Big Houses" of the Gaelic aristocracies of Ireland's south and west. That's where Rory Dall O'Cathain and Turlough Carolan and Seamus Ennis all played: in the houses of the aristocracy who prided themselves on their support for the traditional artforms of their people. And then I said this:

As it has always been for The Music, so it continues: we learn and teach and pass along the music to the next generation by ear and through person-to-person contact, because the music is as much about people as it is about Art. We are honored to carry on this music, to live up to the legacy which the music's giants have bequeathed to us. And we are very grateful to have once again found a place for our music in a home so friendly to music.
That's how we make patrons care: we treat them as human beings and we show them they're part of an honorable lineage.

It works.

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